One approach is to take one of the self-help books, such as my The Forgiving Life book published by the American Psychological Association. I recommend that you read it first. If you think it is appropriate for your mother, then share it with her and point out some of the sections in the book that proved helpful to you. Your mother might get interested and, if so, this would give her a chance to work through the forgiveness process.
We have been helping teachers set up forgiveness education programs since 2002. In our experience, children as young as age 6 can understand the worth of people, including the built-in worth of all people. This is a foundational step in forgiving. Even though young children may not understand the moral virtue of love (serving others for the others’ sake), they nonetheless can see that to forgive is to see the worth in the other and to offer kindness of some kind to the one who offended. As forgiveness education occurs on higher grade levels, then students’ understanding of forgiving as an expression of mercy can become more sophisticated.
Learn more about Forgiveness Education for Children at: Curriculum
Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?
In a 2015 article in Scientific American, it was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.
These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?
Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?
This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?
Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):
- Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above.
- At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
- Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
- At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.
- After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.
- Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
- Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.
When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.
My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.
Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study.
One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title, “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges.” Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?
Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overuse. Psychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagers. Anxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.
What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation.
Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?
Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
A final point is this: Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.
Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.
The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com – You’ve probably read or heard the story, but it’s worth repeating with a final twist.
In the early morning hours of June 5, 2002 — the day after she received awards for excellence in physical fitness and academics at Bryant Middle School in Salt Lake City, Utah — 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home at knifepoint. The next day, the FBI told her parents, “If she’s not home in the first 48 hours, she’s probably not coming home.”
Smart did not return home quickly despite a massive regional search effort involving up to 2,000 volunteers each day, as well as dogs and planes. The search continued for weeks.
Her abductors, homeless street preacher Brian David Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee, held her at encampments in the woods 18 miles from her home and in San Diego County, CA. They kept her shackled to a tree with a metal cable to keep her from escaping.
Nine agonizing months of captivity
Mitchell repeatedly raped Smart during her captivity, sometimes multiple times daily, told her she would never see her family again if she tried to escape, and regularly threatened to kill her. He often forced her to drink alcohol and take drugs to lower her resistance, and he both starved her and fed her garbage.
Smart endured the unimaginable for nine agonizing months before she was spotted with Mitchell and Barzee in Sandy, Utah, on March 12, 2003 by a couple who had seen Mitchell’s photos on the news. Smart – disguised in a gray wig, sunglasses, and veil – was recognized by officers during questioning, and Mitchell and Barzee were arrested.
After years of delays and mental evaluations, Mitchell was found guilty of kidnapping and transporting a minor across state lines with intent to engage in sexual activity. On December 11, 2010, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. For her role, Barzee eventually was sentenced to concurrent terms of fifteen years in state and federal prison.
Forgiveness is not acceptance
For Smart, the ordeal carried a heavy price tag but she says she has long since forgiven her captors and has not allowed it to define her life. During a recent presentation at Indiana University Kokomo, she explained it this way:
“When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a victim anymore. I see an activist, I see a wife, I see a mother, I see a friend, I see someone I’m proud to be.
It’s not what happens to us, it’s what we decide to do next, how we move forward, how we pursue our lives.
It’s not the acceptance of the action done against you. I don’t think forgiveness is saying, ‘It’s OK that you raped me.’ It’s not saying, ‘We’re going to be friends now.’
I will never be OK with the act of rape. There is no circumstance on earth in which I will say rape is OK.
It is not that you accepted the evil that was done to you. It is an acknowledgment that it has happened, and that you have dealt with your anger, your grief, and your pain, and you are able to then move on.
It’s loving yourself enough to let go of your pain and move forward.
If I get to the end of my life, if I die, and I find out religion is one big lie, I still won’t regret it because it’s helped me to live a better life, to be a better person, to care about people, to believe in forgiveness, to believe in hope.”
Since her abduction, Smart has gone on to become an advocate for missing persons and victims of sexual assault. With encouragement from her family, Smart has stepped into the public eye, writing two best-selling books, and lobbying with her father for laws to protect children including the Protect Act of 2003.
Smart also founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, to raise awareness of predatory child crimes. She is now married to Matthew Gilmour; the couple has two young children.
Kidnapped at 14, held captive and raped, Elizabeth Smart says now: I was lucky – The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com
Elizabeth Smart shares story of hope, triumph, forgiveness – Indiana University Kokomo
Elizabeth Smart Biography – BIOGRAPHY.COM
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The Daily Signal, Waco, Texas – Jeremiah Thomas—a 16-year-old all-star, state champion football player from Waco, TX—was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive bone cancer just four months ago. Since then, he has battled chemotherapy, radiation, a collapsed lung, and paralysis from the waist down.
Unfortunately, Jeremiah has also had to endure despicable scorn and taunts from many social media trolls. With perhaps only weeks left to live, Jeremiah has been accosted numerous times on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with some deplorable messages:
“Jeremiah … You aren’t dead yet? God, do your job!” taunted one anonymous writer.
