I recently read an article by an abused person who seemed angry at forgiveness itself. The person talked of a cultural demand for forgiving an abusive person. This put pressure on the one abused. The culture of forgiving, as it was called, seemed to create a sense of superiority in those who forgive in contrast to those who refuse to forgive. Further, the person seemed angry because this cultural demand for forgiving was creating a sense of entitlement for the abuser, an entitlement that forgiveness be granted.
My heart goes out to this person who now must live with a horrible action perpetrated. No one deserves this.
At the same time, forgiveness itself deserves accuracy. If forgiveness is to be criticized, it is my fervent hope that the criticism comes from a place of truth about forgiveness’s flaws, and not from a position of error.
I think there are errors in the criticism of forgiveness which I would like to correct here and I do not want to be misunderstood. By this essay, I am not saying that the person should forgive. I am not saying that this person is inferior. I am saying that forgiveness should not be dishonored because someone does not want to avail themselves of that forgiveness.
So, please allow me three points:
1. People who forgive rarely feel superior based on my own experience talking with those who have forgiven. The path of forgiveness is strewn with struggle and tears. After walking such a path, a person can feel relief, but it is difficult to feel superior as the person wipes off the emotional stress and strain from that journey. If a person happens to feel superior, this is not the fault of forgiveness itself. Forgiveness itself is innocent.
2. Anyone who demands that others forgive is creating the pressure. It is not forgiveness itself that is creating it. Forgiveness is seen in philosophy as a supererogatory virtue, not demanded, but given if and only if the person wishes to do so. A supererogatory virtue does not make demands, even if people do demand.
3. Some who perpetrate injustice do play the forgiveness card and tell the victim that without forgiving, then the victim is a hypocrite. “Sure, you talk of forgiveness, but then you do not forgive me,” the story goes. This is a power-play by the one who perpetrated the injustice and should be recognized as such. Again, as in points 1 and 2, the fault is with particular people, in this case those who act unjustly. It is not the fault of forgiveness itself.
Forgiveness can be given a black eye by people, those who misunderstand. My client, forgiveness, is innocent and I ask the court to dismiss the charges against it.
Anger is a negative emotion that can follow frustration, disappointment, and injustice. It can vary from mild and short-term to intense and long-term. It is the latter, the intense and long-term variety, that concerns us here, what we have called unhealthy anger(Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015).
To begin answering the question concerning the link between anger and cancer, let us start with a quotation that may be an overstatement and then let us get more precise. Groer, Davis, Droppleman, Mozingo, and Pierce (2000) made the following general statement: “Extremely low anger scores have been noted in numerous studies of patients with cancer. Such low scores suggest suppression, repression, or restraint of anger.There is evidence to show that suppressed anger can be a precursor to the development of cancer, and also a factor in its progression after diagnosis.”
Notice that their conclusion centers on a certain type of anger, that which is not overtly expressed but instead, to use a common expression, is bottled up.
Our next question, then, is to look for supporting evidence of this claim of suppressed anger relating to cancer, and we find it in. . . . .
Read the rest of this blog by Dr. Robert Enright in Psychology Today. First posted on Sept. 18, 2017.
1984. The Orwellian year of change, but in the novel by the same name it was a year of forced conformity, the chaining of ideas to the Big Brother agenda. It was the worst of times in the mind of George Orwell.
In my own case, 1984 was a time of finally breaking free of conformity, unlocking the chains of imprisoned ideas and learning for the first time how to fly. I am an academic and academics live and die by ideas, ones that they research and publish and try to spread to others.
I had a sabbatical in that fated year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where my ideas centered on moral development, which was centered on how youth become fair, which was centered on two thinkers, Jean Piaget of Switzerland and Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard. Like sheep, the rest of us fell into line behind these thinkers’ ideas and we bleated out the same old story: there are stages of development in how youth think about justice and the more complex their thinking, the better off the youth are. And when I studied the progression of ideas on this theme during my 1984 sabbatical I faced a frightening reality: We are all recycling the same old story decade after decade after decade…..from 1932 to the present. 1984. Yes, I was horrified that I was about to spend the rest of my career in the pasture of old ideas, following shepherds who had brilliant original ideas. Yet, why should I keep going to that same pasture again and again…….and again?
I decided to get out of the line and flee that pasture. I threw over the academic cliff all of my writing and research on these two luminaries’ ideas…….and I never have gone back, over 30 years now, to read even one of my journal articles on youths’ justice-thinking that helped me receive both grants and tenure. I did not go back because the ideas were choking the life out of me. Why live in the shadow of luminaries when their ideas already have been brought to pasture so often by so many?
