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 millennium?

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.

The 5 Protections of Forgiving

We now see forgiveness as a protection in at least five ways. As we forgive, we are protecting:

(A) our own emotional health;

(B) the human dignity of the offender, not because of what happened but in spite of it;

(C) our relationship if the other wants to reconcile;

protection(D) other family members, friends, and colleagues who are protected from our resentment; and

(E) our communities from on-going anger that can pervade neighborhoods, separate people, and leave a blight that depresses economies.

After all, communities continually in contention do not receive tourist dollars, and governments often turn away, even if subtly, from such communities with high rates of violence. To forgive is to serve, to love, and to protect.

Robert

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5565-5567). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5562-5565). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

You talk of a “global perspective” when forgiving another person. What is the global perspective and can one still take that perspective when the other has done something horrible?

The global perspective challenges the offended person to see the genuine humanity in all people, including those who do horrible acts.  For example, is this person mortal; will he or she die some day?  If she is cut, will she bleed?  Does he need air to breath and a little plot of land to stand on…..just as you do?  It is hard to take such a perspective when calling someone “inhuman” or “a monster.”  Yet, and some people will disagree with this, isn’t that a distortion of whom the offending person is?  Are not those who act horribly still human beings?  They do not become ducks or deer or chimpanzees.  They remain…..human.  The global perspective is one of the large challenges of forgiveness, to see the humanity in the other.

Criticisms of Forgiveness: The Forgiven as Inferior

Even if a forgiver does not try to dominate the offender, the latter may nonetheless feel very badly about having to be forgiven (see Droll, 1985; O’Shaughnessy, 1967). Derek may feel that Alice, by her forgiving, is christmasmorally superior to him. Yet, Alice need not tell Derek of her gift. Even if he should suspect forgiveness on her part and then pine over this, Alice has done nothing wrong. Her gift remains a gift regardless of Derek’s response. If a child wails in protest over the gift of socks on Christmas morning, does this present then not count as a gift just because the child wanted a popular computer game and did not receive it?

Robert

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5080-5085). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.