Reflections for the 25th Anniversary of Our International Forgiveness Institute, Inc.

It was the early 1990’s and I just recently did an interview for a Chicago newspaper. The journalist published my home telephone number within the article. For the next two weeks, it seemed as if the phone just would not stop ringing. The people who called were seeking information about how to forgive. “There is a genuine hunger out there for people to know how to go about forgiving,” was my conclusion to family and colleagues.

Because we had published the first-ever empirical article on forgiveness in a peer-reviewed journal article only a few short years before this, in 1989, there was little out there instructing people on how to forgive those who have deeply hurt them. Because of the ground-breaking work of Msgr. John Hebl, with whom I had the honor of publishing the second-ever empirical article on forgiveness in a journal, in 1993, there was emerging scientific support for our Process Model of Forgiveness.

William Walker

About this same time, the late and great Dr. William Walker of Madison, who ran radio stations, wrote a letter to me (email was not big yet). He explained that many years ago, he received his doctoral degree from the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I was (and am) a professor. Dr. Walker explained to me that he was drawn to our forgiveness work, had the financial means to bring this to an important level, and he had an interest in joining the research. I enthusiastically agreed and a strong collegial relationship and friendship developed.

Tom Walker

When my dear friend William passed away, his son Thomas Walker took up the cause and provided the necessary funding to keep the IFI viable and expanding, as he does to this day.

Thank you, William and Thomas! 

Given that we were getting some financial support and the many requests for forgiveness information continued, some of my colleagues and I decided to try to form an entity with the goal of serving people who wanted information on how to forgive.  This was to start as a service entity for all who were interested in forgiving.

Our little group decided to take the non-profit route and developed the 501(c)3 entity, the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. (IFI) in Madison, Wisconsin in 1994. A Board of Directors was formed to help guide the development of this organization. Thank you, Board Members, for your dedicated service to our IFI! At the time of its formation there was nothing “international” about this organization. Yet, it was the vision, the promise of such expansion, that led to our keeping that word “International” in the title. We, of course, started small, without even a website.

A major turn occurred for us at the beginning of the 21st century. Because our work was having success in the mental health field with our Process Model of Forgiveness, I had an idea: Why not start to introduce forgiveness to children and adolescents? After all, if they will experience injustices, perhaps even severe injustices in this world, why not equip them with the scientifically-supported approach of forgiveness to reduce the resentment, caused by the injustices, so that they can be resilient in their emotional well-being and in their healthy family interactions?

Students at Hazelwood Integrated Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland, learn about forgiveness principles.

With the idea of prevention in mind, we decided to build forgiveness curricula for children, starting in first grade (age 6 and 7). We did so through age-appropriate children’s stories, such as Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. The children, in their own classrooms, then begin to see what forgiveness is, how story characters navigate interpersonal conflict, and what happens when people forgive. We piloted this curriculum for the first time in Belfast, Northern Ireland, did the research on this endeavor through the university, and published the first empirical evaluations of this work in 2007.

Primary 3 students at Holy Family Primary School in Belfast celebrate their “Forgiveness Graduation.”

The results were dramatic! Children, upon hearing stories and reflecting on the theme of forgiving, actually reduced in their own anger. Teachers saw greater cooperation among students in classrooms and teachers reported to us that they, themselves as teachers, improved in their own teaching skills as a result of being a forgiveness instructor.

The Forgiveness Education project grew to such an extent that we now have a complete set of curriculum guides from pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way up to the end of high school (age 18), including an anti-bullying guide and two guides for parents: A Family Guide (for those with primary-aged children) and Strengthening Families (for those with middle-school aged children).   Dr. Jeanette Knutson, Amber Osmulski, and Dr. Matthew Hirshberg helped to craft these guides. Thank you, Jeanette, Amber, and Matthew!

The Forgiveness Education curriculum guides have been ordered by educators from over 30 countries across the world. Other international endeavors include both the Jerusalem Conference on Forgiveness and the Rome Conference on Forgiveness and a new Forgiveness Education initiative in Bethlehem in the Middle East. Thank you, Mr. Thomas and Terri Lucke, for your generous funding! We now, I think, have earned the word “International” in our organization’s title.

