Does forgiving require me to abandon my psychological defense mechanisms altogether?  What if in the future I need a little denial to protect myself from intensive anger or anxiety?

To forgive in one context, let us call it Situation A, does require that you reduce the defense mechanisms that prevent you from seeing the depth of your own hurt and anger.  This can be done slowly and gently.

Your having lowered those defense mechanisms in Situation A does not mean that you will have lost your natural ability to have defense mechanisms in the future.  In other words, breaking denial in Situation A does not mean that denial will not operate well in Situation B.  Denial still will need to be slowly lowered in Situation B if that denial is not allowing you to see that you are angry, that the anger is compromising your well-being, and that you need to do something about that anger.

Read more about dealing with defense mechanisms in Forgiveness Is a Choice.

If you could offer one piece of advice for beginning a conversation about forgiveness, what would you say to the one who wishes to forgive?

A person need not tell others that they are forgiven.  Yet, if you wish to bring this into the open, I first would wait until the other is in a good mood before bringing this up.  I would start gently by saying something like this (presuming that the context is one in which you would like reconciliation): “I respect you and like you.  May I say something about Incident X in which we had that argument?”  I then would not go into any details of Incident X and instead talk of your positive feelings and thoughts relative to forgiving.

In your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you talk about the psychological defense mechanisms.  You say, in one part, that we use the defense mechanisms to hide anger from ourselves.  Yet, is it possible that anger itself is a defense mechanism against disappointment or embarrassment?

Yes, you make a good point.  Anger, indeed, can be a defense mechanism in the form of displacement.  A person displaces an emotion onto another so that the real issue remains hidden.  So, the psychological defense of denial can mask anger; displacement of anger can mask disappointment or embarrassment, as you say.  Both anger and disappointment may need to be addressed in the same person.

Read more about defense mechanisms in Forgiveness Is a Choice.

I do not want to forgive my girlfriend, but at the same time I do not want to lose her.  She has asked for forgiveness.  I am now “faking it” with her. I have told her that I forgive her and that all is well, even though it is not.  Do you think I truly can “fake” forgiveness?

I find it interesting that in your last sentence you use the words “truly” and “fake.”  These are contradictions.  I truly think that you cannot fake forgiveness.  Your girlfriend will see this in your behavior, which may include some annoyance or even disrespect.  You obviously have your eye on the theme of forgiving.  Why not give it an actual try?

I have heard a lot of talk about the importance of helping children to forgive.  Yet, I now wonder about adolescents.  They are more independent or self-reliant.  How can we foster forgiveness in them when they may be less likely to sit and listen to you?

Forgiveness, according to Aristotle, develops in part by practice and by the support of others for that practice.  I suggest what we might call “teachable moments.”  Suppose you are watching a film together and there is conflict among the characters.  You could ask this of the adolescent: “What might have happened if Character A forgave Character B rather than seeking revenge?”  Another teachable moment is at the dinner table when people may be talking about their experiences that day.  If someone has had a conflict at school or at work, then discuss this with an eye toward forgiveness as still a possible option.

What can you do to convince another person to forgive you?

First, please keep in mind that you should not insist on their forgiving you because forgiving is that person’s choice.

Second, give the person time.  That person may be angry and needs some time to process the anger.

Third, humbly and gently ask for forgiveness, knowing that the person may not be ready yet.  Express regret as you ask for forgiveness.  Try to make up for what you did, at least within reason.

What are some of the most common triggers that you see after a person forgives?  What I mean is this: What do you see as common among people that re-engages their anger after forgiving?

The two most common triggers are seeing the person again if they are not in an ongoing relationship and dreams about the event and the person.  These two commonly reignite anger.  Another, if you are in a relationship with the person, is when the person reproduces the kinds of behavior that were hurtful in the first place.  For example, suppose Person A calls you a disrespectful name.  If Person A uses it again, it can trigger new anger in need of forgiving again.

