What Is the Difference: Our Forgiveness Proposals vs Social Justice Proposals for the Imprisoned?

Plato reminds us in The Republic that justice is giving people what is deserved.  This can include both rewards and punishments.  If Person A offers $100 to Person B for building a table, the receipt of the $100 by Person B upon the successful completion of the table is fair or just.  If Person C is guilty of a traffic violation and the rules of the city require any violator of this kind to be fined $100, then it is fair or just if Person C gives up $100.

Plato’s The Republic is a “Socratic dialogue” concerning justice, the just city-state, and the just man. Written in 380 BC, The Republic essentially consists of its main character—Socrates—discussing the meaning and nature of justice with his upper-class Athenian (Greek) friends. The central takeaway from The Republic, and the one that still resonates to this day, is that justice is desirable because of its consequences.
• Click the illustration to read The Republic.

Social justice, while not always defined in the same way by all advocates of this approach, basically centers on equality of outcome.  For example, suppose a pizza establishment will not deliver in a neighborhood in which there is high crime and two of their delivery people were killed trying to make deliveries there in the past year.

Because innocent people in that neighborhood are not treated the same as people in safer neighborhoods, this may be considered unjust by social justice standards.  Why?  It is because the innocent need an equal outcome, successful delivery of pizzas, compared to those in safer neighborhoods.  That the risk for the deliverers is not deserved is not an issue here.  For the classical sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve?  They deserve to be safe in terms of laws of probability for being safe.  For the new social sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve?  Actually, the deliverers are not the focus now.  The focus is on those who have no equality of ordering pizzas.  There is a decided shift to one particular group and the emphasis on equality of outcome for them.

Now we are ready to show the difference between social justice for the imprisoned and forgiveness interventions for them.  In social justice and in forgiveness, we both might focus, for example, on the childhood of Person D, who was abused by his father and now Person D has abused three children, for which he is arrested.  Social justice, in focusing on his childhood, might have people see that Person D is not fully to blame for his actions, but instead his unfortunate background must mitigate the length of his sentence so that he is not unequally behind bars compared to others who were not abused and are not behind bars.  The quest in this particular case is to alter the sentence and thus the time served.

For our forgiveness program, as we, too, focus on Person D’s horrendously unjust childhood, we try to help Person D, if he chooses, to forgive his father for his deep injustices.  This process of forgiveness might reduce Person D’s rage and thus reduce his motivation to hurt others in the future.  We do not suggest that justice now be altered.  We focus on inner healing and not on altering the time he is to serve in prison.  Justice in its classical sense is served in the forgiveness programs, while that classical sense of justice is not served when social justice is considered, at least in the example given here.

There is a substantial difference between forgiveness as a rehabilitation strategy for those in prison and the call to alter the sentence in social justice.  If there is a call to reduce sentences without the concomitant attempt to eliminate rage, one has to wonder how just this solution is.  Perhaps it is time to fold forgiveness interventions into the quest for social justice so that these work together.  When a reduced sentence is going to occur, then it seems wise that the rage within first is reduced.

Robert

Is the Offer of Forgiveness Done for Me or for Others?

The question posed in this essay centers on my goal in forgiving.  Is the goal of forgiving to help me or is it to aid the one I am forgiving and others?  The answer can get very confusing because as we muse on this idea of the goal, at least two possibilities emerge. (Actually, there are more than two, but for the sake of clarity, we will focus only on two here).

Let us make a distinction between a primary goal and a secondary goal.  As an analogy, I may have as my goal the winning of a tennis match and so I am motivated to become physically fit.  The physical fitness is not the primary goal, but instead is a secondary goal that could lead to the primary one of winning.

It is the same in forgiving.  Sometimes forgiving is the primary goal and sometimes forgiving is the secondary goal.  When a primary goal, forgiving is offered by people for the sake of the other person who acted unjustly.  I want good for that person, even though I have been hurt by that person’s actions.  I, thus, am motivated, not by self-interested goals, but by the altruistic goal of betterment for the other.  This is a primary goal because this is what forgiving actually **is.**  It is the offer of goodness, as an end in and of itself, toward others who acted unjustly.