Our long-time Director at the IFI, Dennis Blang, has been instrumental in sending far and wide information about the Forgiveness Education guides, in maintaining our website, publishing the Forgiveness News, crafting the electronic newsletters, and overseeing the everyday important activities of our institute. Thank you, Dennis! And thank you to our earlier Directors, Dr. Gayle Reed and Mary Mead!

The service work has expanded so that we now are serving homeless people, those in prisons, and we have started a bumper-sticker campaign, “Drive for Others’ Lives” as a way to help make the roads a more civil environment. Many of these new ideas come from our stellar volunteer at the IFI, Jacqueline Song. Thank you, Jacqueline!

A big thank you goes out to our long-term President, Roy Lloyd, and to our Ethics Committee members for their dedicated work in examining our protocols that impact the homeless, those in prison, and others. Thank you to those “on the ground” who oversee important forgiveness programs in Belfast (Leah Judge), Greece (Dr. Peli Galiti), and Monrovia, Liberia (Rev. Kortu Brown and Mr. George Cooper). We want to thank all who have financially contributed to our efforts over this quarter-of-a-century.

We started with one idea: Forgiveness is important as it can quell unhealthy anger and improve mental health and relationships. Many are catching on to this idea. In our humble opinion, forgiveness should now become a natural part of families, schools, organizations, and individual hearts for the good of humanity.

Long live forgiveness!

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

International Conference on Forgiveness for Peace to Be Held in Jerusalem, July 12 and 13, 2017

 

Come, and deepen your understanding of forgiveness.  Come, and joinjerusalemsilhouette us for the Jerusalem Conference on Forgiveness for Peace on July 12 and 13, 2017.

To forgive is to work toward reducing resentment and offering goodness of some kind to those who have not been good to you.  To forgive is not to give in to injustice or to excuse wrong-doing.  Forgiveness is from a position of strength, not weakness.  As forgiveness frees a person from debilitating resentments, then he or she has more vitality to see clearly and to pursue a better way with family, community, and the larger society.

Day 1 concerns interfaith dialogue among Jewish, Christian, and Muslimxperts discussing what the term “to forgive” means within their own belief system and how that knowledge of forgiveness can be used to

cardinal-tagle
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, the Philippines

enhance interfaith dialogue. Internationally notable speakers will participate: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (this year’s recipient of the Templeton Prize), Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, the Philippines, and Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia.  All are world-renown within their own faith

rabbi-sachs
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

community.

Day 2 focuses on forgiveness education with educators from Belfast, Athens, Lebanon, the US, and the Galilee or Jerusalem areas discussing how they implement forgiveness education for children

dr-mustafa-ceric-2
Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia

and adolescents.  You may gain insights on how to bring forgiveness within your own family and community.  There will be opportunities to: 1) hear personal testimonies of those who have forgiven much and 2) share your own view.

The conference will take place at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. More information is on our website at the top of our homepage.

Robert

Forgiveness: A Personal Reflection on the Boston Marathon Attack of 2013

April 15, 2013, 3:00 PM: the Boston Marathon was changed forever. So were the lives of many people.

I was a nurse in Medical Tent A taking someone’s blood pressure when the first bomb went off. I thought there was something wrong with her blood pressure because I had never heard such a sound through my stethoscope before. I took my stethoscope out of my ears and then the second bomb went off. Our medical tent was there to provide first aid to runners needing help after running the 26.2 miles. Our usual complaints were exhaustion, nausea, dizziness, and weakness. MarathonIn the space of just a few minutes we went from sophisticated first aid to trauma. We had to shuffle everything. Runners who could be discharged were escorted out. Runners who needed more attention were moved to another area in the tent. We were quickly told that patients were coming in with traumatic injuries because two bombs had exploded across the street from our tent.

