You emphasize the idea of finding meaning in the suffering.  What do you mean by the term meaning?

Dr. Viktor Frankl was the first mental health professional who emphasized the term “meaning” in the context of great suffering.  He was imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II.  He observed that when prisoners found no meaning in their suffering within the concentration camp, they died.  Those who found meaning in their suffering lived.  Dr. Frankl found meaning by looking up to the mountains when on a forced march outside the camp. He reveled in the beauty and found meaning in the fact that this is a world filled with beauty despite grave suffering.  He found meaning in being determined to be reunited with his wife.  When people are treated unjustly and then forgive, they often find this meaning: They now are more aware of the suffering in other people and they are motivated to help alleviate that suffering.  This can give determination, energy, and hope to a person and help to re-establish psychological health.

For additional information, see Finding Meaning in Suffering.

 Can you help me with this idea of “bearing the pain”?  It seems to me that if I “bear” this pain, it is like putting an 80 pound sack of potatoes on my back.  It will not heal me but crush me.

I would urge you to think about this bearing the pain as a paradox.  A paradox looks to be a contradiction, but is not.  In this case, the more you bear the pain and do so willingly, then you begin to stand in the pain.  As you stand in the pain, then that pain begins to lift, a little at a time.  Then, over time, the pain leaves.  At that point you begin to realize just how strong you really are.  You have taken the pain and have overcome it.  Of course, in the case of the forgiveness process, bearing the pain does not occur in isolation but instead in the context of other units in that process.

For additional information, see Bearing the Pain.

With regard to the popular saying, “forgive and forget,” is it unwise for me to want to forget?

Some people are afraid that, if they forget, then the other person’s injustice will emerge again.  Others, as in your case, want to forget.  When we “forget” in your case, we tend to let the memory fade so that it is not constantly coming up for us and challenging our happiness.  I find that as people forgive, they do forget in the sense of no longer having to continually relive the event in their mind.  What tends to happen is this: People now remember in new ways and look back less frequently.  By “remembering in new ways” I mean that when you look back, you do so with far less pain than in the past.  People look back less frequently because, when filled with resentment, there is a tendency to ruminate on what happened in the hope of solving the unpleasant issue. Upon forgiving, you may not have solved the problem, but you have solved the nagging effects of that problem such as anger, fatigue, and sadness.  So, it is wise to engage in “forgive and forget” as described here.

For additional information, see Forgive and Forget: What Does it Mean?


I am forgiving my husband for some really inappropriate behavior.  Even so, I cannot say that I feel any sense of freedom from all of my effort.  Does this mean that I have not forgiven?

We do not necessarily reach complete feelings of freedom upon forgiving because we sometimes have anger left over.  As long as the anger is not controlling you, and as long as you are not displacing that anger back onto your husband, then you very well may be forgiving or at least in the process of moving toward forgiving.  Has he altered the behavior that you say is inappropriate?  Sometimes there is the unfinished business of seeking justice toward a full reconciliation.  You might need to talk with him about the behavior and if he willingly changes, then this may help with your sense of freedom.

Learn more at Forgiveness for Couples.

Is there such a thing as unnecessary forgiveness?  For example, suppose there is a painful misunderstanding and neither party was unfair.

Forgiveness in this case would be unnecessary unless one or both of the people acted inappropriately after the misunderstanding occurred.  For example one person might have become excessively anger and used harsh words toward the other.  In this case, they would not be dealing with the issue of forgiveness for the original misunderstanding, but instead with the aftermath of that misunderstanding when hurtful words were expressed.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

I never met my father, who abandoned the family before I was born.  I wonder now: How can I take a perspective on him, given that I have never met him?

You might start by asking your mother about him: What does she know about his upbringing?  What does she know of how others treated him so badly that perhaps his trust was damaged?  Also, you do not have to know someone personally to ask this:  Is this person a human being as I am?  What do we have in common as part of our shared humanity?  Does he possess inherent worth as I do?  You can do a lot of this kind of cognitive work without knowing the specifics of a person’s life.

For additional information, see Inherent Worth.

What is one very surprising thing you have learned about forgiveness?

One surprise is how angry some people can get when the word forgiveness is mentioned.  I find that this happens especially when the one so angered has been treated very badly by others.  The person then sees forgiveness as possibly dangerous (because it is seen as giving in to the other’s manipulations) and morally inappropriate (because the person thinks that one has to receive justice before forgiveness occurs).  Another surprise I have found, by studying forgiveness scientifically, is how powerful it is in restoring psychological health when the person has been devastated by the injustice.

Learn more at Forgiving is not. . .