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.
“Forgiveness is fundamentally unfair. Here we have a deeply abused person and now we ask her, in her woundedness, to reach out to one who hurt her. She now has two burdens, the original abuse and having to forgive. Please, let us first help her with the wounds from the abuse and put forgiveness on the shelf for her sake!”
So goes the most pervasive criticism of what forgiveness is and what it supposedly does in 2016. This criticism is likely to change over time and a new one emerge because, well, that is the way it is with forgiveness. There always seems to be one major criticism that is in season and acts as a barrier to forgiveness.
Thirty years ago, that in-season criticism was the equating of forgiving and reconciling. Once the logic was worked out that forgiving cannot be the same as reconciling, that one faded. After all, forgiveness is a virtue (as is justice and kindness and patience); reconciliation is not a virtue, but instead is a negotiation strategy of two or more people coming together once again in mutual trust. One can forgive and not reconcile. Thus, they differ.
Let us now turn to the current in-season criticism of forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness is a burden if:
………we pressure someone into forgiving;
………we tell the person that the only motivation for forgiving is to be good—-very good—-to the person who was not good to the one who might forgive;
………we critically judge the would-be forgiver for not forgiving.
Yet, we can unburden the forgiver, as well as forgiveness itself, when we realize that:
………forgiveness is the forgiver’s choice. It is not our place to pressure someone to forgive (or not to forgive). Give the person freedom to make the decision;
………there are many motivations to forgive. One healthy motivation that often exists early in the process is the desire to be free from emotional pain. The forgiver is motivated to become emotionally whole. The forgiver, at this stage of the process, is not so interested in doing wonderful things for the one who was not wonderful. These are very different motivations and need to be distinguished, especially early in the process;
………it is wrong to condemn a struggling person who is ambivalent about forgiveness. Maybe the person needs more time; maybe the person needs more information about what forgiveness is (and not the colloquial misunderstandings that cloud the understanding). Again, it is the choice of the one who was abused.
When we unburden the abused person by clarifying these issues, then it is clear that we are not placing a new burden on the person by discussing forgiveness. Notice that I did not say “suggesting forgiveness.” Let us discuss and then let the person decide.
So, what will be the new criticism of forgiveness that could block, without justification, a person from exploring forgiveness?
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 not 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.
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.
Too often in society the word forgiveness is used casually: “Please forgive me for being 10 minutes late.” Forgiveness is used in place of many other words, such as excusing, distorting the intended meaning. People so often try to forgive with misperceptions; each may have a different meaning of forgiveness, unaware of any error in his or her thinking.
Freedman and Chang (2010, in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, volume 32, pages 5-34) interviewed 49 university students on their ideas of the meaning of forgiveness and found that the most frequent understanding (by 53% of the respondents) was to “let go” of the offense. This seems to be similar to either condoning or excusing. Of course, one can let go of the offense and still be fuming with the offender.
The second most common understanding of forgiveness (20%) was that it is a “moving on” from the offense. Third most common was to equate forgiveness with not blaming the offender, which could be justifying, condoning, or excusing, followed by forgetting about what happened. Only 8% of the respondents understood forgiveness as seeing the humanity in the other, not because of what was done but in spite of it.
If we start forgiveness education early, when students are 5 or 6 years old, they will have a much firmer grasp of what forgiveness is. . .and therefore likely will be successful in their forgiveness efforts, especially if these students are schooled not only in what forgiveness is but also in how to go about forgiving.
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.
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:
- 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. It is innocent. Again, as in point 1, it is the fault of people misunderstanding what they have just done.
- 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.
- 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.
If materialist brain activity determines how we behave, then we have no personal responsibility for our actions. If behaviorist punishments, reinforcements, and modeling determine how we behave, then we have no personal responsibility for our actions. If we have no personal responsibility for our actions, then we have to stop the illusion that we, ourselves, engage in right or wrong behavior, as if this were our own choice rather than materialistically determined for us either by interior activity of the brain or exterior activity of others and society. Moral right and wrong become, then, illusions.
When we forgive, therefore, we are responding to illusions. Forgiveness itself, therefore, is an illusion. Are you by any chance feeling very upset by another’s injustice against you? How will you rid yourself of persistent resentment if you cannot forgive? Biological materialist views of the brain and social materialist views of behavior modification will block you from forgiving and from experiencing inner emotional relief……if you have faith in these two (or really, either one of) these philosophies of human anthropology and anti-ethics.
In fact, your job is to stop using such words as “another’s injustice against you” and begin to talk of synapses and urges produced from the brain and inevitable behaviors emerging from how others have reinforced or punished you in your life. Forgiveness? Get over it. It is an illusion. Why live a life of illusion when you can wallow in your resentment…..without relief…..for…..the…..rest…..of……your……life.
Isn’t the practice of materialistic philosophies fun?