Reflections from Prison: “Forgiveness Saved my Life”

Security was tight.  Oh that….I had forgotten that I had the New York subway schedule in the winter jacket.  Sorry about that.  No paper allowed.

After going through two secured doors, we went into the courtyard.  It razor-wire8was night and so the floodlights were bouncing off the razor wire that wrapped each fence.  That wire looked almost festive as it gleamed and sparkled.  But, of course, it represented a darker reality than the dance with the floodlights let on.

A little farther on we met Jonah (not his real name), who was coming to attend the talk on forgiveness.

“Hey, do you remember me?” Jonah asked as he extended a big warm hug.

“Yes, of course.  How are you?” I said.  It had been a while and I was very glad to see him.

Jonah’s is one of the many success stories we hear once those in prison go through forgiveness therapy.  He went from max to medium because his constant anger diminished.  Forgiveness has a way of doing that.  As a person, as Jonah puts it, “gives the gift of forgiveness” to those who abused him, his inner world becomes healthier.

“Forgiveness saved my life,” he said with earnest and serious eyes.  He knows of what he speaks.  Anger landed him in medical facilities and eventually contributed to serious crime and long prison terms.  Yet, his anger was cured by understanding, through forgiveness therapy, that the abuse he experienced as a young man turned to a anger-1462088poisonous anger which was destroying him.

“No one cares how angry you are.  It’s yours and yours alone when someone gets to you in a big way.”  He had to confront that anger, struggle to forgive the one who was so unfair, and now Jonah can meet me with a warm, wonderful smile, a hug, and a vitality for life that is so unexpected in juxtaposition to the floodlights and the officers and the dancing razor wire.

Jonah is set free inside even though his body is imprisoned and for many years to come.  The past pain will not destroy him and any insensitivities, frustrations, and challenges that are part of max and medium security prisons will not crush him because he has an antidote to the build-up of toxic anger: forgiveness.

Forgiveness therapy is beginning to gain traction in prisons because counselors are beginning to see that it is one of the few approaches to corrections that actually works.  To forgive is to take the floodlight of analysis off of the self and place it, paradoxically, on the one who did the harm.  It is to tell a wider story of whom that other is.  Forgiveness therapy allows the person to see the abusing person’s vulnerability, woundedness, and anger that “put me on the hook” as one of my friends in prison describes it.  As the heart softens toward those who are cruel, one’s own inner poisons find an antidote in growing compassion. And it works.

One of the main insights I now see is this:  As those in prison realize that womenthey are capable of giving the heroic virtue of forgiveness to others, they understand that they, themselves, are stronger than they had thought.  They realize that they are givers, human givers, men.  “I am a man” not a number, is a common new and growth-producing insight, one that helps those in prison to stand tall in the face of grave challenges.  “I am a woman” will be next as we move soon toward a max facility for females.

Long live forgiveness therapy in prisons.  Oh,bird and by the way, did you notice that throughout this little essay, I never once used the word “prisoner”?  You see, the word “prisoner” is a sweeping term, encompassing a person’s entire being by their address, by where they reside.  Jonah knows he is more than “a prisoner.”  He is a man, one who  forgives.

Robert

Forgiveness and the Presidential Election of 2016: 7 Tips

The presidential election results and the tumultuous aftermath have left people scarred and angry.  I have heard often that people are afraid oftrump-clinton the fallout in their own families: brother against brother, partner against partner.  Here are 7 tips to help you bind the wounds and move forward well:

