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.
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.
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.**
It may help if people see that forgiveness is a moral virtue, as are justice, patience, courage, and love. We exercise justice in families and groups all the time. You can ask, “Why, then, can’t we make room for this other moral virtue, forgiveness?” It would be helpful if you then are attuned to the others’ misconceptions about what, exactly, constitutes this moral virtue of forgiveness: Do they see forgiving as excusing or ignoring justice? Clearing up misconceptions usually makes forgiveness more acceptable.
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!”
I find Brendan’s message and the video very interesting in this:Suzanne Freedman, whose blog on forgiveness education we recently postedhere, and I had an ideain 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.
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.
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.
Art Linkletter was a Canadian-born entertainer whose CBS radio and television show called House Party first aired shortly after the end of World War II and ran 5-days per week continuously for more than 25 years. The show’s best-remembered segment was a feature called “Kids Say the Darndest Things” in which Linkletter interviewed schoolchildren whose candid remarks provided some of his shows most precious, and hilarious, moments.
Like Linkletter, educational psychology professor Dr. Suzanne Freedman gathered lots of cute and insightful anecdotes when she recently taught two classes of 5th graders about inherent worth, moral love, kindness, respect, and generosity—the five basic components of forgiveness. Here are some of their unedited comments:
Forgiveness has made me more calm and given me more chances in life instead of death.
We are all the same when we take our skin off.
Don’t be mean to others. Even if people you know are mean to you, you can still be nice to them.
Forgiveness is one step closer to healing. When you forgive you can put it in the past.
I like forgiveness because it taught us how to not wait till it’s too late to forgive.
Forgiveness helped me be nicer to my brother and friends.
During the 27-year run of “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” Linkletter interviewed an estimated 23,000 children. The popularity of the segment led to a TV series with the same title, seven books (including Linkletter’s first book by the same title), spin-off TV shows in seven countries, and a number one record hit by country music superstar Tammy Wynette called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
On one of his more inspirational programs, Linkletter asked a four-year old if she knew how to pray. She immediately began saying the Our Father which included this nugget: “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”
Here are more of the darndest things kids like that little girl told Dr. Freedman:
You could always give a person that is mean to you a second chance because maybe the person that is being mean is having a bad day or got in an argument with their best friend.
Even though somebody is being mean to you, you could still forgive them.
It doesn’t matter if you are a different religion or have different colored eyes because everyone is the same person underneath.
When you have empathy you want to know how they feel and then you can put your feet in their shoes, and if you are getting bullied you can turn them into a friend by knowing how they feel.
Revenge is not part of forgiveness.
Dr. Freedman, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, gathered those anecdotes while conducting a forgiveness education research project with two classes of 5th grade elementary school students attending a low-income school in a Midwestern community. She instructed each class for one 30-minute lesson each week for 10 weeks with two days of pre-testing and two days of post-testing. Each class was composed of 25 ten- and eleven-year-old students representing a diverse group of races and ethnicities.
Quantitative results from Dr. Freedman’s research project demonstrated that students increased significantly in their forgiveness toward a specific offender and showed significant increases in their knowledge of forgiveness from pre-test to post-test.
Qualitative results from the study illustrated that students both enjoyed and benefited from the forgiveness education curriculum. Specifically, when asked what they learned about forgiveness education, 14 students reported that the forgiveness education “helped them learn to forgive someone.” Other comments included: “I like forgiveness because in the future we will meet other people that we do not like but we still need to forgive them;” and; “It helps me forgive people when they make bad choices.”
“This study illustrates the potential of forgiveness education to improve elementary school students’ psychological well-being and interpersonal relations as well as the importance of including forgiveness education in the school curriculum,”according to Dr. Freedman.
“Students who learn how to forgive and decrease their anger in healthy ways will be less likely to be involved in bullying and other violent acts. This research is encouraging and needs to be replicated with additional populations of children and adolescents.”
One could add that the study proves kids do indeed say the darndest things. . .♥