The Risk of Throwing It All Over the Cliff……..and Then Learning How to Fly

1984. The Orwellian year of change, but in the novel by the same name it was a year of forced conformity, the chaining of ideas to the Big Brother agenda. It was the worst of times in the mind of George Orwell.

In my own case, 1984 was a time of finally breaking free of conformity, unlocking the chains of imprisoned ideas and learning for the first time how to fly. I am an academic and academics live and die by ideas, ones that they research and publish and try to spread to others.

I had a sabbatical in that fated year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where my ideas centered on moral development, which was centered on how youth     become fair, which was centered on two thinkers, Jean Piaget of Switzerland and Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard. Like sheep, the rest of us fell into line behind these thinkers’ ideas and we bleated out the same old story: there are stages of development in how youth think about justice and the more complex their thinking, the better off the youth are. And when I studied the progression of ideas on this theme during my 1984 sabbatical I faced a frightening reality: We are all recycling the same old story decade after decade after decade…..from 1932 to the present. 1984. Yes, I was horrified that I was about to spend the rest of my career in the pasture of old ideas, following shepherds who had brilliant original ideas. Yet, why should I keep going to that same pasture again and again…….and again?

I decided to get out of the line and flee that pasture. I threw over the academic cliff all of my writing and research on these two luminaries’ ideas…….and I never have gone back, over 30 years now, to read even one of my journal articles on youths’ justice-thinking that helped me receive both grants and tenure. I did not go back because the ideas were choking the life out of me. Why live in the shadow of luminaries when their ideas already have been brought to pasture so often by so many?

So, here I was in a publish-or-perish university without an idea……and academics live and die by ideas. So, I asked myself this question: What in the area of moral development might impact — — — truly impact on a deep level — — every person on the planet? Well, I thought, everyone who has ever lived and in the future will live on this planet must confront the opposite of Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s life-callings: injustice. How do people respond to injustice so that they can emotionally heal from the effect of cruel, undeserved injustice? Forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness. If people can learn to forgive, perhaps this could aid people in casting off resentment and unhealthy anger and discouragement. Yes, forgiveness is worth studying even though it seems so….so… unreasonable, being good to those who are not good to you.

Yet, when I went to the library and asked the librarian to do a literature search (there were no Google searches back then) for all studies in all of the social sciences focused expressly on people forgiving other people, she came back with a blank piece of paper. Sorry, but there are no such studies on the planet. A friend of mine, at the same time, did such a search in the library at a Kansas university and he, too, was met with a blank sheet. No published studies on forgiving existed.

I decided to start a think-tank at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to begin asking these questions: What does it mean to forgive others? What is the pathway that people typically walk when they decide to forgive? What outcomes can we measure when people choose to forgive? The Friday Forgiveness Seminar was born in the spring semester of 1985 (and continues to this day) and consisted of a wide range of cultures and faiths and no-faiths, people from Saudi Arabia, Greece, Taiwan, Korea, and the United States…….Muslims, Jewish, Christian, agnostics, and the religiously indifferent. We all sat around a table every Friday, discussed the questions, did the research, and found very good things in that research. When people forgive, even when hurt gravely such as by incest or emotional abuse, there is a tendency for the forgivers to reduce in anger and anxiety and even in depression. They get their lives back.

Nonetheless, academia is not so forgiving as to forgive me for stepping out of the sheep line and thinking independently. Academia talks the talk of academic freedom, but offers its support only within the parameters of what is considered acceptable at that point in time in that cultural context. I now like to say that academia, if we are not careful, grooms us for the sheep’s meadow where we can live out our lives under the careful watch of the academic shepherds who will tell us what is and what is not an acceptable thought. And the study of forgiveness in 1985 was not one of those ideas.

A firestorm erupted about our studying forgiving. It is unacceptable, I was told. It is too soft an idea for hard-headed academia, I was told. You are ruining your career and so you will ruin the career of your unsuspecting graduate students. Desist! Desist with your ideas! 1984.

