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.

3 Things Forgiveness Demands of Us

Sojourner Magazine, Washington, D.C. – Editor’s Note: This article is actually a collection of excerpts from an inspiring commentary  by Lisa Sharon Harper in the 6/19/17 issue of Sojourner Magazine.

Lisa Sharon Harper

Forgiveness is completely counterintuitive. When betrayed, diminished, abused, oppressed, exploited, or erased it is human to want to pay an eye for an eye. Our hearts betray back, diminish back, lead us to abuse back, oppress back (if we can), exploit back, or erase back.

I had never actually hated anyone before, then my heart felt hate’s comfort. It was intoxicating. Hate made me forget my own pain. I felt puffed up and empowered — empowered to erase the other in my heart … and it felt good. What I didn’t realize was even as I was puffing myself up, my heart was hardening, transforming from flesh to stone — no longer human.

The first requirement of forgiveness is desire. We must desire a better world — a better way of being in the world.

The second requirement of forgiveness is hope. We must have hope that a better world — and a better way of being — is possible.

The third requirement of forgiveness is humility. We must agree with God that the perpetrator is human — and so are we. We do not know his whole story. We do not know what led her to take the action she took. We do not get to craft their story. We are mere flesh and they are mere flesh.

Once we hold desire, hope, and humility, then forgiveness is possible.

I desire.

I hope.

I see the other’s humanity.

I forgive.

Read More: 3 Things Forgiveness Demands of Us 

Richard Branson: F is for Forgiveness

Richard Branson is one of the world’s most prolific entrepreneurs. Since starting Virgin Records in London in 1970 (and selling it in 1992 for $1 billion), he has grown his Virgin Group brand into more than 60 Virgin companies worldwide, employing nearly 71,000 people in 35 countries.

Sir Richard Branson

Branson is the only person in the world to build eight billion dollar companies in eight different sectors. His current highest profile activity is Virgin Galactic, which is on track to become the world’s first privately funded commercial space line, and his SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System.

But after nearly 50 years of building companies, Branson says there is one attribute that is key to his success and that of his companies — forgiveness.

“One of the most important lessons I have ever learned is the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness has become a cultural policy within Virgin,” according to Branson. “We give second chances, and have reaped great rewards as a result. It’s amazing how much people lift their game when you put trust and hope in them.”

“My life and career could have been very different if I hadn’t chosen to forgive one of my very first business partners. After finding a note outlining his plans to oust me as Student magazines publisher and editor, I felt incredibly betrayed and we decided to part ways.”

From Student, Branson’s first business, came the idea for Virgin. But as the operation took off, Branson decided to let bygones be bygones and called up his former partner and asked him to re-join the team.

“Forgiving him was one of the best decisions I have ever made,”
Branson said. “I retained a great friend, became happier at work and in life, and gained the confidence to grow Virgin. Forgiveness brought us both peace and success.”

According to Branson, one of his employees was caught stealing in the early days of Virgin Records. Instead of letting him go, Branson decided to forgive him and offer him a second chance. “And thankfully so,” Branson recalls, “as he went on to discover talent like Culture Club, Human League and Phil Collins and sign them to our music label.”

“No matter the situation, forgiveness is the best answer,” Branson says. To document his belief, he explains that Virgin companies now employ 25 people who are former inmates recently released from prison–25 people who’ve been given a second chance in life.

 
Citing another example, Branson says “Nelson Mandela’s life is a powerful tale of forgiveness. After being unfairly jailed for 27 years, he forgave the people who imprisoned him. This forgiveness enabled him to become one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. Together with Archbishop Desmond Tutu he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after  apartheid  was abolished, and the spirit of forgiveness shown in the process continues to enable South Africa to move forward.”

Branson’s advice on forgiveness: “If you’ve fallen out with someone, I urge you to call them up and arrange to meet and talk about the situation. You’ll most likely both think that the other person is to blame, but give each other the benefit of the doubt. Life’s too short to hold grudges. Everyone deserves freedom to move forward – and forgiveness is the fastest route to peace and happiness.”

Branson is the world’s most followed person on LinkedIn. He maintains a daily blog on his virgin.com website discussing everything from entrepreneurship, conservation and sustainability to travel, music and humor. He has more than 11.5 million followers across five social networks and has also written six books, including his autobiography Losing My Virginity.

Read more:

Children Forgive Man Who Killed Their Father on Easter Sunday

CNA/EWTN News, Cleveland, Ohio, USA- They had to endure it all on Easter Sunday–grief over their father’s brutal killing, anguish because of a video of the actual killing posted on Facebook by the killer himself, and the agony of an ongoing nation-wide search to find that killer.

But through it all, the children of Robert Godwin Sr. still say they forgive the man who murdered their father.

“Each one of us forgives the killer. The murderer. We want to wrap our arms around him,” said Tonya Godwin Baines, one of Godwin Sr.’s 10 children. She said that it was her slain father who taught her, through the example of his life, how to forgive. “The thing that I would take away the most from my father is he taught us about God. How to fear God. How to love God. And how to forgive.”

On Sunday afternoon, 74-year-old Godwin Sr. was shot and killed in Cleveland while walking home from an Easter dinner with his family. Police said that the suspect, 37-year-old Steve Stephens, apparently chose his victim at random, and then uploaded a video of the murder to Facebook. The social media network removed the video three hours later.

