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Guardian: The Psychology of Forgiveness

September 2, 2019

One of my favorite Korean dramas ever is Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (or Goblin: The Lonely and Great God). Aside from it being what I thought was a very well-written love story, it is a story about friendship and forgiveness. It also gives us one of the best bromances on television ever.

Gong Yoo plays the title role of the Goblin/Guardian named Kim Shin, a former war general who was betrayed by the king he served, killed along with his sister (the queen) and the rest of his army. As a punishment for his sins in life, the gods turn him into a Guardian, a sort of demi-god, cursed with immortality so he may watch all his loved ones die for the rest of time. This will go on until he meets the person who will be his bride, as it is said that only she can kill him.

Lee Dong Wook plays the Grim Reaper. The Grim Reapers' job is to collect the souls of the dead and facilitate them to either move on to the afterlife or be sent to hell. They live among humans, have to eat, sleep, dry clean their uniforms, and apparently are paid just barely a living wage. Initially, he has no recollection of his past, though once in a while he sees specific objects that elicit a very strong emotional reaction. 

Through a forced cohabitation situation, the Grim Reaper and the Guardian get to know more about each other and develop a sort of friendship/bromance. In a twist, it is revealed later that in his human life, the Grim Reaper was Wang Yeo, the king who betrayed Kim Shin. How would you react if your new good friend who is also your roommate was also the person who killed you, your sister, and all your friends and family? Are there situations in which forgiveness is necessary? 

I've been thinking about this a lot, as forgiveness is a topic that often comes up in trauma. Some people feel it is necessary to forgive in order to move on. My favorite show growing up was Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, and there is an episode in which Giles describes forgiveness as an act of compassion, something done not because people deserve it but because they need it. I wonder, is it really necessary? Are there certain circumstances in which you cannot forgive? And if you don't, are you doomed to live with your pain, or is it possible to move on without forgiving those who've hurt us?

These questions came to mind while thinking of the development of the bromance between the Guardian and the Grim Reaper and where it goes after they both discover the truth. Initially, the two are forced to live together through a lease agreement. The young man who is supposed to take care of the estate takes advantage, as he believes Kim Shin/his "uncle" will be traveling abroad for the next couple decades. When Kim Shin unexpectedly returns, he finds the Grim Reaper living in his house. As he tries to convince him to leave, the Grim Reaper, who has paid the lofty place using all his savings from the past 300 years, points out that one cannot break a contract with a Grim Reaper, otherwise one must face death. Realizing he can't sacrifice his nephew, Kim Shin sees himself forced to share his house. They share significant experiences, including saving the Guardian's bride together, the usual roommate disagreements and annoyances, cooking together, and asking each other for what is essentially dating advice, they develop probably one of the best bromances on TV.

Their friendship truly is put to the test when the Grim Reaper begins to discover more about his past. He has developed feelings for a human woman (his former queen/Kim Shin's sister, living one of her reincarnations), and he doesn't know how to navigate it. He ends up discovering who he was in life, and how he died. In the mythology of this drama, and I think in some cultures, Grim Reapers are individuals who have taken their own lives. Becoming a Grim Reaper is a sort of punishment that ends when the individual can forgive themselves.

This is where we see the theme of forgiveness in the stories of these two people; the Grim Reaper who must achieve this for himself in order for his own punishment to end, and the Guardian who may or may not be better off forgiving the person who betrayed him in such a way.

Psychology suggests that forgiveness is beneficial for both physical and mental health. However, there is an important distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Though forgiveness can have benefits, reconciling with the person who hurt you is not always okay, not always doable, and not always safe. There is healthy anger and there is the more harmful anger that is more toxic, can lead to problems in our relationships, and can affect the way we see the world. The latter is linked to a greater risk of developing heart disease, as it is sort of a chronic stressor. Think about it, if you are constantly putting effort into the specific emotion of being angry at someone, even if there is no event currently triggering you and it's just your thoughts, this anger is only affecting you, and to some extent it's affecting your loved ones around you.

It has also been suggested that forgiveness must have three aspects: 1) developing a balanced perspective of the person who hurt you and the event, 2) decreasing your  negative feelings about it and increasing compassion, and 3) letting go of the idea of punishment or restitution.

I think that for Kim Shin, discovering that the person who hurt him was alive was a major surprise that brought back his feelings of anger. However, discovering that it was someone he had come to trust must have been particularly painful. It was equally painful for the Grim Reaper/Wang Yeo to regain the memories of who he is, the people he killed, and the fact that he took his own life because he could no longer live with the emotional consequences of what he did. After they each discover this, there is a confrontation that could have easily become violent, except that Kim Shin chooses to walk away.

For each of us who has ever been extremely angry, or hurt, and are face to face with the person who has hurt us, it's this point at which we make the choice of what to do with our anger, pain, and resentment. This is the point that matters. We all have this choice of what to do with our behavior.

Kim Shin chooses to walk away, to get some time away from Wang Yeo, while the latter comes to accept his new situation along with his past. With time apart they each have more time to think about their resolutions to their own problems. It also allows Kim Shin to reflect not only on the painful past, but more so on the fond memories they built together more recently. This helps him see Wang Yeo from a different perspective, influenced by the aspects of their more recent friendship and what he has come to know about Yeo, more than the choices he made as a young and foolish king 900 years in the past. In developing a different perspective, he is able to see the positive, and to let go of his desire for revenge, which would eventually make forgiveness more achievable.

Forgiveness doesn't come easy, as they each have to battle their own demons. It seems that their current desire to protect those they care about is a contributing factor for Kim Shin to separate the 'then' from the 'now'. Even though forgiveness does not have to mean reconciliation, these two achieve both.

I think it's sometimes easier to forgive others than to forgive ourselves. It takes decades for Wang Yeo to forgive himself. This makes sense, I think, given the gravity of everything he did. He seems to have enough time to reflect on what led to his past choices, but also to forgive those who he needed to forgive. Forgiving others and showing that compassion makes it easier for us to forgive ourselves. He may have developed some compassion for the person he used to be, realizing that he was very young and very influenced by the wrong people.

One of the greatest lessons I take from this drama is that forgiving ourselves is most important. I think forgiving others is a very personal choice. Personally, I don't think it is necessary especially if one is not ready, but it is also important to consider that forgiveness does not mean reconciling nor does it mean forgetting, and that it can have positive health benefits.

If you lived 900 years, would you still hold on to past hurts? Would you still want justice or restitution? Would you be sitting with your negative feelings for 900 years? We may not have a choice about most things that happen to us in our lives, and we may not have a choice as to what natural emotions are elicited in us with each of those events, but we do each have a choice of what to do with our feelings. If you lived 900 years, you can choose to focus on the person who hurt you and your loved ones 900 years ago and the pain that caused, or you can focus on living your life. Whatever is more meaningful to you.

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