“When forgiveness is a primary goal, it is the offer of goodness toward others who acted unjustly.”

Dr. Robert Enright


When forgiveness is a secondary goal, then we have a different endpoint, at least for now, than the other’s betterment.  In most cases of forgiveness as a secondary goal, we desire to use the process of forgiveness to feel better.  We are hurting, possibly feeling unrest or anxiety or even depression.  We want to be rid of these and forgiveness offers a scientifically-supported path to this healing.  Thus, we forgive for ourselves and not for the other.  This is a secondary goal because it does not focus on the essence of forgiveness, on what forgiveness is, but instead focuses on forgiveness as a vehicle for advancing the goal of one’s own health.

As an analogy, suppose a person gets into a car to go to work.  Driving the car is not the primary goal.  It is a vehicle that gets one to the primary goal of going to work.  Forgiving is the vehicle for health in this case.  This usually is not a selfish goal, but instead a self-interested goal.  To use another analogy, if a person has a throbbing knee and she goes to the doctor for relief, this is not selfish but instead is a sound self-interested goal.  Going to the physician is secondary to the primary goal of walking pain-free again.

When forgiving others is the primary goal, it is showing an understanding of what forgiving is by definition.  To forgive is to reach out to the other for the other’s sake.  When forgiving is the secondary goal, there may or may not be a deep understanding of the essence of forgiveness.  We would have to probe the person’s understanding: Is the self-interest the primary goal so that the person defines forgiveness as a vehicle for self-betterment?

We have to be careful not to conflate using forgiveness as a vehicle to promote health and the actual essence of what forgiveness **is.**  If we mistakenly conflate the two, equating forgiving with emotional relief, then our definition of what forgiveness is becomes only a self-serving activity, which then moves forgiveness away from the fact that it is a moral virtue, something good for others as well as the self.  Forgiveness, then, is only a psychological self-help technique, not a virtue.  Virtues when practiced well become part of the person’s life, part of who the person actually is.  A self-help technique never goes that far but instead is used for a while and then is discarded.  We need to distinguish forgiving as a secondary goal and as a primary goal to keep its definition—what it **is**—as accurate as possible. 

In summary, if we want to forgive for our own emotional relief, this is being motivated to achieve a secondary goal, and a good one.  If we want to forgive for the sake of the other, this is being motivated to achieve a primary goal, and preserves the accurate definition of what forgiving **is.**

Robert

The Idea of Forgiveness Lives On

Two recent experiences have prompted me to reflect on this: Forgiveness as an idea for all of humanity is powerful and so such an idea tends to persevere across time and not wither.

For the first example, I unexpectedly received on Facebook a message from a person who coaches people before they give Ted Talks.  His name is Brendan Fox and he had this message for me in the context of forgiveness for sexual abuse victims/survivors:

“Hi, Robert! Hope all is well. I just wanted to let you know that I read your book, and I watched one of your online lectures. I think your work is so good for the world. Recently, I coached a Ted Talk featuring a sex trafficking survivor. Your work was hugely influential in inspiring the talk and message (as you’ll see). I wanted to credit you, and share it with you, because I think this represents part of your legacy, and how you are making the world a better place (in many indirect ways!). I’m rooting for you in the Game of Life!”

Here is a link to the talk to which Brendan refers.  The video (10:21) is quite inspirational: Escaping the Pain of Human Trafficking Markie Dell.

I find Brendan’s message and the video very interesting in this: Suzanne Freedman, whose blog on forgiveness education we recently posted here, and I had an idea in the mid-1990’s that a forgiveness intervention might be helpful for women who have been sexually abused.  At the time, this idea was exceptionally controversial.  People thought that we were saying this, “Oh, you were abused?  Forgive and go back into that situation.”  No.  This is not what forgiveness is at all.  A person can forgive, rid the self of toxic resentment and hatred, and not reconcile.  Suzanne’s ground-breaking forgiveness intervention with incest survivors was important in helping the social scientific world see the importance of forgiveness interventions.

