Is the Definition of Forgiveness Only the Reduction of Resentment?

The philosopher McGary (1989) argued that forgiveness is nothing more than reducing resentment toward an offender. Unlike the ideas discussed previously, this is not a view of the reduction as passive and time dependent. His definition of forgiving is consistent with the first of our two-part definition covered in the previous chapter. Yet, McGary argued against adding the second part to the definition— that of a more compassionate and empathic stance toward the person. What is intriguing about his argument is that he manages to keep forgiveness within the moral realm as he takes the concept away from a sympathetic focus on the offender. McGary’s (1989) argument goes something like this. As a person gives up resentment, he or she can be motivated by the desire to be rid of negative emotions and by the desire to improve his or her relationships with people other than the offender.

McGary is aware of the psychological defense of displacement in which an angry person kicks the cat or yells at the children. Forgiving, as he defined it, is moral because the cat and the children have more peaceful environs as the person forgives. What is missing from the definition is anything approaching a moral sense toward the offender. A client may cease resentment4resentment but then have a cool detachment toward the offender. Giving up resentment by itself is not necessarily moral, especially if it is not done on behalf of the offender for his or her good. For example, Alice may cease resenting Seth because she concludes that he is not worth the trouble. She may see him as morally unredeemable and incorrigible. Is she forgiving Seth as she judges him this way?

Robert

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 963-971). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 959-963). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

 

What are some techniques you would recommend for making a person more aware of their inner sense of anger and the depth of that anger?

First, I would not rush this, but be patient with the person.  Sometimes a person puts up the psychological defenses of suppression, repression, and/or denial for a good reason.  The person may need some time, for example, to get used to what happened before starting on the journey toward emotional healing.  When the person is ready, you first can work with him or her to make that which is unconscious (repressed or denied, for example) now conscious.  What helps is this: If the person has the safety net of forgiveness and knows that he or she can confront and eliminate that anger, then the person is less likely to fear the uncovering of that emotion.

Another technique is to make the person aware of his or her inner pain as a result of an injustice.  If the person can look within courageously and see how much pain is in there, then he or she may be motivated to get rid of that pain.  The first step is to examine the pain and label it. Are you in mourning only?  Are you angry?  Are you perhaps even furious?  The diagnosis helps the person see the amount of forgiveness work necessary now to heal.

Prison Inmate Tames Anger Through Forgiveness

Editor’s Note: This unsolicited article was written by an inmate in the Columbia Correctional Institution at Portage, Wisconsin, and first appeared in the Institution’s September inmate newsletter. It is reprinted verbatim. 

September 2016 – This is my fourth incarceration and will be my last because of the life sentence I am now serving. During this time I have been in many groups, programs, counseling sessions, ad nauseum and was never able to understand why I kept hurting people.

At Columbia Correctional Institution I was assigned a psychologist who suggested I participate in a group based on the book Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope by Dr. Robert Enright of UW-Madison’s Psychology Department. I made the best decision of my life when I accepted the challenge.

This was the prisoncuffsonly program that ever asked me, “What happened to you to make you the way you are?” Everyone in the group had stories to tell about how they had been used, abused, and/or misused by those they trusted and/or looked up to. We began the process as a group of individuals mostly afraid to tell our stories or let others in. As we plodded through the first weeks some wanted to give up, some felt their stories too bad, and some just didn’t trust enough to share.

As we progressed and our stories came out, we were exposed to people we never truly knew – in my case, people I most likely would never have associated with. We became close like a family and knew the group was a safe place to deal with the anger and resentment that had plagued some of us over fifty years.


“This is the best program I have ever been associated with. . .”


We could talk about those who wronged us and altered our lives, and we could begin to forgive them and release our anger.

This is the best program I have ever been associated with and would recommend the book or program to anyone. If it’s not available in your institution, talk to you psychologists or chaplains about calling CCI for more information. You can also contact Dr. Enright at the following address: Dr. Robert Enright, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dept. of Psychology, 1025 W. Johnson St., Madison, WI 3706.

You talk of making people aware of their negative emotions prior to starting the forgiveness process. Isn’t it the case that some people just repress their anger or what I call compartmentalize it? Can’t we just let them do this without making them be aware of their bitterness or anger?

If someone repressed their anger, then they often will not think that they have anything to forgive.  “Why should I forgive?  I am over the hurt.  The person really did not hurt me all that much.”  A person who has repressed anger is not giving herself the opportunity to get rid of that anger and if it is very deep anger it could develop eventually into anxiety and psychological depression. It is because of these consequences of holding onto repressed anger that it is better to try to bring it to the surface and deal with it through forgiveness if someone has been cruel and therefore is the cause of the anger.

Genocide and the Human Heart

I wonder. Today I visited the Wikipedia entry on Genocide and found 558 scholarly notes there. This impressively detailed article generated a thought that I would like to share with you. Suppose that a person’s ancestors experienced genocide 500 years ago. Is it possible that people today are still experiencing the effects of such horror? It is easier to see the passing on of anger and stress when we can concretely see, for example, an angry father who has raised up an angry son. Yet, what of the passing on of the anger and stress that might reach back half a century?

I think it is possible that the deeply felt anguish of a genocide can be passed to the next generation…..and then to the next….and the next…..until it is our turn. Maybe the felt emotions are not the exact same as happened under genocide, but compassionheartthey may be painful nonetheless.

If this idea has merit, then how do we forgive that which we are not even aware because it has been blotted out of history? Perhaps it is not necessary to have to reach back and forgive all who have passed on the pain. Perhaps it is sufficient to forgive a parent who has caused you pain and this suffices to quiet the emotions. Someone has to stop the intergenerational transfer of pain if a subsequent generation is to be set free from a pattern that might have lasted for centuries. If so, then forgiveness is even more important than I had thought.

Robert

In my attempts to forgive, I try to respond with empathy and compassion to the one who hurt me. Is it possible to have such deep empathy and compassion that these qualities just abide in a person and are there, to be appropriated, any time and any place for any person and for any reason?

Yes, it is possible to carefully cultivate the qualities of empathy and compassion so that they are part of who you are as a person.  I call it becoming “forgivingly fit.”  It takes practice and then even more practice over years to develop such a deep, abiding sense of these qualities.  As a motivation for you to so cultivate these, I have a chapter in the book, The Forgiving Life, in which I challenge the reader to leave a legacy of love in this world.  To do so requires conscious effort and time so that you leave more love than anger in this challenging world when you die.  If you have this legacy as a goal, it may be easier to stay at the task of practicing daily the qualities of empathy and compassion.