“Good Riddance,” another posted to Jeremiah’s prayer group page on Facebook.
And Jeremiah’s mother, Kendra Thomas, quoted one person as saying Jeremiah has “a racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic [sic], hateful” agenda, and another as saying “He’s garbage and is suffering as he deserves.”
All that hate and vitriol was generated because Jeremiah made a “legacy wish” through the 38-year-old Make-A-Wish Foundation that some social media respondents apparently found offensive. As his final wish, Jeremiah dared to call for the abolition of abortion in Texas.
When that wish circulated around to Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, he called Jeremiah and spoke with him in his hospital bed in June about passing a bill to abolish abortion in the state in order to make Jeremiah’s “legacy wish” a reality.
We have grown up in a culture of death, sexual confusion, immorality and fatherlessness. This culture of death I speak of consists of abortion, homosexuality and suicide. One-third of our generation has been wiped out due to abortion; 60 million babies have been murdered. Over 25 million people have died as a result of AIDS. We have been handed a bill of goods that has completely destroyed us. In our nation, we have chosen death and received the curse.
While struggling with his terminal illness–known as osteoblastic osteosarcoma–would certainly be enough suffering for most people, Jeremiah has been handling the hate mail gracefully.
“Its kind of sickening,” Jeremiah says. “I pray for them…What has happened to people to make them think like that?”
Jeremiah’s mother adds, “Jesus has given him a special grace to forgive. He tells his siblings, ‘Just forgive. We can’t return evil for evil.’”
Jeremiah’s family had set up a GoFundMe page three months ago to help raise money for surgery. It had reached $118,659 as of Aug. 11.
Ciril Čuš, who grew up during the ’60s in Žetale, a small Slovenian parish on the border of Croatia, comes from a traditional Catholic family with two brothers and a sister. But there was nothing traditional about his childhood, his abusive father who nearly beat him to death, and his long journey down the path to forgiveness.
Ciril’s father worked as a builder and one day took a fall from 16 feet, spending a month in a coma. After the accident, he wasn’t the same. He started drinking, becoming very aggressive — and young Ciril was often the target. Between the ages of 7 and 10, Ciril’s head was fractured with a blunt object 14 times.
When his father was sober, he was a wonderful man; he taught his children a lot. But when he was drunk, he wasn’t safe to be around.
Ciril had to escape through the window several times and spent many nights in the barn. He was afraid to sleep because he had terrible nightmares. He had learning difficulties and barely finished school. When he was 10, he contemplated suicide. At 12, he took a job picking produce so he could get away from home and pay for his education. At 14, he wanted to run away from home but felt he had nowhere to go.
The abuse and distance from his father led Ciril to take up karate in school. Determined to prove himself — and protect himself — he won the national Slovenian kickboxing championship and became a kung fu coach.
After secondary school, Ciril got a job and moved to a nearby town. But, with a lot of time on his hands, he would often visit the local library. It was there that he started reading the Bible. ”I was drawn to the word of God, more and more every day.”
Convinced by a neighbor to accompany him to a Sunday church service, Ciril was revulsed by what he saw as the antics of the charismatic worshippers and he decided never to enter a church again. But his friend convinced him to try it a second time and that was when he heard a woman speaking about her husband who beat her and cheated on her, but she was still able to forgive him.
“For the first time in my life, I realized what my biggest problem was — that I was not able to forgive my father.” Ciril remembers. “I was so angry that I even considered killing him.”
In order to be able to forgive, a priest suggested that Ciril pray so he prayed a Rosary for his father every day and even made a solemn promise to God that he would pray until he could forgive his father. After a year and a half he realized that prayer alone was not enough, that he had to go to his father and tell him he forgave him.
Although he was somehow able to generate the courage to go meet with his father, there was no mutual forgiveness but from that point on Ciril prayed two rosaries a day instead of one.
After three years of praying, Ciril approached his father again. He apologized for everything he had done wrong. He told him that he was his only father and he loved him very much. In response, his father grabbed a knife and shouted, “I will kill you like a pig!” Ciril escaped while his father ran to the garage to get a chain saw. Ciril’s response: he began praying three rosaries a day instead of two.
Nine months and more than 800 rosaries later, Ciril learned that his father was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, coughing up blood and that his doctors told him he only had a month to live. Determined to forgive him before his father died, Ciril approached him once again.
“I took his hand, looked him in the eyes, told him I forgave him, that I was sorry for everything, and that I loved him,” Ciril recalls. “I held his head close to my heart. It was the first time in my life that I hugged my father.”
From that moment on, Ciril’s father stopped drinking and peace returned to the family. For the first time ever, Ciril saw his father embrace his mother and heard him tell his brothers and his sister that he loved them. His father lived another 16 years.
”Once I forgave, I was happy, joyful. This real encounter with God is more powerful than any hatred, curse, suffering or distress,” says Ciril. He never stopped praying, either. Today he is a parish priest in a small Slovenian town.
