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.

Robert

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.

LONG LIVE FORGIVENESS!

Robert

Forgiveness, the Marathon, and the Inspired Work of Art

marathon4So, then, what do forgiveness, running the marathon, and contemplating a magnificent work of art all have in common?

They are all hard to accomplish, said one.

They are all impossible if we are realistic about the human endeavor, said another.

They are all cruel ideals to make each of us feel inferior, said the third.

And yet, I wonder.  Surely, one can forgive those who offend.  Some can run the marathon.  I know someone who finished the Boston Marathon nine years in a row.  And contemplating great art is feasible as long as we let the beauty speak to us rather than our trying to define it and therefore reduce it.

Michelangelo - The Pieta
Michelangelo – The Pieta

Forgiveness, running the marathon, and contemplating great art all stretch us, ask us to see farther down the road, challenge us to grow beyond our current self.

They all awaken in us the call to greatness.  They all challenge us to see that life is more than going to work, collecting a paycheck, and kicking back on the weekend, only to repeat the cycle seemingly endlessly until we retire.

Forgiveness is a heroic virtue because it asks us to so stretch ourselves that we are good to those who are not good to us.  The marathon shows us that we can go beyond our expected capacity, that we have a reserve that can be discovered by the strong will.  The contemplation of inspired works of art challenges us to see that there is more to this world than we can see and hear and taste and touch in our ordinary surroundings.  There is a greatness awaiting us, if only we have the courage to look.

forgivenesssetsyoufreeWe all can begin by forgiving a loved one for a minor injustice.  We all can start to walk and then run and lift that weight even if it does not translate into over 26 miles of challenge.  We all can create and contemplate what others around us create even if none of these will see its way to a Florentine gallery.  And we can keep raising the bar on whom to forgive, what exercises challenge us, and what magnificent art really is.

We all can start stretching ourselves today.  Forgiveness, the marathon, and inspired great art are all calls to us to move forward, to be better than we are today, to reach and then achieve.

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

Finding Meaning in the Pursuit of Truth

Finding meaning in the pursuit of truth is yet another way of finding meaning after or while you suffer. When we are hurt by others who exert power over us, there is a tendency to blur the lines between what is the truth and what is a lie.

Consider the suffering of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who was in concentration camps in Germany and Poland during World War II. When Dr. Frankl was ordered to go on a march to do some slave work, I am sure that the soldiers controlling his behavior were convinced that they were doing the right thing. They likely had convinced themselves that those they had enslaved somehow deserved it. Dr. Frankl resisted their lies and consciously stood in the truth that what he was experiencing was unjust.

frankl3One can become stronger by realizing that one’s suffering has sharpened the mind to see what is right and what is wrong, even when others are trying to convince you otherwise.

Robert

Enright, Robert (2015-09-28). 8 Keys to Forgiveness (8 Keys to Mental Health) (p. 120). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Frankl, Viktor E. (Dec. 1, 1959) Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.

 

Comfort or Challenge?

One of the most popular images in all of philosophy is Plato’s cave.  He challenges us to go beyond what we know in that cave, to the sunlight, to knowledge that goes beyond the conventional, beyond the ordinary. platos-cave-2

I now wonder where modern societies fall when it comes to the question: Should we put more energy and effort into making our cave comfortable, or should we deliberately challenge ourselves, to be open to the unusual, to the risks that can bring suffering as we stretch ourselves to grow?

Forgiveness is one of those developments in life that challenges us.  It does so by asking us to strive to understand those who have not understood us.  Forgiveness challenges us to suffer as we try to bear the pain of what happened to us so that we do not pass that pain to others.  Forgiveness challenges us to understand and to act upon the paradox that as we are good to those who were not good to us, healing can occur within our hearts.

modernmancaveAnd yet, I wonder.  How much of a challenge is modern man willing to endure, given that he can slink back into the man-cave, pop a cold one, and turn on any number of distractions from the pain.

Does modern cave dwelling help us to become better forgivers…….or does it soothe us to the point of not accepting the challenge?

Robert