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

“Post-Truth” and Forgiveness: Is Forgiveness Objectively True or Relative to Us All?

…..And so, the award for best word goes to……..”post-truth.”

Thus speaketh The Oxford Dictionaries in assigning “post-truth” as the word of the year.word-of-the-year3

We start with a half truth here because, well, “post-truth” is two words, not one.

Even so, this award raises questions such as this:  If there is such a thing as post-truth (or placing the narrative or emotions above what is actually true) then does it follow that the term forgiveness itself is not objectively true?  Might forgiveness mean whatever people in certain communities or cultures say that it is?

We do not think so.  If you examine Chapter 15 of the book, Forgiveness Therapy (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015), you will see that the meaning of forgiveness does not differ in its essence across spiritual and philosophical traditions from West to East.  Yes, there are different religious and cultural rituals surrounding what it means to offer forgiveness, but the term itself still means the offering of goodness toward those who are not good to us.

If you examine Chapter 13 of the same book, you will see that when researchers try to measure the degree to which people forgive others, then you will find that regardless of the various cultures studied (again, factsacross West, Middle East, and East), research participants tend to mean the same thing when they use the word forgiving.

While there certainly are “post-truth” narratives that attempt to persuade and to convince, regardless of the truth, rhetoric will never win the day entirely.  Why? It is because there are essences to certain things……and forgiveness happens to be one of them.

Long live forgiveness…..may it outlive the fad of the “post-truth” attempt at power over truth-seeking.

Robert

……….But…..Forgiveness Adds an Extra Burden to the Abused Person

“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 criticismsupposedly 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 forgive-vs-recon2the 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 blog-4about 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?

Robert

Forgiveness Therapy: Moving from a State of Anger and Victimization to a State of Courage and Grace

When I started working at a domestic violence shelter for women and children just over three years ago, forgiveness was the last thing on my mind. My formal education focused on teaching “coping skills” so that clients with mental illness could learn to survive in a cruel and dangerous world. If learning how to cope didn’t do enough to reduce their symptoms, I was taught to rationalize their lack of success as just being part of the mental illness and to refer them for a medication evaluation. Methods that promoted healing were simply left out.

I held a personal belief that forgiveness was the way to heal from domestic-violencetrauma, but my employer didn’t offer it. Instead, we focused on domestic violence education and coping skills as a means to survival. But, this did nothing to promote healing from the very wounds that we told our clients put them at risk for abuse. So, the cycle of violence continued and we functioned more like a revolving door than a place of recovery.

When I realized that our programs were not providing what we promised, I wanted to do more. I wanted to do more than help my clients survive because even though they learned how to survive, they didn’t learn how to stop the abuse. After several months of trying to figure out what I could do with women who may or may not be in shelter for more than a few months, I recalled what I had learned from Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and proposed his forgiveness therapy method as a way to resolve feelings like anger, shame and guilt.

It was a risk to even suggest that victims of domestic violence could love-one-anotherforgive their abusers. But, I was able to convince my supervisor that learning the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation had the potential to reduce violence against women. So, after receiving permission, I designed a 10-week group based on the Enright Forgiveness Process.

After only a few weeks, I noticed a major change in the women. Instead of being irritable and short-tempered, they were kind and compassionate to one another and we had fewer reported problems in shelter living. While I anticipated healing, I certainly didn’t expect my job to be easier or for it to happen so quickly. I thought I was teaching them how to forgive their abusers, which they did. But, something bigger was happening. They were learning how to love each other and to experience joy in their suffering. That’s when everything that I had learned from Dr. Enright made sense and I was given a new purpose.

forgivenessimagesI have been using forgiveness therapy now for more than three years. I continue to use it more than any other method because I have witnessed real healing from trauma and mental illness. I’ve found that there is more pain in forgiveness, but it doesn’t last as long and the forgiver is stronger because of it if they persevere. Forgiveness moves the person from a state of anger and victimization to a state of courage and grace. And when the person chooses to love instead of hate the person who hurt them, they discover that all that is left is love. The Enright Forgiveness Process teaches people how to love and healing is the result.

Personally, I can’t think of a better outcome. I hope that my experience with forgiveness therapy will inspire other mental health professionals to complete the continuing education course from the International Forgiveness Institute. While forgiveness only requires the person who was hurt to forgive, they shouldn’t have to do it alone.


franciscan-forgiveness-center2

carly-elms
Carly Elms, M.Ed., LMSW, CRC

Carly Elms is a family therapist at the Franciscan Forgiveness Center in Independence, Missouri where she offers forgiveness therapy to individuals, couples, families, and religious communities throughout the Kansas City metro area and Northwest Missouri. Along with her Masters in Clinical Social Work (MSW), she has a Masters of Education in Educational & Counseling Psychology (M.Ed.). She is a U.S. Air Force veteran. Carly successfully completed “Helping Clients Forgive,” the International Forgiveness Institute’s online Continuing Education Course, with one of the highest scores ever recorded. 

Read more about Carly Elms at CatholicTherapists.com.

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