One surprise is how angry some people can get when the word forgiveness is mentioned. I find that this happens especially when the one so angered has been treated very badly by others. The person then sees forgiveness as possibly dangerous (because it is seen as giving in to the other’s manipulations) and morally inappropriate (because the person thinks that one has to receive justice before forgiveness occurs). Another surprise I have found, by studying forgiveness scientifically, is how powerful it is in restoring psychological health when the person has been devastated by the injustice.
Let us take comfort from Aristotle here. This ancient Greek philosopher instructed us that it takes much time and effort to grow in each of the moral virtues such as justice, patience, kindness, and forgiveness. None of us is perfect as we try to exercise any of these virtues. As part of the process of growing in the moral virtue of forgiveness, we are challenged to take this wider perspective on those who have been unjust to us.
I have found that it is quite rare for people to take this wider perspective without some instruction. So, please be gentle with yourself. You still are growing in this moral virtue. You cannot be expected to be perfect in this process. So, as you take this longer perspective on the one who hurt you, please try to be encouraged that you, like most of the rest of us, do not automatically generate such thinking.
Therefore, you definitely are not, in your word, “stupid.” We are all on this journey of discovery and it is all right that we are not perfect at this point. In fact, Aristotle counsels us that we never reach full perfection in any of the moral virtues.
I would like to suggest an important addition to your exercises of taking your partner’s perspective. You seem to consider him primarily at the time of your conflict and his leaving. Yet, is there more to him than this? For example, was he abandoned as a child? Did someone emotionally wound him as a child or adolescent so that he now is so wounded that he cannot endure a healthy relationship? My point is this: I think there is more to him than his apparent insensitivity to you in the recent past. Is it possible that he has brought a certain brokenness into your relationship? If so, how are you viewing him when you realize this, if it is true?
Yes, this can happen and here is one example. A study by Hansen and Enright (2009) was done with elderly women in hospice. Each had about 6 months to live. We screened the participants so that each of them had been hurt deeply in the past by a family member and each participant still was not forgiving. This was our shortest forgiveness intervention ever, 4 weeks. It was short because the life-span expectancy was short for each of the courageous women who volunteered for the study. At the end of the study, those who had the forgiveness intervention increased statistically significantly in forgiveness toward the family member(s) and in hope for the future. Some of the participants called their family to their bedside and talked about forgiveness and reconciliation in the family. Why did hope increase significantly? I think this occurred because the participants now knew that they were leaving their family in a much better position, a place of forgiveness and harmony.
Here is the reference to that research:
Hansen, M.J., Enright. R.D., Baskin, T.W., & Klatt, J. (2009). A palliative care intervention in forgiveness therapy for elderly terminally-ill cancer patients. Journal of Palliative Care, 25, 51-60. Click here to read the full study.
Meagan Napier and her best friend, Lisa Jo Dickson, were driving to Meagan’s home after an outing in Pensacola, FL on May 11, 2002. They never reached their destination.
Around 2:30 that morning (the day before Mother’s Day), a drunk driver hit the car Dickson was driving and rammed it into a tree. Both of the 20-year-old women were killed instantly. The 24-year-old drunk driver who caused the crash, Eric Smallridge, was eventually found guilty of DUI manslaughter (Driving Under the Influence of drugs or alcohol) and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Unlike many too-often-repeated drunk driving crashes that result in deaths, the sentencing in this case was not the end of the story. In fact, it was just the beginning of an amazing story of commitment, forgiveness and lives saved. Please read on.
Shortly after Smallridge was sentenced, Meagan Napier’s heart-broken mother, Renee, made a commitment that something positive would result from the deaths of her daughter and her daughter’s friend Lisa.
So Renee began traveling to schools in her community to warn students about the dangers of drunk driving. As word of her compelling DUI presentations spread, she began receiving speaking requests from groups outside Pensacola and soon her part-time local commitment turned into a full-time nation-wide educational mission to prevent more unnecessary death’s like Meagan’s.
Still, as speaking engagements consumed more and more of her time, Renee felt there was something missing. She decided to visit the imprisoned man who was responsible for her daughter’s death. That initial meeting with Eric turned into a second meeting, and a third, and many more after that. What Renee discovered during those visits was that Eric was not the monster she had been imagining but was just like so many other hurt people who try to drown their anger and resentment in alcohol, in drugs, or whatever make-it-feel-good vice is available to them.
At the same time, Renee began learning about the healing power of forgiveness and eventually she forgave Eric–not because she felt sorry for him, but because she needed to release the pent-up anger and emotions in her own heart and mind that were taking their toll on her health and well-being.
“I could be angry, hateful and bitter,”Renee says. “But I didn’t want to live my life that way. There was no way I could move on and live a happy life without forgiving Eric.”
Renee said that prior to finding the courage to forgive Eric, she felt like she was the one in prison and that forgiveness “freed me from the darkest place I have ever been.”
Not only did Renee forgive Eric, she even approached the judge who had sentenced him to prison. Through a series of meetings and petitions (and with the strong support of the Dickson family), she somehow convinced the judge to cut Eric’s sentence in half–from 22-years to just 11 years–and to allow Eric to join her (bound by shackles and handcuffs) on many of her DUI presentations in order to also share his powerful testimony.
Even though Renee has forgiven him, Eric says he doesn’t know if he will ever be able to forgive himself. He says he is certain, however, that he will not drink alcohol ever again. Still on probation, Eric works at a Goodwill store and as a personal trainer. His mother serves as his unofficial chauffeur because his driver’s license, of course, was revoked.
“I was so selfish because I never considered what effect drinking and driving could have on someone other than me,” Eric tells audiences. “I made a bad decision, and now two young people are dead because of it.”
Though they admit that their relationship may confuse many, Renee and Eric agree that sharing their life-saving cause has helped them heal. They conclude each presentation with a compelling embrace.
Renee, who has become an award-winning speaker, is also the Founder and President of The Meagan Napier Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization formed for two purposes: 1) to raise awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol; and, 2) to promote forgiveness and healing. It operates under the banner of “Promoting Forgiveness • Mending Hearts • Saving Lives.”
“We live in a world with a lot of pain and heartache,” Renee says. “I want to promote love and forgiveness and help break that cycle of hatred.”
I would agree with the following: Humans, unlike any other primates, have a free will. This unique characteristic allows us to make choices that can affect our very humanity. Given this premise that we all have free will, and given the further premise that our choices can affect our humanity, it then follows that we can grow in our humanity, growing toward the greater good. If this is the case, then, through our free will choices, we can either grow in our humanity (toward the good of justice, courage, wisdom, temperance, forgiveness, and agape love in service to others) or diminish in our humanity (toward treating others as objects, cowardice, deliberately bad choices, greatly excessive behaviors, hatred, and selfishness). I would avoid the term “bad person.” Why? It is because a diminished humanity, forged by a free will of bad choices, always can be reversed by that very same free will that diminished the person’s true humanity (the goodness mentioned above). If we say someone is a “bad person” this is too permanent a label, given the free will possibility of reversing the choices that led to the stereotype of others calling the person “bad.”
Forgiveness does not ask you to “turn your back on the past.” When we forgive, we remember, but we remember in new ways rather than re-living all of the grim details that caused us pain. For example, when you forgive, you see the one who hurt you as emotionally wounded (if this is true). You see the other’s vulnerability. This helps to reduce the pain as you recall what happened. Also, as you forgive, you likely will not be re-living that event as often as you did before forgiving.