Our Theory of Forgiveness: Excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Forgiving Life (APA Books, 2012)
Our theory starts with the premise that all people need to both give and receive love to be healthy and to have psychologically healthy families and communities. I am not alone in this view when we study the ancient literature, going back to the formation of the Hebrew nation, thousands of years ago, with the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I am not alone when we turn to modern-day heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, or Mother Teresa. Unconditionally loving others, despite their blemishes and faults, was at the heart of their message.
I am not alone in this view when we consult modern philosophy, in which Gene Outka has shown the centrality of love for morally good human interaction. I am not alone in this view of the primacy of love when we examine the earliest roots of psychology, going back over a century to the pioneering work of the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, who made the famous statement that each person’s purpose is to work and to love if genuine mental health will result, a theme which continues to resonate with psychoanalysts in the 21st century. Contemporary social scientists such as Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon make the compelling biological case that love is at the central core of who we are as humans. I continue not to be alone in this view when I ask people of good common sense about what is of the utmost importance to them.
All people require love, both the giving and the receiving of love; this is not an option. Robert D. Enright
On this issue, people who use the method of religious faith to understand the world, some people who use the method of deductive logic and philosophical analysis, some people who use the method of psychoanalysis, and some people who use the method of modern biological and social science are in agreement—The essence of our humanity is to love and be loved.
So frequently I hear this: “Forgiveness is for you, the one who was injured.”
I think this actually can be a distortion of what forgiveness is. We need to make a distinction between:
- the end point or goal of forgiveness, and
- a consequence of forgiving.
These are different. The goal is that to which forgiveness actually points. Given that forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is concerned about goodness toward others. Justice as a moral virtue is not primarily for the self but for all with whom you come into contact directly or indirectly. Patience is directed toward those who are moving slower than you would like. Yes, one can be fair or just to the self and patient toward the self, but these are not the primary goals of either virtue. They are outwardly directed to others. It is the same with forgiveness because, like justice and patience, it too is a moral virtue. The end point of forgiving is to reach out in goodness directly toward the one or ones who have been unfair to you.
Yes, there is such a thing as self-forgiveness, but notice that the wording is intended to expressly direct the attention toward the self. In the case of forgiving as it typically is used, the word “self” is not included.
A consequence of forgiving, shown frequently by our research, is that as a person extends goodness toward offending others, then the one who forgives experiences considerable emotional relief. Excessive anger, anxiety, and depression all can go down in the one who genuinely forgives.
These emotional-health consequences, while very positive and desirable, are not the ultimate goal of engaging in the moral virtue of forgiving. If it were, then this would be the goal for all of the moral virtues and such practice likely would degenerate into self-serving activities and therefore not be virtuous at all.
Is forgiving for the forgiver? No, this is not its goal. Is a consequence of forgiving emotional relief for the forgiver? Yes. And this distinction between goal and consequence makes all the difference in understanding what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish within the self.
…..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.
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, across 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.