Roots Of Forgiveness Essay, Research Paper
Roots of Forgiveness
The fact that human beings have become and remain the dominant life forms on this planet rests not solely on the fact that we possess a larger, more complex brain, but on those higher cognitive functions which that brain provides. One of the most distinguishing of these is forgiveness, an act that is virtually non-existent among other animals. The act of forgiveness can be explained using many psychological theories ranging from psychoevolutionary, to cognitive, to social-learning. However, before any explanation can be given, it is necessary to describe those events prior to forgiveness.
If you re in the position to forgive or not forgive a person, that person has undoubtedly caused you distress in some specific manner. Distress is described as a negative response to stress, while stress is regarded as a set of neurophysiological reactions that exist to serve an adaptive purpose. The work of Hans Selye provided the base for many of today s theories regarding stress. Selye described a three-stage General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) to illustrate the body s response to stressors. In the initial stage of alarm, the body recognizes the stressor and gathers resources to assist in a fight or flight situation. In this stage, the first neurophysiological reaction experienced is the Sympathetic Adrenal Response. During this response the adrenal medulla secretes epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) increasing heart rate, oxygen consumption and glycogen mobilization, while the spleen secretes red blood cells (further oxygenating the blood, the thyroid secretes hormones to assist in metabolism. Noticeable physiological responses also occur in this first stage to further prepare the body for flight or flight. Platelets increase in the bloodstream to promote coagulation of blood should injury occur, perspiration cools the body, and the muscles tighten to protect vital organs and defend the body or flee the scene if necessary. The second stage deals with resistance as the body prepares for possible long-term endurance of the affecting stressor. During this stage, the body experiences the second neurophysiological reaction known as the Pituitary Adrenal Response. Occurring approximately ten seconds after the Sympathetic Adrenal Response, the hypothalamus secretes a corticotropic hormone (CRF) stimulating the pituitary gland. Upon stimulation, the pituitary gland secretes an adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and beta-endorphins, which influence our ability to make adaptive responses, contributes to feelings of euphoria, and stimulates the adrenal cortex. The adrenal cortex, in turn, releases glucocorticoids (cortisol- an antiallergen- and corticosterone- suppresses the immune system) that are important for energy metabolism. It is here where the processes initiated in the first stage (alarm) can either promote recovery or result in serious side effects. The latter of these choices is outlined in Selye s third and final stage: exhaustion. During this stage, the glucocorticoids still in the bloodstream after the adaptive response is made can contribute to a loss of weight, increased stomach acidity, and changes in body temperature. These effects can lead to serious health problems ranging from an enlargement of the adrenal glands, to ulcers, heart problems, and eventually death. With the possibility of such serious health problems, it is necessary to alleviate these stressors in a minimal amount of time. Though forgiveness may eliminate the stress, immediate forgiveness is by no means a recommended strategy.
A more prudent course of action would be to first evaluate how the offending person s actions have affected your life (positively or negatively) and through a continuous loop of cognitive appraisals as described by psychologists such as Lazarus and Folkman, find a way to cope with these states. According to Lazarus cognitive appraisal model, one would first make a primary appraisal to determine whether the offending person s actions were irrelevant and of no personal significance, or relevant, but benign, or relevant and stressful. Since this is a discussion of forgiveness, we can assume that the actions were relevant and stressful. Such an appraisal requires a secondary appraisal where you review internal and external resources to support your decision and select a coping strategy, whether problem focused or emotion focused. The act of forgiveness can be seen as a problem focused strategy to relieving this stress because it allows you to evaluate the problem and choose to eliminate it through forgiveness. Problem focused coping is a much more effective means of relieving stress since it deals with the analysis and elimination of problems. While emotion focused coping generally serves only to mask the problem and provide temporary relief while more problem focused strategies can be explored.
As stated previously, forgiveness is just one of the many traits that distinguish the human conscience as superior to other animals, though it is assumed that this act evolved with us over time. Prior to civilization, man existed as a nomadic hunter relying only on himself to survive. If he were threatened, he would instinctively insure his territory and survival by eliminating the threat. However, as humans evolved into hunter-gatherers they began to realize the importance of the group over the individual. Specialization of skills meant that each person was equally important to the unit. It would make no sense to kill the only toolmaker or the only farmer in the group over a petty dispute. Therefore, the human psyche developed the capacity to forgive, thereby strengthening the species as a whole.
In these modern times, however, with the population expanded hundreds of times more, the alienation of one person is much more acceptable regardless of what they can provide because there is always someone else to provide the same skills. Therefore, some people choose not to forgive those who have wronged them as a means of punishment for their actions. The question exists then: are we justified in not forgiving someone who is blame-worthy?
To some, the refusal of forgiveness not only administers a punishment for the offending action, but also insures against repeat offenses for fear of further punishment. Though possibly effective, these tactics are not only selfish, but coercive as well, asserting power to the person refusing to forgive. Such attitudes contribute nothing positive to the future of society: most notably our children. The social-learning theory describes three types of punishments and their effects on the moral development of our children: power assertion, love withdrawal, and induction. Power assertion, according to this theory, leads to low levels of moral development, while love withdrawal leads to higher levels at an inconsistent frequency. The only type of punishment that leads to a high level of moral development with consistency is induction, which occurs when an explanation is given to the offender for why their behavior has caused offense. This explanation causes guilt in the offender (providing he/she is not a sociopath incapable of such an emotion).
When you compare the emotions of the person in need of forgiveness with those felt by the one forgiving, you will see that they exhibit equal amounts of negative affect. The forgiving person initially feels anger towards the offender and pessimism towards the notion of resolving the problem, while the offender feels guilt (empathetic distress) for causing harm and fears possible revenge for their actions. However, positive affect is not absent from this equation. The offender does experience optimistic feelings in hoping for redemption, while the forgiving person feels empathy for the guilt and fear expressed by the offender. Once the forgiving person realizes that the offender is experiencing the same amount of negative affect as them, the two negative feelings are canceled out, leaving only empathy and optimism. Simply stated the negative affect felt by the offender is punishment enough for their offense.
Since empathetic towards the offender, the forgiving person must feel some degree of self-gratification for forgiving the offense and eliminating guilt in the offender. It must be asked whether the forgiving person chose to forgive in order to relieve guilt in the offender or solely to experience this self-gratification. If the latter is true, the act of forgiveness was not purely altruistic. Forgiveness can only be considered pro-social if the intentions of the forgiving person rested on alleviating stress caused by guilt within the offender- a truly selfless act.
Whether administered with purely altruistic intentions or partial, the act of forgiveness is an essential facet of the civilized human conscience vital to the growth and preservation of modern society.