I still don’t get your point that when we forgive a person then we try to see them in a positive light. Why can’t we just be indifferent toward that person?

We need to think of forgiveness as a process that is imperfect. We often start with negative feelings toward a person who has been deeply unjust to us. This can change to the indifference which you suggest. Eventually, this can transform to a small amount of compassion and even develop into a sense of agape love, or a love that is in service to the other for that person’s own sake. From the perspective of Aristotelian philosophy, there is an essence or a perfect bottom-line to what forgiveness is in its ideal state. That essence, as I explain in my book, The Forgiving Life, is agape love toward the one who was hurtful. Defining the essence of forgiving as agape love does not mean that all who forgive reach this endpoint. Yet, it is important to know the endpoint so we know the ultimate goal toward which we are striving. Knowing this ideal endpoint is important as we practice any virtue, whether it is forgiveness or justice or courage or patience, as examples.

For additional information, see  The Four Phases of Forgiveness.

Teaching Children About Forgiveness Results in Mature Adult Thinking About Forgiveness

“If you’ve seen your children struggle to forgive someone for hurting them, you know that forgiveness is complicated,” says Dr. Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. “After all, forgiveness is complicated for adults, too.”

Rather than discourage us, however, that reality should in fact encourage parents and teachers to begin teaching children about forgiveness as early as possible and certainly by the time they are in pre-kindergarten, Dr. Enright outlines in an article posted yesterday in Greater Good Magazine. Entitled How We Think About Forgiveness at Different Ages, the article describes how a child’s understanding of forgiving develops as she grows older.

“In over 30 years of studying forgiveness, I have interviewed children and adolescents, as well as college students and adults—and found that our understanding of forgiveness evolves over childhood and young adulthood, partly influenced by what we learn from our parents and communities,” Dr. Enright says.


“Helping our children reach their highest level of forgiving can set them up to  live a life without unhealthy anger and with more peace.”
Dr. Robert Enright


Dr. Enright’s research indicates that no matter what age a child is at, he starts with some misconceptions about forgiveness including these:

  • Young children often believe that the proclamation of “I am sorry” followed by the automatic reply of “I forgive you” can solve any conflict.
  • Fourth graders often equate it with first getting even.
  • Many 9 to 10-year-old children think they could forgive and make up with classmates only if those classmates first got what they deserved–punishment for their misbehavior.
  • Compared to fourth graders, seventh graders usually develop what is called a “reciprocal perspective” where they can think of themselves and others at the same time but they often say it will be easier to forgive if they are first compensated for what happened to them.
  • Many 10th graders take a more complex view of forgiving where the focus is on their peer group and their family context. Here they can understand that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation, and that it is possible to forgive while seeking justice. At the same time, however, there is a tendency to occasionally over-emphasize the advice of the peer group. If the group frowns on the idea of forgiving, then the person may refrain from offering the mercy of forgiveness toward those who were unfair.

Those and other misconceptions children hold about forgiveness can be overcome as they learn and practice true forgiveness, according to Dr. Enright.

Children can reach a profound understanding of forgiveness in adulthood by persistently practicing it, with the help of parents, when they are hurt by others,” Dr. Enright adds. “Such learning, begun early in life, is a building block for mature adult thinking about forgiveness. Worldwide, it is one path toward peace.”

Read the full article: How We Think About Forgiveness at Different Ages


Through articles, videos, quizzes, and podcasts, Greater Good Magazine bridges the gap between scientific journals and people’s daily lives, particularly for parents, educators, business leaders, and health care professionals. Its goal is to turn scientific research into tools and tips for a happier life and a more compassionate society.

Greater Good Magazine is published by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 2001, the GGSC has been at the fore of a new scientific movement to explore the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior—the science of a meaningful life.


Learn more at the Greater Good Science Center:

You have what you call the Process Model of forgiveness in which you walk people through a series of steps toward forgiveness. It seems to me that this approach is too limiting. Why impose a particular system rather than let people forgive as they wish, when they wish, and with their own freedom of expression?

Let me start with an analogy. Suppose you are from Spain and you fly into Chicago in the United States. As you exit the airport, your goal is to get to Green Bay, Wisconsin. You have no road map and you never have been in the United States before now. Would it be an imposition if someone gave you a road map that leads from Chicago to Green Bay? Certainly, the map-giver knows that there are many different routes you could take to your final destination, but this particular road map is time-tested and gets the person to Green Bay in the shortest time possible. Would this be a service to the person from Spain or an imposition, especially when the map-giver is not insisting on the use of this map?

It is the same with the Process Model of forgiveness. Think of it as your road map to forgiving and it is your choice whether or not to use that map and even whether or not to engage in all of the units of the Process Model. In my own experience, when people want to forgive, many do not know how to do so or to do so in as efficient way as possible. The Process Model is an empirically-verified treatment. In other words, it has been shown in scientific studies to work in aiding people’s forgiving and in reducing emotional distress. It then is the person’s own choice to use it or not, when to use it, and how to use it.

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness.

I was told I have not truly forgiven someone, because I do not trust the person anymore. I thought we can forgive an offense, but have to work on restoring trust. Sometimes trust can be restored and reconciliation occurs, but other times it does not. I thought it was also possible to forgive someone without ever trusting them again. Is this not true? Please advise.

