The following article I wrote was featured in the SD Standard August 28, 2020. You can check out my piece and more here.
A Rapid City research psychologist and author asks, it’s so easy to hate, so hard to forgive – why is that?
I was recently asked in an interview, “Why is it so hard to forgive?” My book,“Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness”, answers that question, but not in the one minute of time I was allocated. I realized I needed to do some more thinking about how to answer that question succinctly.
When we’re angry, shamed, in pain, or intensely disagree with someone (as illustrated above in an image from Psychology Today), hate comes easy – at least it does for me. I instinctively feel vicious, unkind thoughts and emotions rising up in me. My amygdala (the part of the brain that plays an important role in anger and fear) worries that my survival is threatened and so comes to my rescue by urging me to fight or flee. If I’m not careful I’ll lash out at someone, or if they’re more powerful, I may run away, hide my feelings, and find a sneaky way to take revenge.
It’s easy to hate because it’s instinctive and doesn’t take self-control, effort, or an upshift in our thinking. We don’t have to figure out how to be respectful or considerate. We don’t have to open our minds and hearts to differing viewpoints or take responsibility for our feelings and actions. We’re right, they’re wrong; we’re good, they’re bad. Case closed.
Forgiveness, however, requires understanding, compassion, the courage to confront our fears, listen to a different perspective, create new ways of thinking. Why choose forgiveness when hating is so much easier?
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
― James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”
I think Baldwin was on to something. Self-righteous indignation, moral certainty, being pumped up with pugnacious pride – that’s not painful; it feels good. At least for a while.
What can be painful? Listening to opinions we don’t like. Taking responsibility for whatever part we may have played in a destructive situation. Trying to figure out how to innovate and solve a difficult problem. Admitting we’re imperfect and could be wrong, just like the object of our hate.
We know forgiveness is a virtue, but hate may also make us feel virtuous because we’re sure we’re despising the right things and the right people. If we just shame, punish, bully, or humiliate enough, those bad people will become good people like us – or at least have the decency to keep quiet and know their proper place in life.
We resist and reject forgiveness when we’re rewarded for our hate – when our nasty social media posts get likes and our hurtful name-calling provides us with attention. When fear- mongering and malice draws crowds and recognition for our cause. When detesting the out-group makes us feel safe and closer to our in-group.
Hate is a powerful emotion, but its power is limited because it requires no higher order thinking. Hate is fueled by fear and anger, whereas its opposite, love, receives energy from faith, hope, and understanding.
“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”
– Baba Dioum
When we’re angry with someone who disagrees with us or who is trying to hurt us, we don’t want to take time to understand them. They should change – right now! We have trouble being patient and resist seeking a productive, honorable path forward. We don’t care if those others are doing the best they can; it’s simply not good enough. They’re obviously idiots or villains and it’s our duty to point that out.
Forgiveness lightens our burdens, frees us from bitterness, improves our relationships, and creates a new and improved chapter in our lives. But it’s not an easy path. It often takes bravery and strength. I appreciate Buddhism’s view of forgiveness as a combination of compassion and forbearance.
Why is it so hard to forgive? (Here comes my short answer) Because forgiveness requires courage, compassion, and creativity; acceptance and understanding. It means adapting, learning, growing.
Is forgiveness worth the effort? Ask yourself, “What am I becoming? Who do I want to be?” Then you will know the answer.