That study was published in 1996, almost a quarter of a century ago: Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996).  Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.

After almost a quarter of a century later, Suzanne’s ideas live on and are helping people to heal from extreme injustices against them.  If we can get this far with forgiveness in the face of grave sexual abuse, perhaps there is a place for forgiveness in other areas of woundedness, such as helping people who have no homes, who are living on the streets, to forgive those who have crushed their hearts.  Will this aid their recovery?  Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute is taking the lead right now on this question.

Here is the second of our two examples regarding the staying-power and influence of forgiveness.  In 2002, a team of us decided to start what we now call forgiveness education with children.  We reasoned this way:  If we can help children learn about forgiveness and how to forgive, then  when they are adults, they will have the tool of forgiveness for combating the potentially unhealthy effects of unjust treatment against them. 

These students at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland, are learning about forgiveness at the same school where Dr. Enright’s Forgiveness Education Curriculum Guides were first used more than 17 years ago.

We developed forgiveness education guides for grades 1 and 3 (Primary 3 and 5 in Belfast, Northern Ireland) and we brought these guides to the principal, Claire Hilman, and the teachers at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast.  Claire said yes and so we launched forgiveness education there as the first place in the world where there is a deliberate curriculum to teach forgiveness, about once a week for 12 to 15 weeks.  The program has expanded to include pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way through 12th grade (this is a designation in the United States and includes ages 17-18).  These forgiveness education guides have been requested now by educators in over 30 countries. 

Just recently, Belfast had its almost 2-week annual 4Corners Festival.  The theme for 2019 was “Scandalous Forgiveness.”  The term “scandalous” was inserted as an adjective because, even in 2019, some people consider the act of forgiving others to be outrageous and inappropriate.  The point of the festival was to gently challenge that thinking and try to fold themes of forgiveness into the fabric of Belfast society.

I gave a talk on February 1, 2019 at this 4Corners Festival.  When Mr. Edward Petersen of the Clonard Monastery introduced me to the audience prior to my talk, he stated that the theme for this year’s festival was inspired by our 17-year presence of supporting Belfast teachers in their forgiveness education efforts.  We started in 2002 and an inspiration by community organizers blossomed in 2019, many years after we first planted the idea of forgiveness education in Belfast.  The idea of forgiveness lives on and now expands city-wide because of the vision and wisdom of the 4Corners Festival organizers.

Forgiveness: it does not wither.  It survives over time and grows.  I think it does so because forgiveness gives life.  Forgiveness unites people in families and communities where injustices could divide.

The idea of forgiveness lives on, and for good reason.

Robert

The Impact of Using Children’s Literature to Teach 5th Graders about Forgiveness

Dr. Suzanne Freedman

A Guest Blog by
Suzanne Freedman
, Ph.D.

University of Northern Iowa

“How children navigate their emotional world is critical to their life long success
.”
      Susan David, Emotional Agility

Recent statistics illustrate an increase in elementary school children dying by suicide (Dillard, 2018). Three nine-year old children took their own lives this past year and bullying was related to all three deaths. Hate incidents at school are increasing at alarming rates although most incidents of hate are not reported. Along with increases in suicide and suicide ideation, anxiety and depression in youth are on the rise (Dillard, 2018).

Click the graphic to find out if your state has established SEL goals.

Helping students develop empathy toward others is a key strategy in bullying prevention and intervention and according to a recent NY Times article (Brody, 2018), it is critical that we help kids develop empathy early in their lives. Social emotional learning (SEL) programs that include a focus on empathy and regulation of emotions are being recognized as an important part of the school curriculum for all students (Zakrzeski, 2014) and based on recent statistics, there is a need for more SEL programs in schools today. 