I did not listen, nor did my brave graduate students, so many of whom now are in solid and tenured academic positions…….because the original nay-sayers were wrong. As soon as we started to publish work on Forgiveness Therapy, showing the reduction of depression, and even its elimination in people who had suffered for years, many academics began to change their ideas about our ideas. The American Psychological Association played a large part in this turn around, as the Editor of APA Books, Mary Lynn Skutley, took her own risk by publishing one of my books, Helping Clients Forgive with the psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons, then another and then another. 5 books in all at APA and this helped to put the social scientific study of forgiving on the map of acceptability.

We were able to fly with our ideas, but only after not accepting the chains in the pasture of the sheep. And I will never go back to that pasture.                          

The risks continue. My colleagues and I have given talks in war-torn areas, areas where governmental overseers warn us not to go. Yet, the ideas beckon. We are planning the Jerusalem Conference on Forgiveness for July 12 and 13, 2017 because, well, Jerusalem is a very hurting city and so it is a symbol of the need for forgiving, so off we go.

Within the past month, the Rotary Club of New York has taken the risk with us. We now have created the joint Declaration for Peace and Community Renewal, centered on bringing forgiveness education to as many war-torn communities across the world as we can over the next 24 years. That Declaration is on the Rotary Club of New York’s website as I write this. We are planning a conference on forgiveness education at the United Nations. We are taking a risk together.

Risk. Without it, my ideas die in the academic pasture. With it, I fly because forgiveness flies…..into broken hearts, into broken families, into broken communities. APA and Rotary are risk-takers. We have flown and are flying together……and the world is better off. Taking that risk has allowed many researchers to fly with us and has allowed hurting people to cast off the chains of resentment in their own hearts. Risk can save lives.

This blog first appeared on Thrive Global, June 15, 2017.
Go to the profile of Robert Enright

Robert Enright

Professor of Educational Psychology, UW-Madison, licensed psychologist, and IFI board member was the first to research forgiveness in the social sciences.

3 Things Forgiveness Demands of Us

Sojourner Magazine, Washington, D.C. – Editor’s Note: This article is actually a collection of excerpts from an inspiring commentary  by Lisa Sharon Harper in the 6/19/17 issue of Sojourner Magazine.

Lisa Sharon Harper

Forgiveness is completely counterintuitive. When betrayed, diminished, abused, oppressed, exploited, or erased it is human to want to pay an eye for an eye. Our hearts betray back, diminish back, lead us to abuse back, oppress back (if we can), exploit back, or erase back.

I had never actually hated anyone before, then my heart felt hate’s comfort. It was intoxicating. Hate made me forget my own pain. I felt puffed up and empowered — empowered to erase the other in my heart … and it felt good. What I didn’t realize was even as I was puffing myself up, my heart was hardening, transforming from flesh to stone — no longer human.

The first requirement of forgiveness is desire. We must desire a better world — a better way of being in the world.

The second requirement of forgiveness is hope. We must have hope that a better world — and a better way of being — is possible.

The third requirement of forgiveness is humility. We must agree with God that the perpetrator is human — and so are we. We do not know his whole story. We do not know what led her to take the action she took. We do not get to craft their story. We are mere flesh and they are mere flesh.

Once we hold desire, hope, and humility, then forgiveness is possible.

I desire.

I hope.

I see the other’s humanity.

I forgive.