Suddenly our patients were missing legs, hands, feet, had shrapnel wounds, bloody ears, carnage was everywhere. People were coming in dazed and covered with smoke debris. I had a couple of nurses turn to me and ask, how do we do this? I told them we have our supplies, we will use our knowledge and we will take care of the patients with whatever skills we can muster. We just needed to get them stabilized so they could be transported to area hospitals. At one point I threw my hands up in the air and asked if anyone wanted to pray. Several people came together and we started saying the Our Father. When I got to the part: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others, I found I couldn’t say those words. Instead I asked St. Michael the Archangel to protect us from the wicked snares of the devil. Forgiveness was not an option at that moment.

My heart will always go out to the victims of that awful event. I know that there are people who are still getting surgeries trying to correct injuries suffered that day. We treated over 250 people in just a couple of hours.

What I have learned reading Dr. Enright’s books on Forgiveness, is that it is never easy. Is there a difference when you have to learn to forgive someone who blew your leg off or when you have to forgive someone who has hurt you emotionally? Is one harder than the other?

In reading and appreciating the work of Dr. Enright I am learning that each situation is unique, but that the process of forgiving is universal.

Boston 7On a personal note, I found that invoking St. Michael the Archangel, was part of the beginning of forgiveness. There is evil in the world. One of the first steps one must take on the forgiveness path is to acknowledge that one has been wronged. That evil action of inflicting incredible physical harm on innocent people was wrong and does deserve punishment. Our justice system will deal with the person accused.

Since reading about living “The Forgiving Life,” and trying to embrace it as I live with emotional hurts of my own, I am trying to follow the steps. I have become more aware of how many people have a need to forgive someone for something. As Dr. Enright writes, it is usually because of love being withdrawn. Does having someone withdraw love hurt less than someone losing a limb? Only someone who has lost a limb can answer that. I have not walked in those moccasins. I have had love withdrawn, physically and emotionally, and it is awful.

Reading Dr. Enright’s books has helped me start the path of living a forgiving life. Thank you, Dr. Enright. Please continue your most valuable work of teaching us that there is hope and that if we work on it, we can forgive others, but we must start with forgiving ourselves and acknowledging our own pain. Time will heal but so will following the right path.

Katie Powers

Editor’s Note: The shoe graphic above is the May 2013 cover photo of Boston Magazine (Photo by Mitch Feinberg). Each pair of shoes pictured was actually worn by a Boston Marathon runner in that year’s event. The caption in the middle of the photo reads: “We Will Finish The Race.” You can read the heart-rending stories of those runners in the May 2013 Boston Magazine cover story.

A Christmas Reflection from Belfast, Northern Ireland

We have given as best we can to schools in Belfast, Northern Ireland since the fall semester, 2002.  The journey has been a challenging and delightful one.  For us, from the United States, to make our way into the hearts of principals and teachers in an area of the world that has known contention was not easy.  We were outsiders and they are looked on with some suspicion.  “What is in it for you?” was the question asked of us at the beginning of this journey.  We had at our side the wonderful Anne Gallagher, who opened school doors for us. She had been in the peace movement in Belfast for some years before us and so she gave us instant acceptance into the schools.  Rest in peace, Anne.

It has been a joy to see principals, teachers, and students grow in their understanding and appreciation of the virtue of forgiveness, so needed to Holy Family School-Belfastbind up the wounds of literally hundreds of years of strife.

I had the privilege of attending meetings and services in both the “maintained” and “controlled” schools during the Christmas season this year.  The word “maintained” refers mostly to private schools that receive some government money.  Students attending these schools are primarily Catholic.  The word “controlled” refers mostly to what Americans call public schools that receive more government money.  Students attending these schools are primarily, but not exclusively, Protestant.

In the Christmas services at the maintained and controlled schools there is a celebration of the deepest meaning of Christmas, not just about presents and good cheer.  You see, those in each school share this common heritage, yet they do so separately because they lead separate lives.

Yet, there is something more here.  As I walked through the streets  of Belfast, especially once the sun would set (about 4:20pm), there was a kind of coziness to the city.  “Merry Christmas, Belfast” is seen in blue lights that are strung across a busy street.  Shops play Christmas music that is gently piped into the streets.  One is surrounded by the Christmas spirit.  This is so different from America in which there is a certain self-conscious embarrassment to share this Christmas spirit, as people on occasion mutter, “Happy holidays” in contrast to the exuberance and un-self-conscious joy that unites a city historically divided.

