Is wanting to forgive for your own sake selfish?

There is a difference between being selfish and being self-focused. Suppose you have a throbbing knee after a workout. Is going to the sports medicine clinic selfish? No; it is an issue of self-care. Being motivated to be psychologically more healthy upon forgiving is similar. Your motivation of self-focused care may change to a different motivation as you proceed with the forgiveness process. Your motivation may then include the other person, as you develop a concern for this person’s well-being.

For additional information, see Forgiveness for Individuals.

Is it ever too late to forgive? My dad has been angry with his own father now for decades. This anger has become part of his identity, part of who he is. I am worried that he never will be able to forgive and find peace.

You make a good point about anger sometimes becoming part of one’s identity. Also, at times people are fearful of confronting their own anger because they fear an inability to be rid of this. Yet, once a person realizes that forgiveness is a kind of safety net for the unhealthy anger, they tend to go ahead with forgiveness because they have more confidence in their ability to eliminate this excessive anger.

Also, with regard to the theme of identity, people can transform their identity, from resentful persons to persons who are caring and who do not let others’ injustices define who they are. If you see receptivity in your father regarding forgiveness, you might want to talk to him about these two themes: a) forgiving is a safety net for his anger and thus that anger will not overwhelm him if he starts to look at his own father’s behavior; and, b) his identity might change in a positive way.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.

I hate to admit it, but I have been hating someone for years. How long now will it take me to forgive? I want it all wrapped up this week.

Please do not think of forgiving as a kind of pill one takes for a headache. You do not take a forgiveness pill and then wait a little while for complete relief. Forgiveness, instead, is a process, a challenging process, that takes time to develop. We find that the more severe the injustice against a person, then the longer it may take to forgive. If you work at it, we find that people tend to feel some relief in about 12 weeks; others still may take much longer, but even in this longer process, you might sense that your anger is diminishing, which can motivate you to keep at the forgiveness process. Anger is not necessarily entirely eliminated when a person forgives, but hatred (very deep and abiding anger) does tend to diminish. I am encouraged that you are considering forgiving even with hatred in your heart. This, to me, is a good sign that you will make progress in your forgiving.

 

Have you or your colleagues worked on forgiveness with people who have significant mental health challenges, such as major depressive disorder or bi-polar disorder?

Yes, my colleague, the psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, has case studies of this kind in our book, Forgiveness Therapy, 2015. Not all people who show major depression or bi-polar disorder are excessively angry with other people, but Dr. Fitzgibbons does screen for this. When people with significant mental health challenges show unhealthy anger caused by unjust treatment from other people, then Forgiveness Therapy is warranted and shown to be effective in these case studies.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Research.

People forgive for whose sake: the other or the self?

The point of forgiving is to offer goodness toward the one who acted unjustly. Yet, one very common motivation is to forgive to feel better, to rid oneself of resentment. This motivation (relief from suffering in the self) is not the same as what forgiving actually is (a gift to the other).

For additional information, see What Is Forgiveness?

You have the Process Model of Forgiveness with 20 steps. If I skip some of the steps, am I cheating?

The 20-step Process Model was not built to be an inflexible, demanding system. Instead, think of it as a road map. On your journey to forgiving, you have the option to stop at 20 different places. Some may be irrelevant to you, or perhaps you already worked through some of the steps. It is just fine to move on to another step. Also, it is fine to go back and revisit some of the more challenging steps as you see a need for more work on that step. So, no, you are not cheating.

For additional information, see How to Forgive.

I find it harder to forgive someone who hurt my mother than to forgive those who hurt me. Why is that? Also, is it even legitimate for me to consider forgiving someone who has not directly hurt me?

Let us focus on the second question first. According to the philosopher, Trudy Govier, there are distinctions among primary forgiving (in which you were directly hurt by another), secondary forgiving (in which you are resentful because of injustice toward another person about whom you care), and tertiary forgiving (in which you are resentful toward someone who is quite distant from you or a loved one, such as a politician who behaves badly). You are discussing secondary forgiving because you are resentful of another who behaved badly toward your mother. So, yes, you can legitimately work on forgiving this person.