Read More: 3 Things Forgiveness Demands of Us 

Misunderstanding Forgiveness as One Reason Why We Need Forgiveness Education

Too often in society the word forgiveness is used casually: “Please forgive me for being 10 minutes late.” Forgiveness is used in place of many other words, such as excusing, distorting the intended meaning. People so often try to forgive with misperceptions; each may have a different meaning of forgiveness, unaware of any error in his or her thinking.
.
Freedman and Chang (2010, in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, volume 32, pages 5-34) interviewed 49 university students on their ideas of the meaning of forgiveness and found that the most frequent understanding (by 53% of the respondents) was to “let go” of the offense.  This seems to be similar to either condoning or excusing.  Of course, one can let go of the offense and still be fuming with the offender.  The second most common understanding of forgiveness (20%) was that it is a “moving on” from the offense.  Third most common was to equate forgiveness with not blaming the offender, which could be justifying, condoning, or excusing, followed by forgetting about what happened.  Only 8% of the respondents correctly understood forgiveness as seeing the humanity in the other, not because of what was done but in spite of it.
If we start forgiveness education early, when students are 5 or 6 yearsold, they will have a much firmer grasp of what forgiveness is…..and therefore likely will be successful in their forgiveness efforts, especially if these students are schooled not only in what forgiveness is but also in how to go about forgiving.

Robert Enright

Persistence: The Path to Becoming Forgivingly Fit

To grow in any virtue is similar to building muscle in the gym through persistent hard work. We surely do not want to overdo anything, including the pursuit of fitness.  Yet, we must avoid under-doing it, too, if we are to continue to grow.
.
It is the same with forgiveness. We need to be persistently developing our forgiveness muscles as we become forgivingly fit.
.
This opportunity is now laid out before you. What will you choose? Will you choose a life of diversion, comfort, and pleasure, or the more exciting life of risking love, challenging yourself to forgive, and helping others in their forgiveness fitness?
.
Enright, Robert D. (2012-07-05). The Forgiving Life (APA Lifetools) (Kindle Locations 5359-5360). American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition.

Why Kids Need to Learn How to Forgive

GreatSchools, Oakland, California, USA–Learning how to forgive helps children feel better about themselves and those around them, improves academic performance, and enhances their physical well-being.

That’s a summary of the scientific review presented in March by GreatSchools, an organization that “helps parents to unlock educational opportunities for their child.” The review, called “Why teach kids to forgive?” is subtitled: “Peacemakers, poets, and researchers agree: forgiveness heals hurts and is good for the forgiver.”

“Research has associated not-forgiving with depression, anxiety, and hostility,” according to GreatSchools. “Multiple studies find a higher rate of compromised immune systems and heart problems in adults who hold grudges. Conversely, children and adults who are able to let go of angry feelings when they’ve been wronged experience greater psychological well-being.


“When a child feels lingering anger and hurt, forgiving is what will help them recover—from that hurt, and maybe others as well.” – Great Schools


In part, the GreatSchools review was based on the work of Dr. Robert Enright, the University of Wisconsin psychology professor and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. During Dr. Enright’s 30+ years of forgiveness research, he has developed a system of Curriculum Guides for children in grades K-4 through 12th grade that teaches them forgiveness and how to integrate it into their lives.

GreatSchools, for example, cites an Enright study of 6- to 9-year olds in Belfast which found that students who learned to forgive reduced their anger in general toward everyone, not just toward the person who harmed them.

“Children who learn how to forgive also gain an edge academically, and the reason may be as simple as having more energy available to focus on constructive pursuits,” according to GreatSchools. “Their brains aren’t fuming, recounting the hurt, and plotting revenge; instead, they’ve got a clean slate where they can organize information and think creatively.”

In another Enright study, this one at the middle school level, students showed measured improvement in written English, math, and social studies; in their attitude toward school and their teachers; and in their relationships with their parents and other kids.

Editor’s Note: The GreatSchools review was conducted by Hank Pellissier, the founder/director of the Brighter Brains Institute.

Read more:
Why teach kids to forgive? – GreatSchools
♥ Why Kids Need to Learn How to Forgive – Greater Good
♥ Dr. Enright’s Research on the Benefits of Forgiveness – International Forgiveness Institute

Should I Forgive?

Excerpt from pages 37-38 of the book, The Forgiving Life by Dr. Robert Enright:
.

