From numerous directions, in and outside of my practice, I have received the call for some positive psychology – a weekly pick me up based on both anecdotal and scientific evidence. This is my answer to that call, to lighten our collective moods during these trying times.

Forgiveness is a sign of strength 

Last week we discussed some of the positive practices that people indulge in during the fasting month of Ramadan: reflection, solidarity and charity. Today we explore three more virtuous ways in which people aim to better their lives as well as those of others.

Did you know that at the start of the fasting period people get together and ask each other for forgiveness for all the potential wrongs and slights that the other may have suffered by your doing over the last year, wether intended or unintended? People do this regardless of age, status or relationship – everyone gets a change to ask for forgiveness, and in return to grant it. This custom allows everyone to start the fasting period with a clean slate and sees most (if not all) grudges expunged. It seems that repenting and asking forgiveness cleans the soul and lowers personal and interpersonal anxiety and stress levels. Forgiving others is important too as it has an even more significant impact on our personal happiness than being forgiven ourselves does.

In modern day life we all tend to struggle to let go of our grudges. Our highly competitive lifestyles – wether in the workplace, relationships or on social media – remind us of all the times others have wronged us, of their mistakes and slips of the tongue. Surely, it may prove to be a costly mistake to forget the time when a coworker “forgot” to bring us any coffee during a Starbucks run, or when a friend “forgot” to wish our dog a happy birthday even though they have clearly received the Facebook notification. With detrimental consequences to our wellbeing, these grievous insults and provocations claim their spot of significance in our memories and make us hyper vigilant for any further jokes at our expense; because no one wants to make the mistake of letting others get away with their slip-ups or – God forbid! – allow them to hurt our feelings again. In the end however, it is us and not them who pay the emotional price for this continuous focus on the negative.

Yet common sense dictates that allowing others to get away with their wrongdoings and even granting them forgiveness surely must be a sign of weakness, and therefore undesirable. Does it not?

I would ask you to consider that forgiveness may only ever be granted, it cannot be gained, taken or won. The power of forgiveness is solely in the hands of the forgiver. Remember that forgiving others unburdens our minds – it allows us to let go of our feelings of anger, hurt and disappointment – not necessarily theirs. The person that has been forgiven does not even need to know that you have done so. Forgiving someone for their mistakes allows us to see the world in a flexible manner and to appreciate the human spirit for its fallible nature. Forgiving someone, we do for ourselves.

In the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and archbishop Desmond Tutu:

To forgive does not mean to forget.

You should keep the memory of the negative thing, but because of that there is a possibility to develop anger or hatred.

The control over that, that is the meaning of forgiveness.

Our most natural response is that when I’m hit, I hit back. 

But when you have been refined, you put yourself in the shoes of the other.

It is totally wrong that practice of tolerance and the practice of forgiveness are signs of weakness – totally wrong.

Forgiveness is a sign of strength.

Those who say that forgiving is a sign of weakness… haven’t tried it.

From The Book of Joy:

Life must go on

Another recurring topic, and essential tool to be put to work in our quest for happiness is perspective taking. As has just been suggested, putting ourselves in the shoes of others also grants us with a much more nuanced view of our own situation. Again, our highly competitive lifestyles tell us that we should live up to the examples of successful “role models”. Oftentimes, comparing ourselves futilely to celebrities and others who seemingly “have it all” results not so much in us becoming inspired but rather leaves us with a sense of defeat. Taking time to consider others who are less fortunate than ourselves however, my yield quite the opposite results.

One of the teachings of the fasting month inspires us to walk a mile in the shoes of those who have very little. Those for whom a warm meal at the end of the day is no guarantee. This type of perspective taking does wonders to our stuck-in-the-fast-lane ways if thinking and inspired appreciation for all we have.

Please note that doing better in comparison to others does not mean we cannot feel anxious, down, angry or lonely. How we and up feeling is up to our own interpretations: sometimes it pays dividend to take a step back and evaluate our own thinking – our own opinions and convictions – and to identify any potential non-beneficial thinking errors that we commonly fall pray too. More on this next week.

Wether we have a little or a lot, life must go on as normal. Not having food or drink is a daily concern for many of our fellow human beings across the world, and so fasting in solidarity mustn’t interfere with our daily activities. The teachings state that our lives must go on as usual while we participate in fasting in order to experience other people’s plight. To instil appreciation for our own situation as well as for those of others we must experience hunger, thirst, exhaustion and other frustrations endured while we go on with our daily lives, all whilst keeping our anger and negative thoughts in check. Perhaps there are similarities to be found to our ongoing situation under the burden of the Corona virus pandemic. Let us aim to practice forgiveness to unburden our minds,  to make time to develop a wider and more flexible perspective on our situation and to try and make the most of our lives, even now – especially now.

Do you need help?
Are you or someone you know in need of a sympathetic ear or even professional counseling?
Please do not hesitate to contact us directly.

Sasja Breit, Director, Clinical Psychologist.

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