It seems challenging to have an agreement on what forgiveness is. Although your teaching is very clear about what forgiveness is and is not and although I understand that people???s general understanding of forgiveness is not the best representation of what it is at its core, it still remains to be a challenge for me to tell people that their understanding is somewhat limited and less accurate than what it actually is. Recently, I was reading about Forgive for Good by Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford, and I think, in my humble opinion, his definition of forgiveness is more about controlling one???s thought and emotions for the purpose of personal healing. Even my dictionary states that to forgive is ???stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.??? What would you say to those who who tell you that they don???t agree with your definition of forgiveness which encompasses both positive and negative aspects in emotions, cognition, and behaviors toward those who have treated you unjustly? Thank you for your pioneering work in the study of forgiveness.

Either forgiveness is subjective, meaning something different to each person, or it is objective, with a coherent, non-contradictory definition of what it is in its essence. If forgiveness is subjective, then there is no need for me to answer this question because it is “different strokes for different folks.” Yet, your question suggests that you see that an objective answer exists. There are over 800 books now in print about this topic and I have to presume that each author struggles to bring forth a true definition of forgiveness, otherwise why write the book?

So, it seems intuitively obvious that forgiveness is objective with an essence to it, which means that it has a meaning apart from other similar constructs such as tolerance, legal pardon, neutrality, indifference, mild annoyance, and “moving on from an offense.”

Given the objectivity of forgiveness, what does the term “to forgive” mean? It cannot be both a moral virtue and only thought control to aid oneself. Why? Because no other moral virtue is exclusively about oneself. Virtues flow out of one person to others for their good. If we insist that forgiveness is not a moral virtue, then it is imperative that those so insisting tell us what it is (and break with about 3,500 years of thinking on this matter).
For now, we are safe in assuming that forgiveness is a moral virtue. Thus, if it is, then it cannot—absolutely cannot—be defined as the cessation of resentment for an offense. Why? Because I can demonstrate tolerance and cease to resent. I can demonstrate indifference, and mild annoyance (without the emotional depth of resentment), and even “moving on” from an offense and cease to resent.
So, how can we distinguish forgiveness from all of these other ideas? We do so by defining it in such a way as to honor the “moral virtue” aspect of forgiveness. All moral virtues involve goodness toward others. What is the goodness that forgiveness offers? When a person forgives, he or she deliberately offers the goodness of understanding, kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the offender.
Of course, people need not completely fulfill this definition to be forgiving. We all fall short of perfection in expressing any virtue. Our human imperfections do not invalidate what forgiveness is.

How has your experience been to introduce your forgiveness process to healthcare professionals? Is there a medical group or hospital that effectively integrates forgiveness into any healing process?

Health care professionals are very positive about incorporating forgiveness into their practices. We have given numerous workshops and lectures at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, Meriter Hospital, and the Dean Clinic here in Madison, as just some examples. We have information and links here on our website about: 1) how Cancer Treatment Centers of America has incorporated forgiveness therapy into their treatment plans; and, 2) references to WebMD, both??on our??“Why Forgive?”??page.

But, the Dictionary Says….

Forgive DictionarySo often I have heard people fall back to a definition of something with deep philosophical import by saying, “But, the dictionary says….”

Let us examine the definition of “forgive” from the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary. The first entry tells us that “forgive” means “to give up resentment…” As we saw in our blog post of December 19, 2012, this cannot possibly be the definition because it also could define the term indifference. If I give up resentment yet retain some mild annoyance toward those who have offended me, then I still actually may not be forgiving.

A synonym allegedly is pardon. Yet, pardon, as a legal term, involves a third party, uninvolved in the original offense, making a determination. In forgiveness the one offended is making that determination.

Bottom line: When it comes to philosophically subtle and important terms such as forgiveness, it is best not to rely on the dictionary.

And as a final thought, the writers at Merriam-Webster would do well to revise their dictionary.

Dr. Bob

How long does it take to forgive someone for a serious offense? I was physically abused by my father when I was a child. It is time to rid myself of this and to have a better relationship with my aging father.

The amount of time will vary depending on a number of important issues such as:

1. how long ago the injustice happened (very recent and deep wounds are harder to forgive for most people);

2. how much practice a person has had in forgiving (the more the better);

3. how well one knows the pathway to forgiveness;

4. how motivated one is to forgive; and,

5. how deeply one is hurt (the deeper the hurt, the more time that is needed).