Why is this one so hard? I think it is because your mother likely is going through much pain because of the person’s offense and you are reacting to this deep pain in your mother. Secondary forgiving is not necessarily always more difficult than primary forgiveness. The difficulty depends on the depth of the injustice and the depth of hurt experienced by your loved one and you.

For additional information, see Can You Forgive an Entire Group?

How does forgiving work in huge issues such as the Holocaust, for example? Can a person forgive an entire group that has followed a misguided ideology?

This idea of forgiving in the context of “huge issues” such as the Holocaust is extremely controversial. Some will say that forgiving is not appropriate in this context for a number of reasons (The vast majority of people in the current generation were not in the Holocaust and so it is not their place to offer forgiving; some injustices are so grave as to eliminate the possibility of offering forgiving). Yet, there are people who are on record as offering their own forgiveness to the Nazis. The late Eva Mozes Kor, in the film Forgiving Dr. Mengele, is one example of this. People can forgive groups because when we forgive we do forgive people; groups are made up of people. Thus, if certain people so choose, they can forgive those who instituted Nazism or slavery, as two examples.

Also, the philosopher, Trudy Govier, makes the distinction among primary, secondary, and tertiary forgiving. Primary forgiving is when someone hurts you directly; secondary forgiving occurs when you are hurt because a loved one was hurt (a grandson, then, who is hurt by the death of a grandparent in the Holocaust, can forgive for his own sake, but not forgive on behalf of the grandparent); tertiary forgiving is when you forgive, for example, a public official who is guilty of corruption in another country. In this case, you are not hurt directly and, let us suppose for the sake of this example, none of your relatives were hurt directly. You feel badly, even resentful, and so tertiary forgiving is appropriate.

We need to remember that forgiving is a person’s own choice. Even if everyone else says that injustice X is too severe for anyone to offer forgiveness, we still might be surprised to see that someone steps up and decides to forgive despite popular opinion to the contrary.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

The late Lewis Smedes has this quotation that confuses me: “Forgiveness offers the best hope of creating a new fairness out of past unfairness.” I am confused because I realize that as we forgive, we might not get justice from the other person. I need help on this one.

I think that Dr. Smedes meant this: When we forgive, often times the injustice comes from someone with whom we have been in a relationship (a family member, a business colleague, for example). The fact that we have to forgive means that there was an injustice that could strain a relationship. As we forgive, we become open to receiving that other person back into our lives. This does not mean that we will receive an apology and a new, trusting relationship (because our forgiving does not automatically mean that the other will now be fair). Yet, forgiving does make us open to this possibility of the other accepting our forgiving and thus becoming more fair. I think the key to understanding Professor Smedes’ sentence is his word “hope.” As we forgive, we are open to the other’s changing. We wait in hope for that change.

For additional information, see Why would fairness be given to someone who has been constantly unfair to me over the years?

In your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you cite a philosophy paper that makes a distinction between willingness to forgive and willfulness in forgiving. You agree that we need willingness but not willfulness. It seems to me that we need both. Willfulness, to me, is the grit and determination to move forward with forgiveness. Would you please clarify?

Let us first define our terms. Willingness is a sense that forgiving is an unfolding process that can take time. We are open to the sometimes small changes that take place in us as we move toward a deeper forgiveness. Willfulness, in the case of the philosophical article you mention, has more of a sense of control: I want to forgive now and have it all wrapped up now. Willfulness in this sense can discourage people as they push so hard to forgive now, but then do not feel any relief. Your view of willfulness is more in line with the term strong will. The strong will, as I pointed out recently here, is the motivation and action to persevere in the forgiveness process. I agree with you that we need this when we are finding it hard to forgive.

For additional information, see 7 Unscrupulous Traits of People Who are Unwilling to Forgive.