According to Cook-Deegan (2018), social-emotional learning teaches the key attitudes and skills necessary for understanding and managing emotions, listening, feeling and showing empathy for others, and making thoughtful, responsible decisions. Research illustrates that including social-emotional learning (SEL) in the curriculum is good for both students and their teachers (Zakrzeski, 2014).

Forgiveness education, with its focus on recognizing and validating students’ anger as well as teaching students to express emotions in a healthy way, understand the perspective of others, recognize the humanity in all, and increase empathy and compassion, is one form of social-emotional learning that is currently being investigated by researchers (Enright., Knutson, Holter., Baskin, & Knutson, 2007; Freedman, 2018).

The forgiveness education research project described here was based on a quasi-experimental pre-test post-test design with two classes of 5th grade elementary school students attending a low-income school in a Midwestern community. There were approximately 25 ten and eleven-year old students in each class representing a diverse group of races and ethnicities.

The forgiveness education curriculum consisted of 10 weekly lessons of 30 minutes in duration with two days of pre-testing and two days of post-testing. Although all students received the forgiveness education, only the students who returned signed consent forms from their parents completed pre and post-tests (30 out of 50 students total – 16 students in one class and 14 students in another class).

The forgiveness education was taught by the researcher (and author of this blog) and occurred in each classroom on different days of the week. The same weekly lesson was taught in each classroom and the forgiveness education curriculum was based on Enright’s four-phase, 20-unit process model.  Selected children’s literature was used to teach and illustrate forgiveness and related concepts to the students.

Certain principles from the chapter, “Helping Children and Adolescents Forgive”, in Enright’s (2001) book, Forgiveness is a Choice, guided the education. First, the idea that it is always the child’s choice to forgive was highlighted. Second, the curriculum was developed with the understanding that children may not understand forgiveness in the same was as adults. Third, the point that forgiving and reconciling are not the same thing was emphasized. Fourth, the rationale for this education and research project was based on the realization that if children are going to learn about forgiveness they need to be educated about it and know that it exists as an option as well as the knowledge that children learn more deeply when challenged and encouraged.

After the project, quantitative results illustrated that students increased significantly in their forgiveness toward a specific offender from pre-test to post-test. Students reported being hurt by friends, siblings, mothers and other students. Students also showed significant increases in their knowledge of forgiveness from pre-test to post-test.

Qualitative results illustrated that students both enjoyed and benefited from the forgiveness education curriculum. Specifically, when asked about what they learned and enjoyed about the forgiveness education, 14 students reported that the forgiveness education “helped them learn to forgive someone”.

Specific statements included, “I like forgiveness because in the future we will meet other people that we do not like but we still need to forgive them”; “Forgiveness has helped me forgive people I couldn’t forgive in a long time”, “It helps me forgive people when they make bad choices”; and “I liked learning because I have learned how to forgive someone like I am trying to forgive someone right now”.

Ten students reported that learning about forgiveness helped them know more about “being nice and showing kindness to others”. Specific comments included, “Even if people you know are mean to you, you can still be nice to them. Don’t be mean to others”; “It helped me be nicer to my brother and friends”; and “You could always give a person that is mean to you a second chance because maybe the person that is being mean is having a bad day or got in an argument with their best friend”.

Nine students also reported that they “learned more about bullying” from the forgiveness education. Specific comments included, “Some bullies get bullied so they are letting their anger out on somebody else”; “People are just hurt inside when they bully”; Even though somebody is being mean to you, you could still forgive them”; and “When you have empathy you want to know how they feel and then you can put your feet in their shoes, and if you are getting bullied you can turn them into a friend by knowing how they feel”.

Seven students reported that they “learned ways to calm down and let go of anger as a result of the forgiveness education. Six students stated that the forgiveness education taught them that “we are all the same underneath”. Another six students reported that they “learned about empathy”. Additional responses by more than one student included, “Forgiving is hard”; “Forgiveness is a choice”; “You don’t need an apology”; Forgiving takes time”; “Forgive but not forget”; and “Revenge is not part of forgiveness”.