When we worked with incest survivors for one hour a week, it took on the average 14 months for most to deeply forgive. We find that it takes at least 12 weeks of hard work before a person begins to say that he or she has forgiven someone for a serious injustice.

So, be prepared for some challenging work, take breaks, and live your normal life as you do this. You may find some genuine relief in a few months. This should benefit not only you but also your father and your family.

When I was a child my parents would often ask my brother and me to shake hands and “just forgive” each other when we had an argument. It was as if the “I forgive you” was the finishing touch of moving ahead to something else. As a result, I have come to think of forgiveness as a somewhat superficial way to solve problems. What do you suggest I now do as a father so that my children do not grow up with a superficial understanding of what it means to forgive?

Your sense is correct: How we teach our children about forgiveness may have some lasting impressions which remain with them into adulthood. I do not necessarily mean that no further understanding will develop. Instead I mean that the impressions created in childhood (forgiveness is important; forgiveness is unimportant; forgiveness is about loving others; forgiveness is like a quick handshake) remain long after childhood.

A key is this: Do not water-down what forgiveness is. Yes, simplify, but do not distort. For example, our first grade (in the USA) teacher/parent guide for forgiveness education (for 6-year-olds) teaches children that forgiveness.

1. occurs in the context of unfairness;

2. involves seeing the inherent worth of all, including those who hurt them;

3. involves the moral qualities of kindness, respect, generosity, and love;

4. does not necessarily include reconciling if the other is dangerous;

5. does not mean that we throw justice out the window.

This may seem like a lot to ask of 6-year-olds and it is. The teacher or parent teaches through stories such as Dr. Seuss’??Horton Hears a Who. The children are able to grasp all five concepts above and then to put them into action in the classroom and playground when peer conflicts arise. The instructional guides provide questions and answers for the children as the instructor reads each book.

The first-grade curriculum guide is available, along with guides from pre-kindergarten (age 4) through grade 11 (again, using the USA grade system) for age 16-17, in our??Store.

Seeing with New Eyes

The late Lewis Smedes used this expression: to see with new eyes. He meant this: When we forgive we no longer see in the same way those who have hurt us. We see them from a wider perspective than just their offenses against us. We see them as worthwhile people, not because of what they did, but in spite of this.

So, in this tradition of Dr. Smedes, let us do a little homework today. As you interact with or even pass by five different people, please think these thoughts about him or her:

1. This person has inherent, or built-in, worth that cannot be taken away from him/her.Inherent Worth Heart

2. This person is special, unique, and irreplaceable. When this person is no longer living, there will not be another person exactly like him/her.

3. In all likelihood, this person is carrying around emotional wounds received because of other’s mistreatment of him/her.

Then, once this thinking exercise is complete, try to apply the statements to one person who has been unfair to you, who has hurt you. Try to “see with new eyes” as you reflect on this person.

Dr. Bob

Inspired by Forgiveness

PhotoBelfast Telegraph, Belfast, Northern Ireland – The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, delivered his final Christmas Day sermon from Canterbury Cathedral (Canterbury, Kent, UK) and spoke of how he has been inspired by meeting people who have experienced great suffering yet are able to forgive.”The parents who have lost a child to gang violence, the wife who has seen her husband killed in front of her by an anti-Christian mob in India, the woman who has struggled for years to comprehend and accept the rape and murder of her sister, the Israeli and Palestinian friends who have been brought together by the fact that they have lost family members in the conflict and injustice that still racks the Holy Land – all these are specific people I have had the privilege of meeting as Archbishop over these ten years,” Dr. Williams said, “and in their willingness to explore the new humanity of forgiveness and rebuilding relations, without for a moment making light of their own or other people’s nightmare suffering, or trying to explain it away, these are the ones who make us see, who oblige us to turn aside and look, as if at a bush burning but not consumed.”

Dr Williams steps down at the end of the month after a decade as head of the Church of England to become Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, UK, and chairman of the board of trustees of Christian Aid, an international development charity.

Read the full story: “Williams inspired by forgiveness.”

Your Unfolding Love Story Continued

GiftsOn January 19, 2012 we posted a reflection on our blog site in which we encouraged readers to grow in love as their legacy of 2012. We said this:

Give love away as your legacy of 2012.