There is much hope for Belfast, I say to myself as I walk along the busy thoroughfares.  They share more than a common heritage of conflict and contention.  They actually do share the common heritage of peace and love and joy as well.  A key now is for each side to begin seeing this common heritage, including the insight that this heritage honors each person as precious, unique, and irreplaceable. The message from forgiveness education is similar: We all have inherent worth no matter what our religion or cultural heritage….or historical contentions.

Merry Christmas, Belfast, no matter what your cultural and religious heritage is.  May forgiveness be one of the important common heritages as people in the distant years to come look back on their city.

Robert

Thanksgiving Is Coming: Three Ways to Avoid the Family Dreads

In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday of November.  It is a custom going back to the 17th century when immigrants and those native to this land celebrated together with a feast.  The tradition has continued for about 300 years.

Yesterday, while teaching a class on the psychology of forgiveness, I mentioned that next week the students likely will be getting together with family and extended family.  Some of the students rolled their eyes, others groanedturkeyday (as civilly as they could within a classroom setting, but the pain was obvious).

So, how can we avoid the “family dreads,” the restless, uncomfortable feeling of being face-to-face once again with those who have caused hurt and toward whom there may be some resentment?

Here are three suggestions:

1. First, acknowledge the pain.  Do not run from it.  After all, pain is a speedy little thing and always seems to be right behind us no matter how hard we run.

2. Practice now to see the inherent worth in that person.  That person has a built-in value even when behaving badly.  All people are unique, special, and irreplaceable.  Start realizing that now before you pass the mashed potatoes to him or her.

3. Stop the pattern of treating this person as if he or she were invisible.  Make eye contact.  Smile (after all, this is a person who is special, unique, and irreplaceable).  You need not say a thing. The eye contact and smile may be a good start.

And enjoy the journey that is life.  That journey was never supposed to be pain-free.  You can reduce the pain in you, and perhaps in the other, by recognizing the humanity in the other.  They are not invisible to you.  Show that you see them…and that they are special despite hurtful patterns in the past.

Robert

9/11 and Forgiveness

I have been reading some comments across the Internet about how we ought to respond to the 9/11 attacks. Here are five of them:

1) Forgiveness is only for the unintended slights, not for the malicious who desired to hurt.

2) It is time to put it all behind us. Forgiveness does that.

3) Win the wars that we started after 9/11, then let us talk about forgiveness.

4) Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all value forgiveness in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qu’ran. Let us embrace that common ground.

5) We should forgive. It is good for us.

I offer comments on each point:

1) Forgiveness is so easy when the other did not intend it. Forgiveness belongs to the heart torn apart by injustice, but it should never be forced. This has to be a time of gentleness as we in America and those who join us across the globe react in our own way. Some are still fuming, others mourning, still others trying to move on and forget, while still others have forgiven or are on that journey. None of these needs our judgement today.

2) Forgiveness does not necessarily “put it all behind us.” Sometimes, forgiveness puts it all in front of us, opening up the pain as we look at those who planned and executed the crime, and those who looked on in triumph or indifference. We can forgive those who, in the aftermath, did not call evil by its name.

3) Winning wars as a prerequisite for forgiveness confuses this: People can strive for justice and forgive at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive. When we forgive, sometimes what we request in the name of justice changes and for the better.

4) Those who embrace one of the monotheistic traditions indeed share this: The ancient writings across all three honor forgiveness. For those who recognize this, perhaps it is time to open the dialogue so that a deeper appreciation of “the other” emerges across cultures. Forgiveness education can help here.

5) “We should forgive” has a sense of pressure as I hear those words. We do not want to pressure others to forgive. “We should forgive” also has a sense of challenge. This I like. Let us challenge without pressure. We at the International Forgiveness Institute built this site for you, the reader, so you do not feel alone when it is time to forgive. We are here for you, even on the solemn days when forgiveness seems so hard and so many questions about it arise.

Dr. Bob