If your philosophy is based on Machiavellior post-modernism in which the assumption is that there are no universal truths, then you will be viewing forgiveness through the lens of power. If your philosophy is based on classical realism, such as Aristotle, then you will be viewing forgiveness through a moral virtue lens, with the assumption that genuine forgiving is morally good, done for others in a selfless way. The Machiavellian project,within the study of forgiveness, is dangerous because it could lead a person to falsely abandoning the quest for forgiving and shedding of hatred. After all, if forgiving is abandoned, what is the alternative to expunging hatred?
My point is this: The philosophy with which you begin contemplation on what forgiveness is and its value for you and others has profound implications for how you view this important virtue. So, as Socrates warned us, the unexamined life is not worth living. We need to examine very carefully what are our initial assumptions about forgiveness, including being aware of what philosophical model we are bringing to bear on this reflection, prior to judging forgiving as good or bad.
In my experience, because forgiveness is so little discussed with children, as least in any deep way, most children actually do not think about forgiveness and they do not know how to go about forgiving. This is one reason why instituting forgiveness education is so vitally important. Again in my experience, children who are treated unjustly in the home do not begin to reflect on this until they are in later adolescence and are in transition from the home. It often is at this time that the nearly-adult children look back and can be filled with deep resentment in need of amelioration. If these nearly-adult children already were fortified with what forgiveness is and how to go about it, this would serve them well.
The term forget has more than one meaning. It can mean not being able to remember what happened. It can mean to not dwell on what happened. It can mean that as we look back, we remember in new ways. When we forgive, we can remember and this is all right. As an analogy, if you have ever had a sports injury, you can look back; you do not forget in a literal sense the time of a challenging physical injury. Yet, when you look back at the sports injury, you do not feel the pain in the same way as you did when the event happened. I think it is the same with forgiveness. We can look back, but we remember in new ways, without the acute pain being there for us now.
“As we continually live with love withdrawn from us and a resulting resentment (with the short-term consequences of thinking with a negative pattern, thinking specific condemning thoughts, and acting poorly), we can settle into a kind of long-term distortion of who the love-withdrawing person is, who we ourselves are, and who people are in general. The basic issue here is that once love is withdrawn from us, we can begin to withdraw a sense of worth toward the one who hurt us. The conclusion is that he or she is worth-less. Over time, we can drift into the dangerous conclusion, ‘I, too, am worthless. ’After all, others have withdrawn love from me and have concluded that I lack worth, therefore I do lack worth. Even later, we can drift into the unhealthy conclusion that there is no love in the world and so no one really has any worth, thus everyone is worth-less.”
If someone breaks your leg, is it inappropriate for you, the victim, to go to the emergency room, endure surgery, and struggle with the physical rehab? It is the same with forgiving. If someone breaks your heart it is reasonable to do the emotional heart surgery that is forgiving.
No one argues about the need to stop bullying in schools. Bullying’s adverse effects not only impact the child when the bullying occurs but typically impact a victim’s health and emotions throughout the person’s lifetime (see “The Impact of Bullying” box below).
That reality has become a growing topic of concern in the academic community with bullying being cited as a universal problem in countries around the world. Over the past several decades, literally hundreds of school-wide anti-bullying programs have been developed and implemented. That raises the question, of course: Do school antibullying programs work?
The typical answer from those professionals studying that question is: “Not so well. We need to do better.”
And sure enough, that’s the inauspicious conclusion of a just-completed systematic review of scientific publications covering the past 20 years. According to the study, Whole‐school Antibullying Interventions,a full 50% of all the school programs reviewed failed to “show significant effects on bullying prevalence” or found negative results including an actual increase in bullying.
The study, published in April by the peer-reviewed journal Psychology in the Schools, was conducted by university researchers in Brazil. While their study found that anti-bullying interventions resulted in increased reporting of bullying occurrences (with resultant increases in the use of punitive discipline), at the same time many of the programs failed totally–primarily due to inadequate time for training and implementation as well as lack of support.
Dr. Kim’s thesis includes a 29-page literature review in which he documents the unusually large number of research projects demonstrating the ineffectiveness of most school-wide anti-bullying programs including:
A 2007 review of 45 separate school-based anti-bullying studies involving 34,713 individuals that concluded “the positive changes were too small to be supported as significant;”
Another 2007 examination of 16 major anti-bullying programs across 11 different countries that showed mixed results with less than half the programs demonstrating desirable effects;
A 2008 evaluation of 16 studies across 6 nations involving a total of 15,386 K-12 students that showed the interventions tended to influence students’ attitudes and self-perceptions but not their bullying behavior; and,
Studies completed in 2012, 2014, and 2015 (one involving 560 school psychologists and school counselors) supporting the lack of evidence-based interventions.