  1. It is important to realize that when you forgive, you are not throwing justice under the bus.  Yes, forgive, but fight the good fight for what is good in the country.
  1. Each side has an argument against the other side. Yet, my questions are these: What are the intentions of the people at whom you are so angry?  Do you think they are saying, “My method is bad and my desired outcome is equally bad”?  Even if you disagree with the actions, can you see that the desired end—from the others’ viewpoint—is the quest for the good, even if you election-symbolthink that is misguided?
  1. Did you know that many of the people on the other side once were children who suffered hurt in childhood.  He ran to his mother when he fell down and bruised his knee.  She talked with her father, through her tears, when bullied at school.  These are real-life persons with real-life struggles and wounds that started a long time ago, when they were growing up.
  1. You may not be aware of this, but those on the other side did notdonkey-elephant have an easy time in adolescence, because, well, few make it through that time period unscathed.  Did you know that people on the other side have been wounded by rejection of peers when in adolescence, struggled with romantic attempts that were awkward for them, and fought through the demands of high school?
  1. Did you know that people on the other side have hopes and dreams?  They, like you, are hoping for a little place to live, a well-meaning job, and meaningful relationships.  And did you know that none of this is coming easily to many of them?  Some are really hurting inside because of this.
  1. Did you know that each one of the people on your side avotend on the other side are striving for a little happiness in this troubled world?  It is not easy to find that happiness.  Sometimes we look in the wrong places, but it is for happiness nonetheless that we seek.  Those who have hurt you are seeking happiness and it may not be the way you would have chosen, but that is their quest nonetheless.  They are human.  They are fallible.  They share with you one important thing: a common humanity.
  1. Can you, each of you on the other side of the divide, commit to election2016doing no harm to the other?  I know you are angry, but what now will you do with that anger?  Will you pass it along to your children?  to you partner?  to your co-workers?  Or, will you stand with the pain, that eventually will end, for the sake of the humanity of those who have hurt you…..as well as for those who are innocent bystanders who now could be hurt by that anger?

Perhaps it is time to forgive as you seek justice.  The two, forgiveness and justice, go well together.

Robert

Criticisms of Forgiveness: Forgiving as Producing Hypersensitivity to Hurt

Both Downie (1965), a philosopher, and Droll (1985), a psychologist, raised the challenging possibility that someone who practices forgiveness may become overly sensitive to slights and minor hurts. As a forgiver hypersenstivity3begins to scrutinize injustices, he or she may begin to falsely see these at every turn. Yet, those who genuinely forgive try to see exactly what happened in the original offense. If anything, true forgiving would seem to correct hypersensitivity as the forgiver strives for an accurate understanding of offender and offense.

Robert

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5107-5110). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Criticisms of Forgiveness: Forgiving as Disrespectful to the Offender

One argument states that when someone is hurt by another, it is best to show some resentment because it lets the other know that he or she is being taken seriously. If forgiveness cuts short the resentment process, the forgiver is not taking the other seriously and, therefore, is notresentment4 respecting the other. Nietzsche (1887) also devised this argument.
We disagree with the basic premise here that forgiveness does not involve resentment. As a person forgives, he or she starts with resentment.

We also disagree that resentment is the exclusive path to respecting. Does a person show little respect if he or she quells the resentment in 1 rather than 2 days? Is a week of resentment better than the 2 days? When is it sufficient to stop resenting so that the other feels respected? Nietzsche offered no answer. If a person perpetuates the resentment, certainly he or she is not respecting the other.

Robert

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5092-5097). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5090-5092). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Anger Begets More Anger

…….and then on it goes….in the person’s own life….and then passed to the children…..who pass this to their children…….

I have been thinking lately about the destructive consequences of intense, abiding anger. Here is a new thought Anger 3for me: When people are very angry, that anger becomes a barrier to even considering forgiving…..even to a little degree. In other words, upon hearing the word “forgiveness,” the person’s anger kicks in so that any exploration of what forgiveness is or whether it is worth a try is shut down.

The anger, in other words, acts as a barrier to healing the anger itself. As an analogy, it is as if a person has a bacterial infection and every time the person holds an antibiotic in his or her hand, the bacteria themselves reach up and snatch the medicine out of the hand, preventing healing.

I think there are many barriers that anger presents. First, as mentioned above, it prevents thinking about forgiving. Then I think the
anger leads to anger against the messenger, the one who brought up forgiveness in the first place.

Finally, I think the anger stimulates thinking such as thAngeris: There…I showed that person! He cannot get away with
discussing forgiveness in my presence!