So, here I was in a publish-or-perish university without an idea……and academics live and die by ideas. So, I asked myself this question: What in the area of moral development might impact — — — truly impact on a deep level — — every person on the planet? Well, I thought, everyone who has ever lived and in the future will live on this planet must confront the opposite of Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s life-callings: injustice. How do people respond to injustice so that they can emotionally heal from the effect of cruel, undeserved injustice? Forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness. If people can learn to forgive, perhaps this could aid people in casting off resentment and unhealthy anger and discouragement. Yes, forgiveness is worth studying even though it seems so….so… unreasonable, being good to those who are not good to you.
Yet, when I went to the library and asked the librarian to do a literature search (there were no Google searches back then) for all studies in all of the social sciences focused expressly on people forgiving other people, she came back with a blank piece of paper. Sorry, but there are no such studies on the planet. A friend of mine, at the same time, did such a search in the library at a Kansas university and he, too, was met with a blank sheet. No published studies on forgiving existed.
I decided to start a think-tank at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to begin asking these questions: What does it mean to forgive others? What is the pathway that people typically walk when they decide to forgive? What outcomes can we measure when people choose to forgive? The Friday Forgiveness Seminar was born in the spring semester of 1985 (and continues to this day) and consisted of a wide range of cultures and faiths and no-faiths, people from Saudi Arabia, Greece, Taiwan, Korea, and the United States…….Muslims, Jewish, Christian, agnostics, and the religiously indifferent. We all sat around a table every Friday, discussed the questions, did the research, and found very good things in that research. When people forgive, even when hurt gravely such as by incest or emotional abuse, there is a tendency for the forgivers to reduce in anger and anxiety and even in depression. They get their lives back.
Nonetheless, academia is not so forgiving as to forgive me for stepping out of the sheep line and thinking independently. Academia talks the talk of academic freedom, but offers its support only within the parameters of what is considered acceptable at that point in time in that cultural context. I now like to say that academia, if we are not careful, grooms us for the sheep’s meadow where we can live out our lives under the careful watch of the academic shepherds who will tell us what is and what is not an acceptable thought. And the study of forgiveness in 1985 was not one of those ideas.
A firestorm erupted about our studying forgiving. It is unacceptable, I was told. It is too soft an idea for hard-headed academia, I was told. You are ruining your career and so you will ruin the career of your unsuspecting graduate students. Desist! Desist with your ideas! 1984.
I did not listen, nor did my brave graduate students, so many of whom now are in solid and tenured academic positions…….because the original nay-sayers were wrong. As soon as we started to publish work on Forgiveness Therapy, showing the reduction of depression, and even its elimination in people who had suffered for years, many academics began to change their ideas about our ideas. The American Psychological Association played a large part in this turn around, as the Editor of APA Books, Mary Lynn Skutley, took her own risk by publishing one of my books, Helping Clients Forgive with the psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons, then another and then another. 5 books in all at APA and this helped to put the social scientific study of forgiving on the map of acceptability.
The risks continue. My colleagues and I have given talks in war-torn areas, areas where governmental overseers warn us not to go. Yet, the ideas beckon. We are planning the Jerusalem Conference on Forgiveness for July 12 and 13, 2017 because, well, Jerusalem is a very hurting city and so it is a symbol of the need for forgiving, so off we go.
Within the past month, the Rotary Club of New York has taken the risk with us. We now have created the joint Declaration for Peace and Community Renewal, centered on bringing forgiveness education to as many war-torn communities across the world as we can over the next 24 years. That Declaration is on the Rotary Club of New York’s website as I write this. We are planning a conference on forgiveness education at the United Nations. We are taking a risk together.
Risk. Without it, my ideas die in the academic pasture. With it, I fly because forgiveness flies…..into broken hearts, into broken families, into broken communities. APA and Rotary are risk-takers. We have flown and are flying together……and the world is better off. Taking that risk has allowed many researchers to fly with us and has allowed hurting people to cast off the chains of resentment in their own hearts. Risk can save lives.
Formal Forgiveness Education, invented by Robert Enright, is the best idea the Human Race has had since Jesus preached Forgiveness.
Many people on the planet continue to exist within a tribe, sect, gang, race or mentality, unable to overcome hatred or prejudice against another group. This frequently manifests itself as violence. Learning how to forgive may be the best and fastest way to end systemic negativity against “other peoples.
Teaching the art and power of forgiveness to children may be both the best and the fastest way to positively change our world. The best opportunity we have is to treat forgiveness as a skill and teach it at an early age in our elementary schools. If we can convince our children of the power and importance of forgiveness, when they become adults they will certainly be able to make effective use of this vital skill.