Despite all the negative assessments he uncovered, Dr. Kim believes there is one approach that might be effective–helping adolescents exhibiting bullying behavior to forgive those who have offended them in the past. That approach, Dr. Kim says, is still not widely used and is, therefore, still not a compelling component of the scientific literature although he is confident it “can be beneficial.”
That intervention approach, in fact, is the one advocated inThe Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Programdeveloped more than 8 years ago by Dr. Robert Enright,founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. The program not only incorporates lessons-learned from Dr. Enright’s more than 40-years of forgiveness research, it also integrates the scientifically-quantifiable forgiveness process he developed and , perhaps most importantly, it focuses directly on the one doing the bullying.
“Those who bully usually have pent-up anger and as a result they displace their own wounds onto others,” Dr. Enright explains. “Our program is meant to take the anger out of the heart of those who bully so that they no longer bully others.”
Dr. Enright says his research has taught him to take an approach that may seem counter-intuitive today, but will appear obvious to many in the future: “Yes, help the victim, but also help the one who is bullying to get rid of his or her anger, which is fueling the bullying. Those who bully have been victimized by others. Help them to reduce their resentment toward those who were the victimizers and the bullying behavior will melt away.”
Forgiveness and trust differ. Forgiveness as an act of mercy toward an offender can be offered unconditionally. Trust needs to be earned if the offense is deeply serious. Forgiveness is a moral virtue. Trust accompanies reconciliation, which is not a moral virtue but instead is a negotiation strategy between two or more people. Finally, you can forgive without trusting the other, at least in those areas of his or her weakness. For example, you can forgive a compulsive gambler and watch your wallet.
The student is confusing forgiveness with giving in to others’ demands. This is not forgiveness. To forgive is to know that what the other person did is wrong and yet mercy is offered nonetheless. When one forgives, one also asks for justice and so this idea of weakness or giving in is not correct. There are two basic ways of distorting forgiveness: to let the other have power over you or to seek power over the other because of his or her transgressions. True forgiveness avoids these extremes.
I do not think it is a matter of putting your anger aside. Instead, it is a matter of going ahead with forgiveness, if you so choose, even when angry. I say this because our science shows that as people forgive, their anger tends to lessen. So, you might want to start the pathway of forgiving even when you are angry. The process may help you reduce anger. In other words, you do not have to wait until the anger lessens before you start to forgive.
The point is to show that if we are to forgive well, we have to set aside our pride, our sense of self-righteousness, and realize that the one(s) who hurt us share a common humanity with us. We all have inherent or built-in worth. When we are humble, following Aristotle’s analysis of all moral virtues, we do not move toward the extremes of seeing ourselves as moral worms or as better than others because we are engaging in the practice of such an exalted virtue as humility.
Recently, I made a new friend, Kari Konkola, who holds a doctoral degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He specializes in the history of religion. As I discussed my interest in forgiveness, he responded that it would be hard to forgive if excessive pride is getting in the way. With a dominance of pride, self-righteous anger can push away the motivation to forgive.
Dr. Konkola further instructed me that humility, as a complement to forgiveness, was a central moral virtue in the Medieval period. The point during these Middle Ages was to realize that each of us is no better than others precisely because we all fall short of moral perfection. He went on to say that there has been a trend since the Medieval period in which humility as a valued moral virtue is in decline. He sees humility as the ignored moral virtue in the modern West.
So, with this challenge in mind, that humility is in decline, I decided to do a little psychological experiment. I wrote an essay centered on humility on the Psychology Today website, where I have been blogging since September, 2017. I posted the essay entitled, “Humility: What Can It Do for You” on April 27, 2020. That was over three weeks ago and the number of views for this essay as of this writing on May 20 is 477. In contrast, I posted an essay on the nine purposes of forgiveness less than a week ago and already the number of views is 2,027. It is typical to see between 5,000 and 10,000 views for some of these essays focused on forgiveness, and yet the one on humility is languishing, as Dr. Konkola may have predicted.
Humility seems to be the set-aside moral virtue. If so, then how can people forgive deeply if humility does not accompany the forgiving? How will people even gravitate toward forgiving if pride blocks all consideration of forgiving?
What has happened in the West that has led to either a disinterest in humility or even an aversion to it? Who had it right, those in the Medieval period or the modern West? I’m not sure of the precise answers here, but I am convinced that we somehow have managed to de-value an important moral virtue, one that might need to team with forgiveness if forgiving others is to be achieved well.