The Idea of Forgiveness Lives On

Two recent experiences have prompted me to reflect on this: Forgiveness as an idea for all of humanity is powerful and so such an idea tends to persevere across time and not wither.

For the first example, I unexpectedly received on Facebook a message from a person who coaches people before they give Ted Talks.  His name is Brendan Fox and he had this message for me in the context of forgiveness for sexual abuse victims/survivors:

“Hi, Robert! Hope all is well. I just wanted to let you know that I read your book, and I watched one of your online lectures. I think your work is so good for the world. Recently, I coached a Ted Talk featuring a sex trafficking survivor. Your work was hugely influential in inspiring the talk and message (as you’ll see). I wanted to credit you, and share it with you, because I think this represents part of your legacy, and how you are making the world a better place (in many indirect ways!). I’m rooting for you in the Game of Life!”

Here is a link to the talk to which Brendan refers.  The video (10:21) is quite inspirational: Escaping the Pain of Human Trafficking Markie Dell.

I find Brendan’s message and the video very interesting in this: Suzanne Freedman, whose blog on forgiveness education we recently posted here, and I had an idea in the mid-1990’s that a forgiveness intervention might be helpful for women who have been sexually abused.  At the time, this idea was exceptionally controversial.  People thought that we were saying this, “Oh, you were abused?  Forgive and go back into that situation.”  No.  This is not what forgiveness is at all.  A person can forgive, rid the self of toxic resentment and hatred, and not reconcile.  Suzanne’s ground-breaking forgiveness intervention with incest survivors was important in helping the social scientific world see the importance of forgiveness interventions.

That study was published in 1996, almost a quarter of a century ago: Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996).  Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.

After almost a quarter of a century later, Suzanne’s ideas live on and are helping people to heal from extreme injustices against them.  If we can get this far with forgiveness in the face of grave sexual abuse, perhaps there is a place for forgiveness in other areas of woundedness, such as helping people who have no homes, who are living on the streets, to forgive those who have crushed their hearts.  Will this aid their recovery?  Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute is taking the lead right now on this question.

Here is the second of our two examples regarding the staying-power and influence of forgiveness.  In 2002, a team of us decided to start what we now call forgiveness education with children.  We reasoned this way:  If we can help children learn about forgiveness and how to forgive, then  when they are adults, they will have the tool of forgiveness for combating the potentially unhealthy effects of unjust treatment against them. 

These students at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland, are learning about forgiveness at the same school where Dr. Enright’s Forgiveness Education Curriculum Guides were first used more than 17 years ago.

We developed forgiveness education guides for grades 1 and 3 (Primary 3 and 5 in Belfast, Northern Ireland) and we brought these guides to the principal, Claire Hilman, and the teachers at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast.  Claire said yes and so we launched forgiveness education there as the first place in the world where there is a deliberate curriculum to teach forgiveness, about once a week for 12 to 15 weeks.  The program has expanded to include pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way through 12th grade (this is a designation in the United States and includes ages 17-18).  These forgiveness education guides have been requested now by educators in over 30 countries. 

Just recently, Belfast had its almost 2-week annual 4Corners Festival.  The theme for 2019 was “Scandalous Forgiveness.”  The term “scandalous” was inserted as an adjective because, even in 2019, some people consider the act of forgiving others to be outrageous and inappropriate.  The point of the festival was to gently challenge that thinking and try to fold themes of forgiveness into the fabric of Belfast society.

I gave a talk on February 1, 2019 at this 4Corners Festival.  When Mr. Edward Petersen of the Clonard Monastery introduced me to the audience prior to my talk, he stated that the theme for this year’s festival was inspired by our 17-year presence of supporting Belfast teachers in their forgiveness education efforts.  We started in 2002 and an inspiration by community organizers blossomed in 2019, many years after we first planted the idea of forgiveness education in Belfast.  The idea of forgiveness lives on and now expands city-wide because of the vision and wisdom of the 4Corners Festival organizers.

Forgiveness: it does not wither.  It survives over time and grows.  I think it does so because forgiveness gives life.  Forgiveness unites people in families and communities where injustices could divide.

The idea of forgiveness lives on, and for good reason.

Robert

I am a victim of incest. My father has died and I refuse to go to his graveside.  Does this mean I am not forgiving him?