Ciril now says he realizes that he had to walk his path of suffering to be able to understand and help people who go through similar experiences. His life bears a powerful witness. He travels a lot around the world, witnessing about his experience of forgiveness.
”If we do not forgive, we stop God’s blessing from entering and God cannot work within us” Ciril says. “Forgiveness means establishing a new relationship with another person. And that is a great gift from God. But everyone has his own path. Sometimes it takes a long time.”
Read the full story: His father abused him, fracturing his skull 14 times, but he was still able to forgive – Aleteia, June 6, 2018
Aleteia (aleteia.org) is an online publication distributed in eight languages (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Polish and Slovenian). Its website “offers a Christian vision of the world by providing general and religious content that is free from ideological influences.” With more than 430,000 subscribers to its newsletter and more than 3 million fans on Facebook, Aleteia reaches more than 11 million unique visitors a month.
“Introducing Forgiveness Counseling to the Schools”
If you do an electronic search for anti-bullying programs, you will see three prominent approaches, the 3 P’s:
- Peer mediation
- Persistent norms. (This is a “no-bully zone;” we do not tolerate bullying in this school)
What makes people so angry that they:
a) retain the anger for a long time, sometimes years;
b) find no solution to that anger; and,
c) give the never-say-die anger to others?
We find that unfair treatment from other people is the source of so much anger in this world (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). Anger as a source of inner disruption in the form of anxiety, low-self esteem, and pessimism all too often goes unrecognized. After all, if a person with high anxiety comes to a mental health professional, it is natural to focus on the presenting symptom. Yet, our research and the clinical work connected to it suggest that toxic anger, the kind that is deep and long-lasting, often is at the heart of many psychological symptoms for those who have a history of being treated unfairly.
Forgiveness therapy, as an empirically-verified treatment, reduces and even eliminates the toxic anger (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). This is a paradoxical psychotherapy. As the client discussed the unfair behaviors coming from others, the treatment focus shifts from the client’s symptoms to an exploration of who the offending person is, what emotional wounds this person has, the vulnerabilities and doubts and fears that person brought to the painful interactions with the client.
As the client realizes that to forgive is not to excuse or forget or abandon the quest for justice or necessarily even reconcile with the other, then forgiveness therapy can proceed without distortion of what, exactly, it means to forgive. To forgive is to offer goodness to those who have not been good to the client. It is the offering of a virtue that has been around for thousands of years across many philosophies and religions and worldviews. To forgive offers the client a way to eliminate resentment by offering goodness…and it works (see, for example, Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004).
When a student in school begins to aggress onto others, those who use the lens of forgiveness therapy start to ask these questions:
- Does the one showing the bullying behavior seem to be particularly angry?
- What is the source of this anger? Might it be unfair treatment from others in the past, perhaps at home or in school or in the peer group?
- Might this student be in pain, which emerged from the injustice, and might that pain now have turned to a toxic anger?
- Might this student be willing to examine who perpetrated the injustice and the subsequent hurt and ask, “Can I forgive this person (or persons) for what they did to me?”
School counselors now have a resource for taking this kind of therapy directly to those who bully (Enright, 2012). Rather than focus on the symptoms of aggression, disobedience to school expectations, or even the student’s own anger, the treatment shifts: Who hurt you? Is this person hurting and vulnerable and confused? Do you know what forgiveness is and is not? Would you be interested in trying to forgive the one who caused you so much pain? This kind of therapy can take up to 12 or more weeks, but that is the blink-of-an-eye relative to anger that can last for years.
As the student’s pain subsides by seeing the inherent worth in the one who was cruel and by fostering compassion toward that person (not because of what was done but instead because of whom the other is as a person), so too does the anger within the one who bullies start to fade, and this takes away the incentive to bully. The focus is not on the symptoms exclusively any more, nor is it on only creating school norms (which are all too easily ignored by those who bully when they are nurturing a rage inside).
To reduce bullying, we need to see the anger inside those who bully and have a plan to reduce it. Forgiveness therapy, as empirically shown, already has done its job. Now it is time to transport such therapy from the clinician’s office into the school setting for the good of those who bully and for the good of those who are the unwitting recipients of their pain.
Posted in Psychology Today December 17, 2016
- Enright, R.D. (2012). Anti-bullying forgiveness program: Reducing the fury within those who bully. Madison, WI: International Forgiveness Institute.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Gambaro, M.E., Enright,R.D., Baskin, T.A., & Klatt, J. (2008). Can school-based forgiveness counseling improve conduct and academic achievement in academically at-risk adolescents? Journal of Research in Education, 18, 16-27.
- Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.
- Park, J.H., Enright, R.D., Essex, M.J., Zahn-Waxler, C., & Klatt, J.S. (2013). Forgiveness intervention for female South Korean adolescent aggressive victims. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 20, 393-402.
- Reed, G. & Enright, R.D. (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 920-929.