In my book, The Forgiving Life, I recommend an exercise that I call the Forgiveness Landscape in which you begin to think about all of the people who have ever been unjust to you. You rate what the injustice is and how deeply that injustice hurt you. You then order these people from the least-severe hurt to the most-severe hurt. You start with the least-severe hurt and begin the forgiveness process with that person. Once you finish the forgiveness process with that one person, you move up to the next person, and then the next until you are experienced enough with forgiveness to start forgiving those who have been the most hurtful to you. This exercise may prove worthwhile for your wife. In other words, she does not start with the parents. As she forgives others, who are less hurtful to her, then her psychological defenses toward her parents, in which she may have been denying the degree of hurt, may change so that she sees the deeper hurt that she has. At that point, she may have the strength, the resolve, and the expertise to forgive the parents. At that point, the nightmares may end. I wish both of you the best on this forgiveness journey.
We have forgiveness education curriculum guides here at the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. for children age 4 all the way up to adolescents ages 17 to 18. We help children and adolescents first understand forgiveness through stories, which are part of these curricula. You might consider once a week having a “Forgiveness Hour” in which you use the lessons from our curriculum guides. You also might consider even a 15 minute Family Forgiveness Forum once a week in which you discuss your own themes of forgiveness that week: How you are working on forgiving, what you are doing concretely to forgive, and how this is going for you.
For additional information, see: Forgiveness Makes Kids Happier.
You might want to gently share one of your own stories of forgiveness when the group is in a quieter state. Showing forgiveness through your own story could be the beginning of teaching your friends about what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish. With this approach, you are not demanding forgiveness from them, but instead are giving them a chance to see it in action as you describe what you did and the effects of forgiveness on you. With this approach, you might be establishing a new norm, one of forgiveness, into the group.
For additional information, see: Choose Love, Not Hate.
I emphasize willingness over willfulness because we are not always in complete control of our emotions. For example, you cannot at this precise moment will yourself not to feel anger. You can distract yourself or engage in “self-talk” to reduce the anger, but you still are not in complete control of your emotions at a given time. Thus, I advocate being open to change, but not to grow discouraged if you still need to work on those emotions that need your attention, such as unhealthy anger or even hatred. Being willing to change is not the same as “willfulness.” The latter suggests that you can will a deliberate alteration now in your emotions. Willingness, on the other hand, while still focused on your free will to be rid of unhealthy emotions, does not expect instant change in these emotions.
For additional information, see: Learning to Forgive Others.
Because forgiving is centered in the moral virtue of mercy, you, as a forgiver, do have an interest in alleviating the other’s pain or even misery, caused in part by the unfair behavior. Thus, you are right that in forgiving you are “giving.” Yet, here is where I think your reasoning has a fallacy. You are thinking in “either/or” terms. By this I mean that you seem to be reasoning this way: Either I forgive or I seek fairness, but I do not do both. Under this circumstance, yes, you are right, to forgive is to be a giver who may not get anything back. Yet, I would urge you to think in “both/and” ways. As you forgive, then seek justice. In this way, you are both giving and seeking to right a wrong, or get something back that is important to you and possibly to your relationship with the other person. This balances forgiving and justice and thus you are not “stupid” when you forgive.
For additional information, see: Forgiveness: An Offshoot of Love.
Plato reminds us in The Republic that justice is giving people what is deserved. This can include both rewards and punishments. If Person A offers $100 to Person B for building a table, the receipt of the $100 by Person B upon the successful completion of the table is fair or just. If Person C is guilty of a traffic violation and the rules of the city require any violator of this kind to be fined $100, then it is fair or just if Person C gives up $100.
Social justice, while not always defined in the same way by all advocates of this approach, basically centers on equality of outcome. For example, suppose a pizza establishment will not deliver in a neighborhood in which there is high crime and two of their delivery people were killed trying to make deliveries there in the past year.
Because innocent people in that neighborhood are not treated the same as people in safer neighborhoods, this may be considered unjust by social justice standards. Why? It is because the innocent need an equal outcome, successful delivery of pizzas, compared to those in safer neighborhoods. That the risk for the deliverers is not deserved is not an issue here. For the classical sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? They deserve to be safe in terms of laws of probability for being safe. For the new social sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? Actually, the deliverers are not the focus now. The focus is on those who have no equality of ordering pizzas. There is a decided shift to one particular group and the emphasis on equality of outcome for them.
