I am an adult who has hurt my mother a number of times when I was a teenager.  I now very much would like to have her forgive me, but I am not sure that she has thought much about forgiveness.  She seems to have accepted who I was as a teen—a very immature young person.  Yet, I would like to see her truly forgive me.  How can I approach her with the idea of forgiveness?

One approach is to take one of the self-help books, such as my The Forgiving Life book published by the American Psychological Association.  I recommend that you read it first.  If you think it is appropriate for your mother, then share it with her and point out some of the sections in the book that proved helpful to you.  Your mother might get interested and, if so, this would give her a chance to work through the forgiveness process.

Learn more at The Forgiving Life.
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Forgiveness, Free Will, and Materialist Theories of Personhood

Those who hold to materialist theories such as Democritus in ancient Greece, E. O. Wilson in biology, and B. F. Skinner in psychology would argue that free will is an illusion because we are formed not by our free-will choices, but instead by forces that are strictly composed of matter such as atoms colliding or natural selection, or by social forces outside the individual person such as economic structures or rewards and punishments. See Consilience, by E. O. Wilson, 1999, New York, NY: Vintage, and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, by B. F. Skinner, 1971, New York, NY: Bantam.

I acknowledge that matter and social forces influence us, but they alone do not or even primarily shape us. If there is no free will, then you cannot sayDNA made me do it whether one thing is morally right and another morally wrong. If you reflect on it, you cannot say someone did wrong, moral wrong, if he is not responsible for his behavior. The legal system, for example, implicitly rejects materialism every time it says, “The defendant is guilty.” The defendant is not guilty if his genes or the principles of operant conditioning made him behave as he did. Would any materialist continue to be a materialist if his or her daughter was raped and the defense attorney said, “Rape is not morally and legally wrong. Society reinforces men for being aggressive, and he was only responding to this conditioning. My client therefore is innocent of all charges, and I ask dismissal of them all”? Either you accept free will as legitimate (and morally condemn rape, for example) or you lose your moral voice in standing up against moral atrocities.

Footnote 3, Chapter 1, The Forgiving Life by Robert Enright (APA Books, 2012)

Forgiveness and the Conflict between “Either/Or” and “Both/And” Thinking

“Either/Or” thinking is important in many cases: Do I jump into the raging river to save the drowning dog (even though I cannot swim) or do I call for help instead? I have added the numbers 10 + 11+ 12 and have gotten answers of 33 or 34. They cannot both be correct and so I better add again.

“Either/Or” thinking helps us avoid contradictions or, in the case of the drowning dog, unwise decisions. Thus, we cannot look on this kind of thinking as the bad guy in many situations.

Either-Or ThinkingYet, in other situations, it is untenable and can lead to distortions. One such instance concerns the understanding of forgiveness. Some people reason that if they forgive, then they cannot seek justice. It is an “either/or” choice between two moral virtues: either I forgive or I seek justice. Yet, as Aristotle reminded us over 2,000 years ago, we should not be thinking of the moral virtues as existing independently of one another. For example, courage by itself might lead the person mentioned above to jump into the river even though he cannot swim. The practice of courage without wisdom can be dangerous and even destructive.

The practice of forgiveness with “either/or” thinking could lead to the forgiver being exploited by those forgiven. After all, the offenders might reason, we can keep up the abuse and even ask our victim to forgive us, because that victim will keep coming back for more. Forgiveness needs justice to balance the forgiving response to one that offers compassion and mercy and at the same time stands in the truth that unfair treatment must not and will not keep happening: forgiveness and justice.

Both-And Graphic“Both/and” thinking allows forgiveness and justice to grow up side-by-side, allowing the forgiver to be soft-hearted in offering mercy and tough-minded in asking for change in the offender’s behavior. Sometimes, “either/or” thinking is beneficial. At other times, it distorts and can be unhelpful. We need “both/and” thinking when we forgive.

Robert

What is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation?

One of the best and most succinct explanations of the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation was included in a blog post on this website two years ago. It was written by one of my fellow forgiveness researchers, Dr. Suzanne Freedman, a Professor in the Educational Psychology department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Here is a link to that post: Spring into Forgiving: Differences Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation.”

Is it possible to forgive someone who is deceased? If so, what would the forgiveness look like?

Yes, you can forgive someone who is deceased. Forgiveness includes thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. One can think of the other person as possessing inherent (unconditional) worth. One can cultivate feelings of compassion for the person, not because of what he or she did, but in spite of this. Even behaviors can be a part of the forgiveness.  For example, one might donate to the deceased person’s favorite charity. One might say a kind word about the deceased to family members. Depending on one’s religious beliefs, the forgiver can offer a prayer for the one who died.

I am 46 years old and I celebrated my 20th wedding anniversary last August. Last year was a difficult year for me. My husband travels for work. When he travels, his job includes ‘wining and dining’ his clients. He recently hired a young, female college graduate. He planned a week long trip with the ‘new girl’ to introduce her to their clients. He never shared or told me that he would traveling with her. I happened to ask him who he was traveling with, one day prior to his departure. I was completely shocked that he would go away with this young, single girl and never tell me. He admitted to keeping this information from me so that I wouldn’t worry. At first, he had a hard time admitting that there was anything wrong with planning such a trip without telling me about it. I do not feel that he had or has a sexual relationship with the ‘new girl’; however, I am incredibly hurt and disappointed by his choice of not telling me. I cry frequently about it. I don’t trust him. He is known to avoid difficult situations. I am tired of his ‘avoiding’ personality and I have developed an intolerance toward it. He has a history of not communicating important events and details of his life. If I ask the ‘right’ question, he will answer the question; but, he will not be forthright with information. He has apologized for his recent bad choice with the ‘new girl’; but I can’t let it go. I am very critical of everything he says and does. I want to forgive him, but I truly do not know how….