Inherited Stress from Our Historical Past

Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?

In a 2015 article in Scientific Americanit was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.

Originally posted July 26, 2018

These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?

Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?

This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?

Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):

  1. Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above.
  2. At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
  3. Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
  4. At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.
  5. After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.
  6. Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
  7. Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.

When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.

My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.

Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study.

One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title,Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges.” Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?

Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overuse.  Psychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagers. Anxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.

What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation.

Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?

.

Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

A final point is this: Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.

Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.

Robert

After Nine Agonizing Months of Captivity, Elizabeth Smart is Freed, Forgives Her Kidnappers

The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com – You’ve probably read or heard the story, but it’s worth repeating with a final twist.

In the early morning hours of June 5, 2002 — the day after she received awards for excellence in physical fitness and academics at Bryant Middle School in Salt Lake City, Utah — 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home at knifepoint.  The next day, the FBI told her parents, “If she’s not home in the first 48 hours, she’s probably not coming home.”

Smart did not return home quickly despite a massive regional search effort involving up to 2,000 volunteers each day, as well as dogs and planes. The search continued for weeks.

Her abductors, homeless street preacher Brian David Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee, held her at encampments in the woods 18 miles from her home and in San Diego County, CA.  They kept her shackled to a tree with a metal cable to keep her from escaping.

Nine agonizing months of captivity

Mitchell repeatedly raped Smart during her captivity, sometimes multiple times daily, told her she would never see her family again if she tried to escape, and regularly threatened to kill her. He often forced her to drink alcohol and take drugs to lower her resistance, and he both starved her and fed her garbage. 

Elizabeth Smart (left) and her captors.

Smart endured the unimaginable for nine agonizing months before she was spotted with Mitchell and Barzee in Sandy, Utah, on March 12, 2003 by a couple who had seen Mitchell’s photos on the news. Smart – disguised in a gray wig, sunglasses, and veil – was recognized by officers during questioning, and Mitchell and Barzee were arrested.

After years of delays and mental evaluations, Mitchell was found guilty of kidnapping and transporting a minor across state lines with intent to engage in sexual activity. On December 11, 2010, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. For her role, Barzee eventually was sentenced to concurrent terms of fifteen years in state and federal prison.

Forgiveness is not acceptance

For Smart, the ordeal carried a heavy price tag but she says she has long since forgiven her captors and has not allowed it to define her life. During a recent presentation at Indiana University Kokomo, she explained it this way:

“When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a victim anymore. I see an activist, I see a wife, I see a mother, I see a friend, I see someone I’m proud to be. 

It’s not what happens to us, it’s what we decide to do next, how we move forward, how we pursue our lives.

It’s not the acceptance of the action done against you. I don’t think forgiveness is saying, ‘It’s OK that you raped me.’ It’s not saying, ‘We’re going to be friends now.’

I will never be OK with the act of rape. There is no circumstance on earth in which I will say rape is OK.

It is not that you accepted the evil that was done to you. It is an acknowledgment that it has happened, and that you have dealt with your anger, your grief, and your pain, and you are able to then move on.

It’s loving yourself enough to let go of your pain and move forward.

If I get to the end of my life, if I die, and I find out religion is one big lie, I still won’t regret it because it’s helped me to live a better life, to be a better person, to care about people, to believe in forgiveness, to believe in hope.”

Since her abduction, Smart has gone on to become an advocate for missing persons and victims of sexual assault. With encouragement from her family, Smart has stepped into the public eye, writing two best-selling books, and lobbying with her father for laws to protect children including the Protect Act of 2003.

Smart also founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, to raise awareness of predatory child crimes. She is now married to Matthew Gilmour; the couple has two young children.


Read more:

Kidnapped at 14, held captive and raped, Elizabeth Smart says now: I was lucky – The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com

Elizabeth Smart shares story of hope, triumph, forgiveness – Indiana University Kokomo 

Elizabeth Smart Biography – BIOGRAPHY.COM


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