Now we are ready to show the difference between social justice for the imprisoned and forgiveness interventions for them. In social justice and in forgiveness, we both might focus, for example, on the childhood of Person D, who was abused by his father and now Person D has abused three children, for which he is arrested. Social justice, in focusing on his childhood, might have people see that Person D is not fully to blame for his actions, but instead his unfortunate background must mitigate the length of his sentence so that he is not unequally behind bars compared to others who were not abused and are not behind bars. The quest in this particular case is to alter the sentence and thus the time served.
For our forgiveness program, as we, too, focus on Person D’s horrendously unjust childhood, we try to help Person D, if he chooses, to forgive his father for his deep injustices. This process of forgiveness might reduce Person D’s rage and thus reduce his motivation to hurt others in the future. We do not suggest that justice now be altered. We focus on inner healing and not on altering the time he is to serve in prison. Justice in its classical sense is served in the forgiveness programs, while that classical sense of justice is not served when social justice is considered, at least in the example given here.
There is a substantial difference between forgiveness as a rehabilitation strategy for those in prison and the call to alter the sentence in social justice. If there is a call to reduce sentences without the concomitant attempt to eliminate rage, one has to wonder how just this solution is. Perhaps it is time to fold forgiveness interventions into the quest for social justice so that these work together. When a reduced sentence is going to occur, then it seems wise that the rage within first is reduced.
The question posed in this essay centers on my goal in forgiving. Is the goal of forgiving to help me or is it to aid the one I am forgiving and others? The answer can get very confusing because as we muse on this idea of the goal, at least two possibilities emerge. (Actually, there are more than two, but for the sake of clarity, we will focus only on two here).
Let us make a distinction between a primary goal and a secondary goal. As an analogy, I may have as my goal the winning of a tennis match and so I am motivated to become physically fit. The physical fitness is not the primary goal, but instead is a secondary goal that could lead to the primary one of winning.
It is the same in forgiving. Sometimes forgiving is the primary goal and sometimes forgiving is the secondary goal. When a primary goal, forgiving is offered by people for the sake of the other person who acted unjustly. I want good for that person, even though I have been hurt by that person’s actions. I, thus, am motivated, not by self-interested goals, but by the altruistic goal of betterment for the other. This is a primary goal because this is what forgiving actually **is.** It is the offer of goodness, as an end in and of itself, toward others who acted unjustly.
“When forgiveness is a primary goal, it is the offer of goodness toward others who acted unjustly.”
Dr. Robert Enright
When forgiveness is a secondary goal, then we have a different endpoint, at least for now, than the other’s betterment. In most cases of forgiveness as a secondary goal, we desire to use the process of forgiveness to feel better. We are hurting, possibly feeling unrest or anxiety or even depression. We want to be rid of these and forgiveness offers a scientifically-supported path to this healing. Thus, we forgive for ourselves and not for the other. This is a secondary goal because it does not focus on the essence of forgiveness, on what forgiveness is, but instead focuses on forgiveness as a vehicle for advancing the goal of one’s own health.
As an analogy, suppose a person gets into a car to go to work. Driving the car is not the primary goal. It is a vehicle that gets one to the primary goal of going to work. Forgiving is the vehicle for health in this case. This usually is not a selfish goal, but instead a self-interested goal. To use another analogy, if a person has a throbbing knee and she goes to the doctor for relief, this is not selfish but instead is a sound self-interested goal. Going to the physician is secondary to the primary goal of walking pain-free again.
When forgiving others is the primary goal, it is showing an understanding of what forgiving is by definition. To forgive is to reach out to the other for the other’s sake. When forgiving is the secondary goal, there may or may not be a deep understanding of the essence of forgiveness. We would have to probe the person’s understanding: Is the self-interest the primary goal so that the person defines forgiveness as a vehicle for self-betterment?
We have to be careful not to conflate using forgiveness as a vehicle to promote health and the actual essence of what forgiveness **is.** If we mistakenly conflate the two, equating forgiving with emotional relief, then our definition of what forgiveness is becomes only a self-serving activity, which then moves forgiveness away from the fact that it is a moral virtue, something good for others as well as the self. Forgiveness, then, is only a psychological self-help technique, not a virtue. Virtues when practiced well become part of the person’s life, part of who the person actually is. A self-help technique never goes that far but instead is used for a while and then is discarded. We need to distinguish forgiving as a secondary goal and as a primary goal to keep its definition—what it **is**—as accurate as possible.
In summary, if we want to forgive for our own emotional relief, this is being motivated to achieve a secondary goal, and a good one. If we want to forgive for the sake of the other, this is being motivated to achieve a primary goal, and preserves the accurate definition of what forgiving **is.**