How can you start? I recommend starting by looking backward at one incident of 2011. Please think of one incident with one person in which you were loved unconditionally, perhaps even surprised by a partner or a parent or a caring colleague. Think of your reaction when you felt love coming from the other and you felt love in your heart and the other saw it in your eyes. What was said? How were you affirmed for whom you are, not necessarily for something you did? What was the other’s heart like, and yours?”

Our current year, 2012, is about to end. Can you list some specific, concrete ways in which you have chosen love over indifference? Love over annoyance? If so, what are those specifics and how are they loving? We ask because we have only about a week-and-a-half left in the year.

If you have not yet deliberately left love (or enough love) in the world this year, there still is time.

Dr. Bob

Forgiveness Story Triggers Flood of Gift-Giving

Bag of PresentsCBC News, Novia Scotia, Canada??- Free groceries and Christmas gifts are piling up for a Nova Scotia man who forgave the thief who ran off with his turkey dinner and presents.

Frank (Mike) Foley went shopping on Wednesday but a thief broke into his car and stole the groceries and gifts he had just bought.

Instead of calling the police, Foley posted a message on his Facebook page offering the thief a chance to return everything:

“I want you to know that I forgive you for this as it seems that you needed these things more than I do. The turkey and groceries will not ruin our Christmas dinner for we will still have something for dinner that day and the gifts you stole were material things that we can do without.

“But I want you to understand that there is no way for me to replace these things because I used the last of the money we had to purchase these things.

“If you can’t find it in your heart to return them then I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and may God bless you and your family. I do forgive you and wish no bad things on you.”

Foley said he has not heard from the thief, but he has received more than 1,000 emails, phone calls and visits from generous people bearing groceries and gift cards.Foley closed his small business two years ago to look after his wife, who has multiple sclerosis and is terminally ill. He has a nine-year-old son with autism and a 16-year-old daughter.

Read the full story:??“Tale of forgiveness for theft triggers flood of gift-giving.”

What Is Forgiveness?: When Psychologists Disagree

Last week in my doctoral seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the students was making a presentation to the class. As part of that presentation he discussed a published work by a neuroscientist-psychologist who made the following claim: Forgiveness is not about getting rid of resentment and offering goodness to another person (or other persons). Instead, it is only about getting rid of resentment. The author of the article referenced one of our works, in which we unequivocally state that the essence of forgiveness also includes the offering of goodness. The journal article’s author asserted, without defending the point, that we are incorrect.

So, we have a contradiction. Either “to forgive” as a term includes the offering of goodness toward others or it does not. Who is correct? How do we determine who is correct here?Word montage

I would like to suggest the following as a way to resolve the contradiction. If we can show that either of our definitions could also be the definition of another term (unrelated to or at least substantially different from the term “to forgive”), then that definer needs to refine the definition to a greater extent than currently is the case.

So, with that ground-rule in place, let the games begin, as they say in the Olympics. First, let us turn to our neuroscientist colleague’s definition of “to forgive.” which is the reduction in or elimination of negative emotions (resentment) following a transgression from another (or others). Can we think of other terms that would fit this definition? Yes: indifference. I can be indifferent toward another to such an extent that I become emotionally neutral toward him or her. Indifference is not an act of goodness. It cannot possibly be equated with forgiveness, but by the neuroscientist’s definition, forgiveness and indifference share the same definition. Therefore, the neuroscientist must change his definition of the term “to forgive” or be faced with an ambiguous term.

Now, to our definition. “To forgive” is in the context of another’s transgression (the neuroscientist and I agree). “To forgive” includes the cessation of resentment toward the offending person (the neuroscientist and I agree). “To forgive” must–must–include in its essence the offer of goodness toward the offender for two important reasons:

1) If forgiveness is a moral virtue (as are justice, patience, kindness, and love), then it has to include an element of goodness, as all moral virtues do.

2) Without adding this element of goodness to the definition of “to forgive,” we are left with a host of undifferentiated terms (indifference, mild annoyance, moving on, “writing someone off”, forgiveness).

As a final point, just because, in its essence, the term “to forgive” includes elements of offered goodness toward an offender, this does not imply that all who forgive show this or even understand it. There is a difference between how one both understands and expresses forgiveness and what it is in its essence.

Dr. Bob