Robert D. Enright

I am smiling here. Am I supposed to be smiling right before I tell my story of woe? Oh, well. Forgiveness can do that to a person—put joy in his or her heart even in the midst of pain. I am smiling because my forgiveness story, which happened a quarter-of-a-century ago, was responsible in part for the construction of this site. Here is that story:

I started to study forgiveness a generation ago, in 1985, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I did not realize it at the time, but as I began to study forgiveness, no one else in the social sciences had taken up this topic in any systematic say. Academia was virtually silent on the matter of person-to-person forgiveness, except in philosophy, where there were a handful of papers exploring this vital topic. The social sciences were silent. As I began to explore how forgiving others might have a direct impact on the well-being of the one who forgives, I encountered substantial and surprising opposition from colleagues, not only at my own university, but well beyond that. This surprised me—-isn’t academia supposed to be about open-minded investigation? About fearless sifting and winnowing? Apparently not. Here are two examples of what I faced early in this fight to bring forgiveness to the social sciences:

1) I was in the office of a prominent professor and after we exchanged pleasantries, he came right up to me. He was not happy. He came up so close to me that we almost touched noses. He glared at me and said, “Do you really think that forgiveness will alleviate symptoms of depression?” The way he said it, my answer was supposed to be,”Why….no…sir….whatever gave you that idea? That would be silly.” Instead, I swallowed hard and said,”Yyyyyes, I do think that science will show this.” Up to that point, this was a hypothesis for me and not a scientifically supported finding (which it is now :). Well, that prominent professor turned around, shook his head in disappointment, and laughed. He continued laughing as he walked out the door. And that was the last time he and I ever discussed the matter. I can still see his head shaking sadly at me as the professor walked out the door.

2) A graduate student whom I was advising came into my office one day and she was pale with stress. “What is wrong?” I asked. She explained that she had just met a professor in the hall who told her that she will never get an academic job working with Enright. The forgiveness work will go nowhere. Enright has ruined his career. She looked me in the eye and asked, “Will I get a job in academia if I continue working with you on forgiveness?” I was honest and said,”It is possible that you will not get a job in academia. It is too early to say how the academy will react to this work. You are taking a risk.” That actually seemed to help this very courageous student, who decided to stay with forgiveness, is now happily published and is tenured at an American university. Ahhh, sweet revenge! (Oops. We forgiveness-types should not use such nasty words as “revenge”….but we are human, too.)

There are other stories to tell, but you get the idea. For me personally, the greatest challenge to forgive people arose when I started to study forgiveness. I did feel betrayed because of my expectations regarding academic freedom—being put down for just having ideas is not so much fun. Yet, I came to see those who castigated me as not seeing far enough. They were trapped in a little world, one that dictates what one can and cannot think. I wanted no part of that. Eventually, I began to see how freeing my own thoughts were on forgiveness, despite opposition, and this gave me the impetus to forgive as I studied forgiveness as my life’s calling.

Some of the colleagues are among my friends now, others have left the university and I have not seen them in years, but my heart is warm toward them. They helped to challenge me. Without them, I may not have dug down deeply to produce the best science that I could. Their challenges made the work better and so as we inaugurate this new website, I give a special “thank you” to those who, a long time ago, were skeptical of me and the work. Their skepticism became fuel for perseverance and now here we are, with a new website that I hope helps others to lead the forgiving life.