The anger justifies keeping forgiveness away and the messenger away.

Perhaps a way out of this is calm reflection on this question: Am I now so angry that the anger is working against my own healing and against my interactions with those who can aid that healing?

Robert

Correcting Two Misconceptions

A recent article (which will go unnamed here) stated that our Process Model of how people forgive begins with the forgiver seeking “revenge.” This is not correct. In our model, we think it is important that the forgiver have a period of anger, mourning, even some confusion of feelings for a while. Why? Becoming angry or exasperated by others’ Angerinjustices seems to be part of the human condition. People do get angry when mistreated. This is not a bad thing nor should it be discouraged, presuming, of course, that the anger is expressed in a temperate way, without vitriol or violence.

Revenge, on the other hand, is the intemperate action of wanting to get back at another, perhaps even to hurt the other, if the revenge-seeker was hurt. Revenge is a path to destruction, of the self and of relationships. We do not advocate the extremism of revenge.

The second misconception of our thinking is that the authors of the (unnamed) article stated that ours is a Cognitive-Behavioral model. It is not. The Cognitive-Behavioral model is based on the assumption that our thoughts are central and can change one’s entire psychology of thinking, feeling, and behavior. We do see that thoughts about an There Is No Love Without Forgivenessunjust other person are important. For example, seeing the inherent worth of all, including the one who acted unfairly, is part of the forgiveness process. Yet, it is just that—a part of the process. Other parts of the process include the fostering, slowly over time, of compassion toward the one who offended, not because of what happened, but in spite of that. Further, the forgiver bears the pain of what happened, which is not a thought as much as it is a decision to do no harm to the one who may have done harm. Love is the core of forgiveness and love is not strictly a cognitive phenomenon.

So, be careful in what you read when Person A is talking about Person B’s work. It may not represent Person B’s views.

Robert

A Day Discussing Forgiveness in a Maximum Security Prison

In late August, my colleague, Gayle Reed, and I visited a maximun security prison to discuss forgiveness. The point was not to focus on those in prison seeking forgiveness for their crimes, but instead to help each of them to begin forgiving those who have abused them prior to their serious crimes. Many of these men have been deeply abused by others, but this becomes invisible as the focus is on their crimes and rehabilitating them for those actions.

Yet, this next point seems so little understood: Those who perpetrate crime so often have an anger, a hatred, a fury within because of the HatePrison-Loveinjustices they have suffered, often long before they lash out at others. If it will diminish, this kind of fury within needs major surgery of the heart. All the rehabilitation in the world, if it only focuses on their bad behavior, will do nothing to cleanse the heart of fury. Only forgiveness therapy will do that—and this idea of “only forgiveness therapy” came from one of the counselors at the prison, who supervised a forgiveness group for 6 months.

The day at the institution was special for us as we saw the men’s hearts melt at the realization (over 6 months of forgiveness therapy) that they have been deeply hurt by others, not only perpetrators of hurt onto others. They gained the insight that their own anger, rage, and fury built up to such an extent that it came roaring out onto others. As one man said, “Forgiveness is the enemy of hatred.”

Another man had this remarkable insight that anger, which is displaced onto unsuspecting other people, leads to the victim possibly passing that anger to another person, who may pass it on yet again. At some point, he reasoned, someone has to stop the passing on of anger and forgiving can do that job. He said this: “When another is in pain, they are on the hook.  Then they put you on the hook. hen you put others on the hook.” He was clearly seeing that his anger was passed to his victim(s).

After our meeting with the men who took part in the 6-month CellWindowforgiveness group, several of the men came up privately to me. Each one had tears in his eyes and whispered that he needs to forgive himself now. They are having a hard time living with themselves.  The remorse was genuine and the pain real.

After 30 years of studying forgiveness and seeing the scientific results of a significant reduction in anger by those who forgive, I am confident that as the people in prison (both men and women) learn to forgive, their anger within the institution may diminish, making their prison home safer for everyone, including the officers and all who attend to them.

This is a new idea for corrections. May it be a standard idea within a decade.

Robert