This study illustrates the potential of forgiveness education to improve elementary school students’ psychological well-being and interpersonal relations as well as the importance of including forgiveness education in the school curriculum. Students who learn how to forgive and decrease their anger in healthy ways will be less likely to be involved in bullying and other violent acts (Freedman, 2018). This research is encouraging and needs to be replicated with additional populations of children and adolescents.


How to Like Yourself After a Series of Failed Relationships

Training the mind to see one’s own inherent worth can  go a long way in recovery.

So often, I see that people, who have done their best in a failed  relationship,  fall in self-esteem. The person might have tried hard, wanted to maintain the connection, and yet it did not work out.  Despite the best of intentions, the one left behind ends up not liking……..oneself. 

You would think it would be the other way around. The one who walked away or behaved badly should be on the receiving end of the dislike. Yet, it is so often toward the self that the negativism is most deeply directed.

I have six suggestions for you as a way of resurrecting a positive self-image after relationships fail:

First, take the courageous inventory of your part in the breakup. If you were behaving in destructive ways, admit this, know what is destructive about your behavior and take steps to change. You even can begin to forgive yourself for your own part in the break-up.

Second, if you did not contribute to the relationship’s demise, own that thought. We are used to hearing that it takes two to ruin a relationship, but that just is not the case. Sometimes one person can independently destroy what the other has tried to build. If you did not contribute to the destruction of the relationship, start to admit this to yourself. You were not perfect in the relationship because no one is. Yet, imperfection itself is not necessarily a cause for the actual destruction of a partnership.

Third, if you tried your best, then realize that you are not to blame for another’s difficulties or weaknesses. The other is free to make misfortunate decisions, even if these decisions hurt both of you.

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs
Fourth, try to practice toward yourself the idea of inherent worth. You have value, inestimable value, as a person because you are special, unique, and irreplaceable in this world. This worth is unconditional, not earned as some kind of reward for good behavior.

A strictly biological perspective can show you this. For example, you have unique DNA so that when your time in this world is through, there never will be another person exactly like you on this earth……ever. You are…..special…..unique…..and irreplaceable. People with certain religious viewpoints can go beyond the biological to the transcendent and say, “God loves me” or “I am made in the image and likeness of God.” In other words, you are…..special……unique……and irreplaceable.

Fifth, begin to practice this idea that you have inherent or built-in worth. You can do this by extending this knowledge to others first and then to you. For example, as you pass people on the street, you can think: “This person has built-in worth that cannot be earned. That person over there may have weaknesses, but this does not detract from having worth. I, too, share this in common with them. I, too, have inherent worth.”

Sixth and finally, once you have strengthened the idea that you are a person of inherent worth, then apply that knowledge to yourself in the context of the past relationship(s): Despite the fact that this failed, I have worth. I am not defined by the success or failure of a relationship. I am more than that relationship. I will continue to be special, unique, and irreplaceable regardless of that outcome.

Be aware that you want to keep such thoughts in balance so that you do not degenerate into narcissism.  The point of growing in the knowledge of inherent worth is not to puff yourself up relative to others.  In fact, a clear understanding of inherent worth should be a guard against narcissism. Why? It is because the idea of inherent worth levels the playing field of life. If we all have inherent worth, then all of us have value, even if some make more money or have more talent or whatever separates us. We are united in this: We all are special, unique, and irreplaceable.


                          “We all are special, unique, and irreplaceable.”                                                                                                    Robert Enright


As one more caution, avoid using the thought of inherent worth to perpetuate nonsense. For example, suppose you have a gambling habit that seriously depletes the family’s funds. You do not then want to proclaim your inherent worth to yourself so that you can continue the nonsense. Yes, we all may have inherent worth, but we all are imperfect and need to work on our character flaws as we retain that sense of worth.