Following a nationwide manhunt, authorities were notified by an alert McDonald’s employee on Tuesday morning that Stephens’ car was in the restaurant’s parking lot near Erie, Pa. After a brief pursuit by police, Stephens shot and killed himself while still in the driver’s seat.

Godwin Sr.’s children agreed to a live interview on CNN Monday night while Stephens was still on the run. Though shocked and deeply pained by their father’s brutal murder, the children said they felt sorry for his killer.

“I honestly can say right now that I hold no animosity in my heart against this man. Because I know that he’s a sick individual,” Debbie Godwin said  about Stephens. “We want him to know that, first of all, we forgive him. We forgive him because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what daddy taught us. It’s the way we was raised…”

“You know what, I believe that God would give me the grace to even embrace this man. And hug him,” Debbie Godwin added. “It’s just the way my heart is, it’s the right thing to do. And so, I just would want him to know that even in his worst state, he’s loved and there’s worth in him.”

Read more:
“Cleveland victim’s family: We forgive killer” – CNN news online.
“Easter in Cleveland” – KTSA Radio, San Antonio, TX.
“Family of Facebook murder victim: We forgive the killer” –   CNA/EWTN News.
How to Forgive – International Forgiveness Institute website.
Forgiveness Is a Choice
 by Robert D. Enright, PhD.

Checking in Regarding Your Unfolding Love Story

At the beginning of this year, we posted a reflection here in which we encouraged you to grow in love as your legacy of 2017.

One way to start is by looking backward at one incident of 2017 so far.
Please think of one incident with one person in which you were loved unconditionally, perhaps even surprised by a partner or a parent or a caring colleague.

Think of your reaction when you felt love coming from the other and you felt love in your heart and the other saw it in your eyes. What was said? How were you affirmed for whom you are, not necessarily for something you did? What was the other’s heart like, and yours?

Can you list some specific, concrete ways in which you have chosen love over indifference? Love over annoyance? If so, what are those specifics and how are they loving? We ask because 2017 is about 25% over. Have you engaged in 25% of all the loving responses that you will leave in this world this year?

This exercise is meant to show you this: You know love.  Now the key is to persevere and deliberately strive to love on a daily basis.

Tempus fugit. If you have not yet deliberately left love in the world this year, there is time…..and the clock is ticking.

Robert

Love and Forgiveness Prevail in the Face of Hatred

The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C. – More than 30 witnesses, all relatives of the nine people Dylann Roof shot down in the Emanuel AME Church during a Bible study in June 2015, registered to speak during the sentencing portion of his trial. Before the Judge ultimately sentenced Roof to death, the witnesses spoke  directly to the self-avowed white supremacist for the first time.

Alana Simmons, granddaughter of shooting victim Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., reminded Roof of her message at his bail hearing that “hate won’t win.” She told him those words held true. Though he hoped to drive people apart, he instead brought people closer together, she said. He had failed in his mission to sow division through his twisted and bloody plan.  emanuel_victims_t580“Instead of starting a race war, you started a love war,” said Melvin Graham, who lost his sister Cynthia Graham Hurd in the shooting.

“I forgive you for you actions. You are just a body being used. You didn’t understand the presence of the evil that possesses you,” added Daniel Simmons, Jr., son of Rev. Simmons. “But thank God that he gives us the opportunity for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the heartbeat that pulls us to another level.”

People stand outside as parishioners leave the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., four days after a mass shooting at the church claimed the lives of its pastor and eight others. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Parishioners leave the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. days after the June 2015 mass shooting at the church claimed the lives of its pastor and eight others.

“Yes, I forgive you,” said another witness Felicia Sanders who lost her son Tywanza and her aunt Susie Jackson in the shooting. “That was the easiest thing I had to do. … But you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. May God have mercy on your soul.”

“You can’t have my joy,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, whose sister died in the shooting. “It is simply not yours to take.”

“I forgive you, my family forgives you,” added Anthony Thompson, a relative of victim Myra Thompson. “But take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess.”

“Your choices brought us here, but our choice–to respond with love–has kept us here,” Alana Simmons said. “We are all moving on in love and moving on in strength and nothing you can ever do will ever be able to stop that.”

Read more about the South Carolina shooting and forgiveness for the shooter:

On Bearing the Pain

One of the paradoxes of forgiveness is that as we give mercy to those who showed no mercy to us, we are doing moral good. Another paradox is this: As we bear the pain of the injustice, that pain does not crush us but instead strengthens us and helps us to heal emotionally.

When we bear the pain of what happened to us, we are not absorbing depression or anger or anxiety. Instead we realize that we have been Pill of Heartstreated unfairly—-it did happen. We do not run from that and we do not try to hurriedly cast off the emotional pain that is now ours. We quietly live with that pain so that we do not toss it back to the one who hurt us (because we are having mercy on that person). We live with that pain so that we do not displace the anger onto others who were not even part of the injustice (our children or co-workers, for example).

When we bear the pain we begin to see that we are strong, stronger actually than the offense and original pain. We can stand with the pain and in so doing become conduits of good for others.

Today, let us acknowledge our pain and practice a paradox: Let us quietly bear that pain and then watch it lift.

Robert