Thursday, March 12, 2015

Curing Hatred Without Granting Forgiveness

Does Hatred Have a Simple Cure?

“Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.”   ― James Baldwin,  The Fire Next Time

     I have counselled many families through times of marital discord.  When a breakup occurred because of infidelity or betrayal of common goals, the person who felt wronged described feelings of disbelief, sadness, anger, and hurt.  These patients often appeared ill. They slept poorly; they looked anxious and depressed; and they had multiple somatic complaints. When anger morphed into toxic hatred of a partner, their clinical condition deteriorated further. The advice I offered them was traditional and pragmatic: “Hating someone harms you more than it hurts them. It serves no useful purpose and anchors you to the past. It interferes with your ability to make sound decisions and it keeps you from enjoying pleasures that might replace those that were lost. It is in your best interest to put these hostile feelings aside so you can focus on improving the future.”  I was very aware that the preferred solution would be to suggest forgiving the perceived wrong, but I rarely made this recommendation.  I had already observed that individuals who are consumed by hate for any reason are irrational and think this advice reflects naiveté; some even become hostile at its mention.  Even worse, if forgiveness is believed to be an unattainable goal ("I will never forgive him for this despicable behavior"), it might convince them that their only choice is to keep on hating. My intent was to facilitate functionality. Philosophical discussions about forgiveness would have to wait.
     To address this issue properly, we must first distinguish between hatred that is a transient emotion and hatred that is consuming and pervasive.  Perhaps we should refer to the latter as a “hatred disorder” when it becomes so severe that it interferes with a person’s ability to function normally.  The hater experiences visceral pain that can be so intense it becomes immobilizing and it can be accompanied by a dangerous mistaken belief that only retribution will bring relief.  In our personal lives, this animosity might be directed toward a person who is blamed for our suffering. In a more abstract setting, it can target any group whose values present an existential threat to our own. In both cases, just being alive seems reason enough to hate these individuals.
     The process of hating generates instant reward by using spiritual magic to punish the villain - the equivalent of piercing a voodoo doll.  On the other hand, the delayed gratification that might occur from granting forgiveness requires mental agility because the culprit remains conceptually unpunished.  In addition, when we are told that we must learn how to forgive [1]it implies that this is an acquired rather than innate skill.  So, except for those few individuals whose generosity of spirit allows them to forgive because it is the ™right™ thing to do, forgiving is not forgiveness at all. It is a pragmatic choice to suppress hatred to achieve a longer-term goal.
     I was frustrated by my inability to help these patients and it seemed clear that a different strategy was needed: “Forgive, Forget (Ignore), and Move On” did not seem to be the best answer. A viable solution became apparent once I realized that similar to the act of loving, the act of hating is also a very strong emotional attractant. Both extremes on the spectrum of human interactions constantly draw us toward the other person as reassurance that the intensity of emotion has not changed. In this case, we are attracted to the object of loathing in order to be certain that we still hate it.  And when hatred is used as a psychic weapon, the attraction becomes even stronger: The more we obsess over the person, the more we hate him. And the more we hate him, the more punishment we are inflicting. 
     Trial and error confirmed that if we substitute for hatred equally intense but different emotions that repel rather than attract, we can create an alternate plan that does not require forgiveness. Disgust and repulsion are excellent choices. Voila!  When we think of the hated person as disgusting and repulsive, it pushes their image away and out of our consciousness. As a bonus, the more the individual was hated, the more repulsive and distant he becomes. What difference does it make what this disgusting person did - or is doing - or will do in the future? Why would anyone care why he did it? Repulsive individuals do despicable things; no other explanation is necessary. The desire for retribution suddenly evaporates because exposing this person’s vile nature is satisfaction enough. Aversion has created distance from toxic thoughts and made room for recovery that hopefully will return us to our pre-injured state. And yes – we now have the ability to move on.
     This entire process seemed counter-intuitive. I had to put aside my personal and professional hesitation to prescribe the use of negative thoughts directed toward others. But my reservations were balanced against the effectiveness of this strategy and the knowledge that the patient’s decision is not irrevocable. Circumstances and perceptions can change with healing and time. And if they do, forgiveness remains an open option that can be considered in the future.

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[1] "If we really want to love we must learn how to forgive."
     –Mother Teresa

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