You show wisdom in making the distinction between forgiving and reconciling.

Forgiveness is a moral virtue that can start as an interior response to the one who acted unjustly. In other words, forgiveness starts with an insight that the other person has inherent worth, as you do. It also eventually can include what the philosopher, Joanna North, calls the “softened heart,” or compassion for the other.

In contrast, reconciliation is a negotiation strategy between two or more people who come together again in mutual trust. One can have the forgiving thoughts and feelings toward the other without interacting with the other person if that person continues to act in a harmful way. A goal of forgiving is to reconcile, but this does not always occur. Reconciliation involves trust, which can be difficult to re-establish unless the other shows what I call “the three R’s” of remorse (inner sorrow), repentance (a verbal expression of that sorry), and when possible recompense (making up for the injustice). These three can help re-establish trust, which usually takes time as the offending ones show a little at a time that they can be trusted by their new actions.

Learn more at Forgiving is not. . .

Finding Meaning in Suffering: I Am Someone Who Can Love Despite Hardship

Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a world renown psychiatrist, made the point that the only ones who survived concentration camp were those who somehow could find Holocaust survivors found meaning in their sufferingmeaning in what they suffered. Those who saw their suffering as meaningless died.

In other words, finding meaning in this case meant to find life. What fascinates me about Dr. Frankl’s observations is that finding any meaning seems to count in staying alive. Whether a person saw the suffering as a way to toughen the self, or as a way to reach out to other suffering people was not the main point.

I wonder now, in reflecting on Dr. Frankl’s broad view of meaning in suffering, whether he had it entirely correct. Yes, it may be the case that any meaning can keep a person alive. Yet, what kind of meaning in suffering actually helps a person to thrive, not just to live? Perhaps people thrive only when they derive particular meaning from suffering. Of course, we do not know for sure, and any comment here is not definitive because it is open to scientific investigation and philosophical analysis. With that said, I think that when people realize that suffering helps them to love others more deeply, this is the avenue toward thriving.

How does suffering help people to love more deeply? I think there are at least three ways this happens: 1) Suffering makes people more aware of the wounds that others carry; 2) Suffering makes people more determined to help those others bind To live is to suffer, to survive, is to fin meaning in the suffering. Viktor E. Franklup their wounds, and 3) Suffering gives the sufferer the courage to put into action these insights and motivations to make a difference in the lives of others.

As people love in this way, there are characteristically two consequences which help them to thrive: 1) Those who deliberately love in the face of suffering grow in character, each becomes a better person; and 2) The recipients of this love-in-action have their well-being enhanced. As those who suffer see the fruit of their loving actions, this increases satisfaction with life, increasing thriving.

When we have been treated unjustly by others, this is an occasion of suffering. Let us cultivate the habit under this circumstance of finding this meaning: I have an opportunity now to love those who have hurt me. The one avenue to loving the unjust is to forgive them. Let us remember this meaning to forgiveness: “In my forgiving, I am someone who can love despite hardship.” As we say this routinely and come to know it is true, we may find that we have been given an opportunity to thrive as persons.

Robert

I am working with clients who had alcoholic parents. These clients, now adults, tend to downplay the seriousness of their parents’ addiction. In other words, the clients tend to say this: “My parents simply did the best that they could.” There is an obvious denial of injustice by the parents. Here is the complication: The clients in so denying any wrongdoing by the parents are taking out their anger on their own children. What do you suggest I do to break this hurtful denial in my clients?

Denial can take time, but I find that emotional pain can break through the denial when you ask about that inner pain. So, to start, I suggest that you ask these questions of your clients: How are your children doing? Are they having any adjustment problems? What is the nature of these problems? Do you feel sad or frustrated or scared when you see the challenges in your children?

Give the clients a chance to see the children’s adjustment challenges and to assess their own (the clients’) pain regarding those challenges. Once the clients can see their own pain with regard to their own children’s struggles, now it is time to ask the clients: Are your children possibly inheriting your own discontent, anger, sadness, or other emotional challenges?

It is at this point that you can begin to explore the family-of-origin hurts that the clients had experienced. In summary, start with the clients’ children’s difficulties which likely are present. Then turn to how the clients’ own challenges are affecting their children. This can serve as motivation for the clients to see how they have inherited pain and now are passing this on to their own children. At this point, the clients may be open to forgiving their own parents.

Learn more at Forgiveness for Couples.

Your critic has another issue on which I would like you to respond, please. He is a mental health professional who said this: One of his clients who was angry about her divorce sent a strong letter to her ex-husband asserting how unfair he was. This made her feel much better. There was no need for forgiveness. How would you respond?

The technique employed above is what we call catharsis, or “letting off steam.” Yes, this can help in the short-run. As you ask someone who just sent such a letter, you might get a report of feeling empowered or relieved. Yet, there is a 25-year longitudinal study by Judith Wallerstein who found that many people who felt unjustly treated in the divorce are still suffering from considerable anger 10 years after the divorce. In other words, the short-term catharsis may not last and may require a stronger approach to reduce unhealthy anger. Forgiveness may be more effective in the long-run, if the client willingly chooses forgives and is not pressured into it.

For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.