Is forgiveness always possible?

At a time of year associated with pardoning others, we speak to people who have struggled through the task, and the people who help them along the way.

Abdallah Al Araby, imam of Dubai Airport mosque, says most of the issues he deals with in his mosque have their roots in non-forgiveness: "People can't seem to forget the wrongs of other people." Antonie Robertson / The National
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At a time of year associated with pardoning others, we speak to people who have struggled through the task, and the people who help them along the way.

Eid has arrived.

While the holidays are marked with family visits and the exchanging of gifts, Muslims - who fasted the month in scorching temperatures - are asked to welcome the special days by performing a task some could find even more challenging: the act of forgiveness.

Abdallah Al Araby, imam of the Dubai Airport Mosque, says he will - like every other year - dedicate a large section of his Eid prayers sermon to addressing this thorny issue.

He has to, Al Araby explains, since the real meaning of Eid cannot be experienced without forgiveness.

"Eid is about reconnecting with relatives, families and the greater society," he states.

"What stops this from happening is anger and bitterness between people. So the biggest thing that can be given on that day is mercy upon others. This day is a victory, a victory over one's self."

Islam views forgiveness as one of the most virtuous acts, precisely due to how difficult it is. The Holy Quran, what Muslims believe is the undisputed word of God, encourages this action repeatedly throughout the holy text. Through numerous verses, the Quran links the act of pardoning others with being forgiven by God - the lesson being, how can one ask for God's forgiveness if they can't forgive others?

Al Araby explains that viewing forgiveness from such a lofty standpoint provides the necessary space to perform the act without bruised egos getting in the way.

"This way your action sticks," he says. "You may feel even more angry or sad the other person didn't react to your forgiveness the way you expect. By linking your actions to strengthening you faith, you just won't be concerned by the other's actions."

Al Araby confesses he has his work cut out for him when counselling others to forgive. He explains most of the issues he deals with in the mosque have their roots in non-forgiveness of the other.

"People can't seem to forget the wrongs of other people," he sighs.

"They remember others' bad traits and forget the good. They tell me they haven't seen any good from their family and friends and that statement alone brings all sorts of problems."

The act of forgiveness has to be one of the most loaded and most celebrated terms. It has formed the plot of countless best-sellers and classic films, and remains a bedrock of self-help literature. It has become a major subject in academic circles and even warranted its own think tank with the International Forgiveness Institute in Madison, Wisconsin.

However, despite the millions of words published, testimonies of victims and nightly serials, forgiveness remains stubbornly elusive.

"I still don't know what forgiveness exactly means to me," confides Julie Ebell.

The 42-year-old Abu Dhabi kindergarten teacher says she has been wrestling with the concept ever since her late mother suddenly walked out on the family when she was five years old.

A self-confessed "difficult child", Ebell was sent to counselling as a teenager to work out her anger issues.

Ebell remembers counsellors advising to release her rage, with the one and only route to achieve this being through forgiving her mother.

"They kept telling me that I need to do it," she recalls. "But how am I supposed to forgive someone that I didn't even see? I just couldn't understand that."

Ebell says she went on to make sense of things by living; she studied and travelled and, with each new experience, the pain of the separation receded.

"It is not burning in my soul anymore," she says. "Mother's Day comes and goes and it doesn't really bother me. I see my friends having children and it never affects me."

But Ebell admits new experiences alone cannot heal the wounds

"I don't walk around with day-to-day anger," she says. "But if she was alive and we saw each other in a room today, then there would be an explosion. It just wouldn't be nice."

Ebell also has a few choice words for those pro-forgiveness counsellors.

"I did feel like they were pressuring me and that was unfair," she says. "They wanted me to forgive her for the pain that I was having. I didn't want to forgive, but forget her."

That is a totally legitimate feeling, according to Jeanne Safer. The New York psychotherapist and author has dedicated her career to focusing on "taboo topics", one of which is the idea of being healthy and non-forgiving, a radical concept explored in her controversial 2000 book Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better Not to Forgive.