Perhaps a first step is to see your husband’s weaknesses. We all have weaknesses and so this is not saying that your husband is weak.

Here is a first step: You say that he has an “avoiding” personality. Why might that be? Has he been hurt in his past, even as far back as childhood? Sometimes people avoid conflict because they have been deeply emotionally wounded by others in conflict situations. If this has happened to your husband, then he, too, carries a wound from the wounded ones who hurt him.

If this is true, and when you see your husband’s inner wounds from others, how is your heart doing toward him? This is the beginning of forgiveness.

If the person did not intend to do wrong, is there really anything to forgive? For example, I have been waiting for a court decision on child-custody for a very long time. The people in the court are not meaning to be unfair, but justice delayed is justice denied. Can I forgive those who are delaying the decision if they do not intend to do wrong?

The short answer is, “Yes.” You should consider yourself free to forgive.

There are at least three issues to consider when assessing wrong: the act itself, the intention, and the circumstances.  The circumstances here seem to be that the court is overwhelmed with cases (but I am only surmising this). The intention of the court, as you say, is to see that justice is done.  Yet, the act itself—the delay—is unjust given the seriousness of the decision for which you are waiting.  The act itself is wrong and so you should go ahead and forgive.

I have found that when an injustice (such as the long delay that you are experiencing) occurs, it is hard to forgive because the injustice is not easing up.  Go ahead and forgive nonetheless. The act of forgiving may ease some of your inner turmoil. I would urge you to be gentle with yourself because the anger from an ongoing injustice still may be with you.

Generalizing from the Particular to the Universal

You know how it goes.  You go into a department store and have an unpleasant encounter with the person at checkout…..and you never go back there again.  The particular incident has given you a bad feeling for the entire organization.

You break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend and, at least for a while, you think that no one really can be trusted.  This one relationship makes you mistrustful of such relationships in general.

Generalization.  It can help us when the generalization is true and can distort reality for us when false.  For example, when we touch poison ivy in one woods, it is wise to avoid it in the next….and the next.  The effects of poison ivy generalize regardless of which plant we touch.  On the other hand, one boyfriend’s bad behavior does not predict another person’s behavior.  In this case, generalization closes down our mind and heart when there is no need for this.

When you are hurt by someone, you have to be careful not to generalize this to many, most, or all others.  Not everyone is out to hurt you.  Such generalization can form the unhealthy foundation for a world view that is pessimistic and inaccurate.  Has this happened to you?

If so, it is time to fight back against this.  Try saying the following to yourself as a way to break the habit of a false view of others:

I have been wounded by another person. For today, I will not let his/her wounds make me a bitter person who thinks negatively about people in general. I will overcome any tendency toward this by seeing others as having special worth, not because of what they have done, but in spite of this.  We are all on this planet together; we are all wounded.  Not all are out to wound me.

Robert

A Specific Exercise for Couples

Those of you who have the absolute perfect spouse, please raise you hand……anyone?

Now, those of you who are the absolute perfect spouse, please raise your hand…..I see no hands up.

OK, so we have established that we are not perfect and neither is our partner. Yet, we can always improve. Note carefully that I am not suggesting that you read this to improve your partner. I write it to improve you, the reader.

Here is a little exercise that I recommend for any couple. Together, talk Couple 2-out the hurts that you received in your family of origin, where you grew up. Let the other know of your emotional wounds. This exercise is not meant to cast blame on anyone in your family of origin. Instead, the exercise is meant for each of you to deepen your insight into who your partner is. Knowing his wounds is one more dimension of knowing him as a person. As you each identify the wounds from your past, try to see what you, personally are bringing into the relationship from that past. Try to see what your partner is bringing in.

Now, together, work on forgiving those from your family of origin who have wounded you. Support one another in the striving to grow in the virtue of forgiveness. The goal is to wipe the resentment-slate clean so that you are not bringing those particular wounds to the breakfast table (and lunch table and dinner table) every day.

Then, when you are finished forgiving those family members from the past, work on forgiving your partner for those wounds brought into your relationship, and at the same time, seek forgiveness from him or her for the woundedness you bring to your relationship. Then, see if the relationship improves. All of this is covered in greater depth in my new book, The Forgiving Life.

Robert

Why Forgiveness Education Matters

We have forgiveness education curriculum guides for teachers, parents, and school counselors in our Store. The guides show you, step-by-step, how to implement forgiveness education for about one hour Forgiveness Blocksa week or less to children as young as age 4 or as old as age 17. The medium for instructing students on forgiveness is through stories. We have summaries of these stories for your examination and use as you wish.

Our research shows that as students learn about forgiveness, they become less angry and can increase in academic achievement. After all, if someone is fuming internally, it is hard to pay attention to the regular school subjects.

Take a look below at what teachers in Milwaukee’s central-city are saying after teaching forgiveness for 12 to 15 weeks, about one hour a week:

Highlights of the evaluations (four-year averages) are as follows:

91% of the teachers found the forgiveness curriculum materials easy to use.

75% of the teachers observed that, school 5as a whole, the students decreased in anger as a result of learning about forgiveness.

• 78% of the teachers observed that the students increased in cooperation as a result of learning about forgiveness.

• 71% of the teachers observed that, as a whole, the students improved in their academic achievement as a result of learning about forgiveness.

• 91% of the teachers thought that they became a better overall instructor as a result of teaching the forgiveness curriculum.

• 93% of the teachers thought that they became a better person as a result of teaching the forgiveness curriculum.

• 84% of the teachers thought that their classrooms as a whole began to function better as a result of the forgiveness curriculum.

• 76% of the teachers thought that the school as a whole began to show improvement because of the forgiveness education program.

Robert