We are more than our actions. We are more than others’ rejection  of us. We possess a worth that is unconditional. No one can take that away from us, even those who walk away from a relationship that could have been great for both of you. Hold out the hope that the next person also sees inherent worth in those with whom there is a committed relationship. One of the best ways to have a stable ongoing relationship, it seems to me, is to find a like-minded person who understands the importance of inherent worth and sees this very clearly in the self and in you.

Robert

This blog was originally posted on the Psychology Today website on Nov. 8, 2018.

Coordinating Forgiving and Seeking Forgiveness

When a person is ready to be forgiven, the other may not be ready to forgive.

I have stated previously that to forgive is courageous and even heroic when treated unjustly by others. As you do the hard work of being good to those who are not good to you, as you approach the other with this offer of forgiveness, it sometimes can get complicated. The complications then can lead to new hurts and even a new opportunity to forgive. Consider six issues regarding the granting of forgiveness and the seeking of it:

1.  When people forgive, they go through what can be a lengthy and challenging process. They commit to doing no harm to the one who was offensive. They try to see the offending person in a much wider context than only the offending behavior. They try to see the inherent worth in the other, offer compassion, stand in the pain lest they give that pain right back to the other, and they try to be merciful. Such overtures at times can backfire as the other is not ready to seek forgiveness. Thus the forgiver might be met with such statements as: “What do you mean? I did nothing wrong. You are overly sensitive and are over-reacting.”

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs

2.  When people have offended and seek forgiveness, they, too, go through a potentially lengthy and challenging process.  They try to see the offended person as wounded, as in need of some assistance to overcome the hurt. The offending people see the inherent worth of the offended, have empathy on what they are enduring, and want to reach out to make things right. Such overtures at times also can backfire as the offended one is not ready to forgive. The forgiveness-seeker might be met with these kinds of statements: “What’s your game now? You are constantly doing this and I have had it. Don’t bother me with your sob story.”

3.  The take-home message for those of you either trying to forgive or seeking forgiveness is this: Try to see where the other person is in the process (of either forgiving or seeking it). Both of you may be in very different developmental places in your respective healing journeys. Getting a sense of which of you is far along and which of you is not ready is highly important so that each of you can be patient with the other and with the self. . . .

Read the final three issues of this blog on the Psychology Today website where it was posted on December 5, 2018.

Robert

Criticisms of Forgiveness — 5th in a series: “Women Are Controlled by Men in Forgiving”

“The self-help books target women; research sometimes targets women. Forgiveness is asking women to tolerate men’s injustice; men would not be asked to do this toward women. Therefore, forgiving is playing out the power differential in the new societal struggle (which, to Marx, belonged once to ownership and labor in industry), which is the battle of the sexes.” Lamb (2002) made this point.

The argument is helpful if clinicians and researchers focus attention on only men or only women. In actuality, however, the pioneering research and interventions have been concerned about both. For example, Al-Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis (1995) educated both college men and women in forgiving deep hurts. The first empirical study on person-to-person forgiving published in psychology included both men and women (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989).

Although it is true that some self-help books are geared toward women only, most talk to both genders (see, e.g., Smedes, 1984, 1996). Our studies on participants with postabortion emotional effects (Coyle & Enright, 1997) and on those with coronary artery disease were exclusively with men. Our studies of participants in drug rehabilitation (Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004) and of adult children of alcoholics (Osterndorf, Enright, Holter, & Klatt, 2011) include both men and women.

One cannot help but see a particular assumption in the argument that targeting women for forgiveness is a gender bias. The argument seems to imply that forgiving is a way for the offender to keep a sinister control over the forgiver. If forgiving led automatically to reconciliation, then the argument would have weight. We already saw, however, that forgiving an offense and reconciling with an offender are two separate issues. The argument has a false first premise, that forgiveness and reconciliation are synonymous.

If, on the other hand, forgiving is a choice freely made and, once made, releases one from a host of psychological problems, then a predominant focus on women would actually be a bias against men. In actuality, however, forgiveness therapy and research target both genders. 

Robert

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5182-5198). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.