Safer describes the work, in which she interviews more than 60 Americans on their struggles with forgiveness, as a means to addressing the one-sided literature surrounding the subject.

"There is such an assumption that forgiveness is the healthy, moral and ethical choice that we don't even have a concept for anything else," she says. "In other words, it is really dictated because doing anything else in most cultures makes you look like you are full of hatred and vengeance, which nobody wants to be."

What Safer discovered through her many case studies of individuals formerly broken by acts of betrayal, emotional and physical abuse is they were able to bounce back and find success in life without forgiving the wrongdoer, a state of mind Safer coins as "healthy non-forgiveness".

"In forgiveness, we are supposed to have this great revelation and we weep and we embrace," she says.

"But I think there is a large range of cathartic experiences. To be able to go on with life and be able to love and trust other people and at the same time recognise that someone is not ought to be in my life is a very important and mature recognition."

But reaching that clarity involves first undergoing a thorough self-examination of the offending event, according to Safer. In the book, she outlines a three-stage process involving mentally revisiting the traumatic experience, acutely assessing its emotional impact and finally reinterpreting it by attempting to understanding the offender's motivations.

It is only after undergoing this warts-and-all ordeal that one can then decide if a relationship is worth salvaging.

"If you come to forgiveness, then you are able to recover love and tenderness. That is a wonderful thing, because that means there is tenderness to recover," she says. "If you decide this person really doesn't merit that, and you come to that conclusion in a considered, serious way, you are not left with the residue of hatred. You are left with neutrality, with a feeling that this is who this person is. Whatever love I had for them I can no longer feel."

On the front-line of witnessing such internal struggles is Mick Todd, a Dubai-based life coach. As the director of coaching and training at 2B Limitless, Todd has worked with hundreds of local and international clients struggling to reach their potential.

Most of the time, he says, the underachievement lies in chronic self-loathing, a condition best remedied by what he describes as "the forgiveness of self".

"There are so many people out there who feel that there is something wrong with their lives and they are responsible for something that they've done. They don't feel they deserve to be happy and successful … it almost becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy," he says.

"This is such a block in life, so self-forgiveness is always the starting point, because if you can't forgive yourself, then you've got no chance for forgiving others."

Todd describes a past client so racked with guilt for breaking up a relationship that he dove head-first into an unhealthy lifestyle and unstable relationships. "The whole crux of it was his inability to forgive himself for the perceived unhappiness he caused for somebody else. Once we got to the stage where he forgave himself, he went on to do amazing things like charity," he says.

"Before, he couldn't see the point of doing the right thing because he said, 'I don't deserve it. And because I don't deserve it I am not even going to try more to be the person I can be'."

Once again, forgiveness of self is more than simply a self pat on the back. Todd puts clients through his own three-part process consisting of examining yourself, making the necessary life changes required before going to contribute to greater society.

It took six months of naval gazing, not to mention a healthy amount of peer pressure, for Fatima Suhail to revive her friendship with her best friend last year. The 23-year-old Sharjah resident walked away from a tight six-year bond after one too many toxic arguments.

As someone who has non-forgiven in a few instances, Suhail credits her friends with helping restore the relationship, proving - in this case, at least - some outside interference can be good a thing.

"They saw what was happening and they knew that if they didn't intervene we would both lose out in the end," she recalls.

"But I don't believe in forgiving for the heck of it, so I had to evaluate the good memories with the bad and then make a decision. You have to do the work."

This work ethic and introspection is a belief uniting all sides of the forgiveness debate.

"The anger, the pain, it is all an examination," Imam Al Araby says. "The person must exercise patience and do the work and examine himself. It is the best and only way."

Even Safer agrees. "Forgiveness is a hard thing. It takes everything that you are to do it. It is very important in being a loving, mature person. But that doesn't mean compulsion."

Perhaps Ebell sums it up best in that forgiveness is in the eyes of the giver.

"If it means forgetting, then I guess I can forgive pretty easily," she says. "Forgiveness, I think, is like an onion. There are many layers to it."