Forgiveness has the potential to transform our communities that have not known peace for decades and reshape our world.
400…….since February, 2011…..six years and counting.
Over that time, here are 7 impressions which I have formed about the world of forgiveness:
Forgiveness is not one more light entertainment in a world that is constantly screaming at you for attention. In today’s frenetic world of marketing, unless there is a ton of adrenaline released by the recipient in response to any new marketing strategy, then that recipient might turn away. This new attention-getting device—-increase adrenaline of the hearer—-will not work with forgiveness. Why? Because forgiveness takes place in the context of the wounded heart. Wounded people usually do not seek the adrenaline high but instead the quiet encouragement and love that will help them to heal. Forgiveness is at odds with the whirlwind, adrenaline-pumping world.
Related to point 1, we are easily distracted by the next “big thing.” The early 21st century is not a time of quiet persistence, but instead a time of flinging oneself from one interesting idea to another. A steady diet of one food is boring……..and so people come into the forgiveness arena, only to leave way too soon to follow the call of something new and shiny and exciting. Forgiveness is at odds with the shiny as it is more at home with the strong will, the daily persistence in offering compassion to those who have had no compassion on the forgiver.
Forgiveness is a hard sell in contemporary education because,quite frankly, too many school systems have way too many requirements, sometimes taught too superficially just to get it all in, and so when an innovation such as forgiveness comes calling, there is not room for this innovation…….which can change lives.
Forgiveness can help each of us to leave a legacy of love rather than a legacy of anger and bitterness in this world. Few realize this and so when they die, their anger lives on. Being aware of this can reverse a family tradition of bitterness.
Anti-bullying programs need forgiveness therapy and it is very much off the radar of too many educators. Anti-bullying programs too often focus on bullying behavior (let us punish bullying; let us set up norms against bullying behaviors; let us try to discourage bullying; let us ask peers to help stop the bullying). Yet, conspicuously missing is a focus on the broken heart of those who bully. Give them a chance to forgive those who have broken their hearts and their motivation to bully melts away.
Still, too often people mistake forgiveness for what it is not. To forgive is to move on from a hurtful situation, some say. You can move on with indifference or even annoyance in one’s heart. To forgive is to be more deliberately active in trying to be good to those who are not good to you.
In the final analysis, helping students learn how to forgive may be one of the most important new developments on the planet. We need to awaken a world that is still a bit too sleepy to understand this. We sleep through this idea to the detriment of our young people…….who may grow up not knowing how to deal with cruelty……and that is not in their best interest.
Think about the love that one person has given to you some time in your life. That love is eternal. Love never dies.If your mother gave you love 20 years ago, that love is still here and you can appropriate it, experience it, feel it. If you think about it, the love that your deceased family members gave to you years ago is still right here with you. Even though they passed on in a physical sense, they have left something of the eternal with you, to draw upon whenever you wish.
Now think about the love you have given to others. That love is eternal. Your love never dies. Your actions have consequences for love that will be on this earth long after you are gone. If you hug a child today, that love, expressed in that hug, can be with that child 50 years from now. Something of you remains here on earth, something good.
Children should be prepared for this kind of thinking through forgiveness education, where they learn that all people have built-in or inherent worth. One expression of forgiveness, one of its highest expressions, is to love those who have not loved us. If we educate children in this way, then they may take the idea more seriously that the love given and received can continue……and continue. It may help them to take more seriously such giving and receiving of love.
On the Psychology Today website, I recently posted an essay entitled, Why We Need Forgiveness Education. One person’s comment on this piece does seem to suggest that, indeed, we need forgiveness education starting at a young age. The commentator’s point is that forgiveness is costly, perhaps too costly for some. Forgiveness becomes so costly when a person now senses the obligation, upon forgiving, to stay in a relationship that is highly abusive.
The assumption that a forgiver, because of forgiveness, now must stay in the deeply hurtful relationship is not correct. Forgiveness does not obligate a person to remain in a hurtful relationship. The assumption equates forgiving and reconciling and they are quite different. Reconciliation is based on trust as two or more people come together again. One can forgive from a distance without reconciling, if the other may do harm and is not trustworthy based on past and current behavior.
If we all had forgiveness education from childhood through adolescence and then applied the learning in adulthood, the assumption that equates forgiving and reconciling would not come up. The lesson would have been learned in school……a long time ago. Yet, current educational practices rarely make room for forgiveness education.
It seems to me that much of the misery in our own hearts could be eliminated if we took the time to learn the lessons of forgiving. Such lessons would question those assumptions which keep us from forgiving because we falsely see danger in the act of forgiveness when that danger actually does not exist.
We need forgiveness education for our little ones…………now.