Your not going to your father’s graveside does not necessarily indicate that you have not forgiven.  Forgiveness does not necessarily mean that you are finished with all negative emotions.  Classical conditioning may be happening here in that you associate the grave with the incest and it makes you uncomfortable or anxious.  Staying away under this condition is understandable.  If you are doing no harm to your father in that you are not talking negatively about him to family members or others, you may be on the path to forgiving.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.

The “F Word” for Sexual Abuse Survivors: Is Forgiveness Possible?

Dr. Suzanne Freedman

A Guest Blog by Dr. Suzanne Freedman

Editor’s Note: Forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is a sensitive and controversial subject that is being addressed by Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Dr. Freedman has studied and conducted forgiveness research with Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology on Forgiveness with Incest Survivors. This is a summary of a blog Dr. Freedman wrote that was posted earlier this month on the website “And He Restoreth My Soul.”
To view the complete blog,
click here.                                                      


The idea of forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is often met with surprise, skepticism, and even horror. However, past research with forgiveness illustrates that forgiveness education and/or forgiveness counseling can be healing for those who have experienced past sexual abuse.

Freedman & Enright (1996) conducted an individual educational intervention using forgiveness as the goal with 12 incest survivors. Results illustrated that post intervention individuals were more forgiving toward their abusers, had decreased anxiety and depression and increased hope for the future as well as greater self-esteem compared to those who had not experienced the forgiveness education and themselves preintervention (see Freedman & Enright, 1996). Research with other populations who have experienced deep hurt also illustrates increased forgiveness as well as greater psychological well-being post intervention.

When discussing the topic of forgiveness for survivors of sexual abuse, it is important to be clear about what exactly is meant by forgiveness, specifically what forgiveness is and is not. . .  According to Enright (2001) and North (1987), forgiveness can be defined as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and sometimes even love toward him or her”.

Notice in the definition that one has a “right” to feel resentment because of the way she or he was injured and that the offender does not “deserve” our compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward an offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings and sometimes even behaviors toward an offender can occur.

Why Forgive? Many survivors of sexual abuse often ask, “Why do I need to forgive? Why do I need to do all the work? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Of course, this is true but when one forgives, they are personally benefiting by freeing themselves of anger, bitterness, and resentment. . . . Forgiveness allows one to free themselves of negative feelings as well as find meaning in the worst of life’s event. It is also a selfless and compassionate act as one who forgives is helping to stop the cycle of revenge and hatred. Using a compassionate and generous heart to meet deep pain and hurt is one of the most difficult things to do. However, by doing so you are freeing yourself from the prison of anger and power the abuser has over you.

The points below illustrate how forgiveness is not the same as accepting or pardoning the sexual abuse, reconciliation, being weak, denying one’s anger or giving up, nor does it mean that justice cannot occur:

  • Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing. . . .
  • Forgiveness takes time. . . .
  • Forgiveness is a choice one makes for her or himself. . . .
  • Forgiveness does not mean Reconciliation. . . .
  • Forgiveness can occur in the absence of an apology. . . .
  • Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. . . .
  • Forgiveness does not mean Forgetting. . . .

Research supports forgiveness education and therapy as an effective form of treatment for those who have endured deep hurts such as sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness leads to decreases in stress, anger, anxiety and depression (Enright, 2001). People who are able to forgive also are more hopeful, optimistic, and compassionate towards others. Forgiveness has physical heath benefits as well. Research illustrates decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches in those who have forgiven.

I wrote this blog to describe how forgiveness can be healing for individuals who have been deeply, personally and unfairly hurt by acts of sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness is an individual choice, and as such, we need to offer that choice to survivors of sexual abuse by accurately informing them about what it means to forgive, including what forgiveness is and is not, as well as respecting and supporting them when they choose to forgive.

This is a summary of a blog by Dr. Suzanne Freedman that was posted earlier this month on the website “And He Restoreth My Soul.” To view the complete blog, click here.


For more information on how to go about forgiving and the benefits of forgiveness please check out the following resources:

Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness Is a Choice. Washington, D.C. APA Life Tools.

Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington D.C., American Psychological Association.

Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal With Incest Survivors. Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, 64, 983-992.

Smedes, L. B. (1996). The Art of Forgiving. Nashville, TN: Moorings.

Malcom, W., DeCourville, N., & Belicki, K. (2007). Women’s reflections on the complexities of forgiveness. New York, New York: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.