“Not everyone agrees that forgiveness is morally good. For example, in 1887, Nietzsche said that only the weak forgive. In other words, if you have to keep a job, then you forgive. If you find another job, then you can boldly tell that boss where he can go as you strut out the door. Yet, is this philosopher Nietzsche talking about genuine forgiveness? I don’t think so.
.
To forgive is to deliberately offer goodness in the face of your own pain to the one who was unfair to you. This is an act of great courage, not weakness. Forgiveness—like justice or patience or kindness or love—is a virtue and all virtues are concerned with the exercise of goodness. It is always appropriate to be good to others, if you so choose and are ready to do so. As a caution, if you have only $1 to feed a hungry child and you get a phone call to please give mercifully to the local animal shelter, you should not exercise goodness toward the shelter if it means depriving your child of basic needs. Yet, if the circumstances are right and if you have an honest motive to give mercy to someone who hurt you, then going ahead with forgiveness is morally good.
Why? Because you are freely offering kindness or respect or generosity or even love (or all four together) and this might change you and the other person and others in the world. Even if no one is changed by what you do, it is always good (given the right motivation and circumstance) to offer mercy in a world that seems to turn its collective back on such an act too often.”
.
Enright, Robert D. (2012-07-05)The Forgiving Life (APA Lifetools). American Psychological Association.

Richard Branson: F is for Forgiveness

Richard Branson is one of the world’s most prolific entrepreneurs. Since starting Virgin Records in London in 1970 (and selling it in 1992 for $1 billion), he has grown his Virgin Group brand into more than 60 Virgin companies worldwide, employing nearly 71,000 people in 35 countries.

Sir Richard Branson

Branson is the only person in the world to build eight billion dollar companies in eight different sectors. His current highest profile activity is Virgin Galactic, which is on track to become the world’s first privately funded commercial space line, and his SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System.

But after nearly 50 years of building companies, Branson says there is one attribute that is key to his success and that of his companies — forgiveness.

“One of the most important lessons I have ever learned is the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness has become a cultural policy within Virgin,” according to Branson. “We give second chances, and have reaped great rewards as a result. It’s amazing how much people lift their game when you put trust and hope in them.”

“My life and career could have been very different if I hadn’t chosen to forgive one of my very first business partners. After finding a note outlining his plans to oust me as Student magazines publisher and editor, I felt incredibly betrayed and we decided to part ways.”

From Student, Branson’s first business, came the idea for Virgin. But as the operation took off, Branson decided to let bygones be bygones and called up his former partner and asked him to re-join the team.

“Forgiving him was one of the best decisions I have ever made,”
Branson said. “I retained a great friend, became happier at work and in life, and gained the confidence to grow Virgin. Forgiveness brought us both peace and success.”

According to Branson, one of his employees was caught stealing in the early days of Virgin Records. Instead of letting him go, Branson decided to forgive him and offer him a second chance. “And thankfully so,” Branson recalls, “as he went on to discover talent like Culture Club, Human League and Phil Collins and sign them to our music label.”

“No matter the situation, forgiveness is the best answer,” Branson says. To document his belief, he explains that Virgin companies now employ 25 people who are former inmates recently released from prison–25 people who’ve been given a second chance in life.

 
Citing another example, Branson says “Nelson Mandela’s life is a powerful tale of forgiveness. After being unfairly jailed for 27 years, he forgave the people who imprisoned him. This forgiveness enabled him to become one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. Together with Archbishop Desmond Tutu he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after  apartheid  was abolished, and the spirit of forgiveness shown in the process continues to enable South Africa to move forward.”

Branson’s advice on forgiveness: “If you’ve fallen out with someone, I urge you to call them up and arrange to meet and talk about the situation. You’ll most likely both think that the other person is to blame, but give each other the benefit of the doubt. Life’s too short to hold grudges. Everyone deserves freedom to move forward – and forgiveness is the fastest route to peace and happiness.”

Branson is the world’s most followed person on LinkedIn. He maintains a daily blog on his virgin.com website discussing everything from entrepreneurship, conservation and sustainability to travel, music and humor. He has more than 11.5 million followers across five social networks and has also written six books, including his autobiography Losing My Virginity.

Read more: