The Light of Forgiveness

This might help you understand what it is you are doing when you forgive. We are in a dark room, which represents the disorder of unjust treatment toward you. As you stumble around for a match to light a candle, this effort of groping in the dark for a positive solution represents part of the struggle to forgive. As you now light the candle, the room is illumined by both the light and warmth of the candle. When you forgive, you offer warmth and light to the one who created the darkness.

You destroy the darkness in your forgiving.

Now here is what I am guessing you did not know about the light of forgiveness: That light does not just stay in that little room. It goes out from there to others and it even continues to give light across time. For example, if you shed light and warmth on people who have bad habits, they might be changed by your forgiveness and pass it along to others in the future.

Now consider this: If you give this warm candle of forgiveness to your children who give it to their children, then this one little candle’s light can continue across many generations, long after you are no longer here on earth.

I am guessing that you had not thought about forgiveness in quite this way before.




On the Accumulation of Wounds

Has the struggle with the injustice made you tired? Let us say that you have 10 points of energy to get through each day. How many of those points of energy do you use fighting (even subconsciously) the injustice as an internal struggle? Even if you are giving 1 or 2 points of your energy each day to this, it is too much and could be considered another wound for you.

When you consider the person and the situation now under consideration, do you see any changes in your life that were either a direct or indirect consequence of the person’s injustice? In what way did your life change that led to greater struggle for you? On our 0-to-10 scale, how great a change was there in your life as a result of the injustice? Let a 0 stand for no change whatsoever, a 5 stand for moderate change in your life, and a 10 stand for dramatic change in your life. Your answer will help you determine whether this is another wound for you. As you can see, the wounds from the original injustice have a way of accumulating and adding to your suffering.

Excerpt from the book The Forgiving Life (APA Lifetools), Robert D. Enright (2012-07-05).  (Kindle Locations 2750-2753). American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition.
Enright, Robert D. (2012-07-05). The Forgiving Life (APA Lifetools) (Kindle Locations 2784-2788). American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition.

Power: Five Non-Traditional Views

Within psychology, power is seen as having influence over others, whether of the benign kind (such as an authority directing others) or the coercive kind (manipulating and controlling others). Friedrich Nietzsche (1881/1997), the 19th-century German philosopher, talked about the “will to power,” suggesting that the quest for power is a major human motivation. In their now classic analysis of power, French and Raven (1959) identified legitimate power (the benign kind above), referent power (drawing others to the self for the self’s benefit), expert power (the ability of others to listen and follow), reward power (being able to reinforce others), and coercive power (already mentioned).

We propose five power-themes rarely discussed. We do so to challenge you: Do you use any of these aspects of power?

1. Power-Over vs. Power-For

Source: Jacqueline Song

In virtually all of the social science literature, you will see hidden assumption: All power is over others and for the self, even if it is benign and reward-producing. Yet, there is another form of power in need of exploration, what we call here power-for, meaning an altruistic form of power in which the power-wielder aids those in need, suffers for others, and builds others up. 

Read the rest of this blog by Dr. Robert Enright in Psychology Today. 
Posted Oct. 30, 2017

A Thought Experiment for You: A World without Forgiveness or Mercy

It is the year 2525 and somehow the word “forgiveness” has been dropped from the vocabulary of every person on the planet.  The word “mercy” was dropped long before that.  Justice first, justice last, justice foremost is the unchallenged thought of all.  If justice gets a bit out of hand, that is just collateral damage to be corrected some time in the future so we can all move on with our business now.

If someone steals because he was hungry, then he knew the rules. Punish him.

If an adolescent is too depressed to study, then she knew the rules and so fail her.  Trying to understand her or to sympathize with her is to let her off too easily.  What if we let off others, too, who are anxious or abused or troubled?  There would be chaos.

Rules are rules and as we know rules prevent chaos and lead to an orderly society.  We want a clean, sanitized community and taking time to heal people’s emotional wounds can be so messy.  And besides, there is no rule in our rule book that says we are obligated to clean up the messiness of sadness or loneliness or alienation.  One person’s loneliness is another person’s blissful, refreshing solitude.

If you are kind to those who are not kind to you, then you are weak and are letting that person walk all over you.  Be strong.  Walk away.  You will never regret it.

Pass by that child on the street who just ran away from a father who abused her.  She might cry and disrupt those who are on their way to important meetings to make the world better.  She will get over it.

The crying infant can wait.  We have to teach it—it—to delay gratification.

You don’t agree with me?  I have a committee that does agree and you will    be hearing from    them in due course.    It will be better for you if you adjust to the right way of thinking so we just can all get along.

So, how are you liking the world without forgiveness and mercy so far?  What will you do to plant a bit more of forgiveness and mercy into the world…….today?


The Risk of Throwing It All Over the Cliff……..and Then Learning How to Fly

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.

We were able to fly with our ideas, but only after not accepting the chains in the pasture of the sheep. And I will never go back to that pasture.                          

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.

This blog first appeared on Thrive Global, June 15, 2017.
Go to the profile of Robert Enright

Robert Enright

Professor of Educational Psychology, UW-Madison, licensed psychologist, and IFI board member was the first to research forgiveness in the social sciences.

Forgiveness and Helplessness

Psychologists tell us that the thoughts and feelings of helplessness can devastate a person. When we think we are trapped with no way out, then we start to feel hopeless, which can lead to anxiety and depression.

helpless6The thought that there is no way out is the big lie.

Yes, you may not be able to do much about the current behavioral situation.

The actions in which you engage may be limited.  This does not at all mean that your inner world is trapped with no way out.  You can overcome the inner sense of helplessness by forgiving those who have contributed to your limited actions.

You are free inside to forgive, to reduce resentment, and even to cure this disease of resentment, which can be much worse than reduced behavioral options.

You are much freer than you think. helpless5When all around you are mean and unrealistic and hurtful, your inner world can be filled with a forgiveness that gives you joy and confidence and hope.

Am I being unrealistic?  Put me to the test.  Try to forgive and see how your inner world transforms.

And then never be trapped in that inner world ever again.


This Is Our 400th Blog Post…..So It Better Be a Good One

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.  throbbing-heartWounded 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,Back to school - set of school doodle illustrationsquite 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 Bullying2programs 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 maystudent-forgiveness 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.