Teaching Forgiveness to “the poorest of the poor” Around the World

Editor’s Note: Dr. Robert Enright, the man Time magazine called “the forgiveness trailblazer,”  just returned from a European forgiveness-teaching tour that included sessions in Edinburgh, Scotland; Belfast, Northern Ireland; and Rome, Italy. Here is an update on his activities in the first of those locations:

Edinburgh, Scotland Earlier this year, Dr. Robert Enright and  colleagues began a two-phase forgiveness research project with homeless individuals in Edinburgh. Many of those individuals receive services from the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation of women dedicated to the poor, that has taken a strong interest in the forgiveness project and that has become a full-partner with the IFI in the Edinburgh research initiative.

Mother Teresa with the “street children” of Calcutta, India.

The Missionaries of Charity was founded more than 60 years ago by the late Mother Teresa, now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work with those she characterized as “the poorest of the poor.”

Initially established in Calcutta, the organization quickly expanded into countries outside India and at the time of her death in 1997, Mother Teresa had created over 750 homes in more than 135 countries, providing food pantries, orphanages, homes for AIDS patients and people with leprosy, as well as shelters for battered women, people addicted to drugs, and the poor.

The religious order has now grown to more than 6,000 Missionaries of Charity Sisters, 400 Missionaries of Charity Brothers, 40 Missionaries of Charity Fathers (priests), and 100,000 Lay (non-religious) Missionaries of Charity volunteers. Their services are provided, without charge, to people regardless of their religion or social status.

As part of the Edinburgh campaign, Dr. Enright and others are collaborating with Missionaries of Charity volunteers who are in the process of conducting interviews and administering a variety of anger, injustice, worth, and dignity scales to men and women who do not have stable home situations in Edinburgh.

A homeless woman sleeps in an Edinburgh graveyard. Photo by Murdo MacLeod-The Guardian-UK.

So far, we are seeing two distinct patterns emerge from those interviews and self-assessments,” Dr. Enright says. “One of those behavior patterns is pretty much what we expected but the second one presents a significant challenge related to how we address it through an appropriate forgiveness intervention.”

Most or the homeless interviewed in Edinburgh are deeply hurting because of past injustices/trauma and about one-third of them readily admit to being treated unjustly and they admit their pain, according to Dr. Enright. “These are the ones, we think, who may significantly benefit from having a forgiveness program,” he adds.

The second group, again about one-third of those interviewed, are characterized by Dr. Enright as deeply hurting because of past injustices–a pain that is so traumatic that they are not quite yet ready for forgiveness programs because they are in deep denial about what happened and about their depth of pain.

“I think this denial of the pain, the inability to yet see it and face it, keeps them imprisoned in their homeless pattern,” Dr. Enright observes. “They need much love and encouragement to break though their own barriers so that they can confront the injustice, forgive, heal, and then become resilient.”

Missionaries of Charity in their traditional saris.

Dr. Enright and colleagues are in discussions with the Missionaries of Charity volunteers about the structure and the Edinburgh-specific refinements for the forgiveness intervention that will be deployed in phase two of the project. Those guidelines could establish a precedence for a world-wide set of forgiveness interventions for the poor with direct instruction for both adults and children. 

Members of the Missionaries of Charity order designate their affiliation using the initials, “M.C.” A member of the congregation must adhere to the vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and a fourth vow, to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”  They are identified by wearing the traditional white religious habits with blue trim. In the U.S., a full 20% of American nuns are members of the Missionaries of Charity.

In Scotland, homelessness is called “rough sleeping.” For those rough sleeping, the risk of assault and theft are high. The weather can do real damage to their health and the stress of survival living takes a huge toll on their mental and physical health. The estimated lifeexpectancy of a rough sleeper is 43, pretty much half that of the general population.

A woman beggar sits on the pavement of a busy street in Edinburgh. Photo by Third Force News (TFN), Scotland.

The Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group (HARSAG) was set up in 2017 to recommend to Scottish Government Ministers the actions and solutions needed to eradicate rough sleeping and transform the use of temporary accommodation in Scotland. The group’s final report, issued in June 2018, says that “homelessness must be seen as a public health priority” and makes more than 70 recommendations on ending homelessness in Scotland including those on welfare reform, ensuring adequate affordable housing, homeless assessment and intervention (much like the IFI is doing in Edinburgh), tackling child poverty, and others. ◊


How can I introduce forgiveness into my own family. I am a mother of three children, ages 6, 8, and 11.

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.

I hang out with friends and a constant norm in our group is to express, and keep expressing, lots of anger. I see this as so much unnecessary anger. Please, what should I do? I ask because this constant expression of anger is wearing me down.

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 am afraid to forgive because it could open up old wounds. Maybe I am better off just living with the pain.

Let us start with an analogy. Suppose you have a torn ligament in your knee and your physician recommends surgery. Suppose further that you are afraid of the surgery because it and the subsequent rehabilitation work will be painful. Would you just live with the knee pain, which could get worse and interfere with your quality of life, or would you go ahead with the surgery? Please notice that you will have pain either way—because of the torn ligament in the knee or because of the surgery and rehabilitation. The latter pain will end. The knee pain from the neglected medical treatment will continue and possibly get worse. Which do you choose?

It is the same with the process of forgiveness. You already have the “old wounds” because of the injustice against you. Forgiveness does not create more “old wounds” but instead introduces new and **temporary pain** because of the surgery-of-the-heart and the forgiveness rehabilitation, which could lead to permanent healing. Thus, I would not let the “old wounds” stand in the way of genuine healing.

For additional information, see: Holding Grudges? Forgiveness Key to Healthy Body.

Is it possible for someone never to be ready to forgive?

Yes, and I see this especially when the injustice is very grave, such as the murder of one’s family member. The anger can be so intense that the person refuses to forgive for this particular issue. This does not mean that the person is closed to forgiving all other people for other kinds of injustices. At the same time, a refusal to forgive today is not necessarily a person’s final word on the matter. In time, this person may decide to try forgiveness.

For additional information, see: Forgiveness Defined.

I can understand how forgiveness is part of philosophy and theology, but I am having a hard time seeing how forgiveness can be placed into the scientific arena. After all, this is a highly abstract concept. How can it be studied scientifically?

Forgiveness is not the only abstract concept studied scientifically. The theme of justice also is abstract and has been part of the scientific landscape since at least 1932 when Jean Piaget began his work on children’s and adolescents’ understanding of justice. Gratitude is another abstract construct that is studied in the social sciences. We can study forgiveness because it is possible to define forgiveness in such a way as to make it concretely measurable. For example, we have the Enright Forgiveness Inventory which assesses the degree to which participants forgive one other person who was unfair to them. We categorize forgiving in this scale into 6 dimensions: the degree to which the participant 1) harbors negative thoughts and 2) negative feelings, and 3) exhibits negative behaviors toward the unjustly acting person; the degree to which the participant shows 4) positive thoughts and 5) positive feelings, and 6) exhibits positive behaviors toward the unjustly acting person. We are able to get a score for each participant. Science shows that when people go through forgiveness intervention programs, then their forgiveness scores on this scale tend to increase. People with high scores on this scale tend to show better mental and physical health than people who have very low scores on this forgiveness scale.

For additional information, see: Forgiveness Research.

You keep calling forgiveness a “moral virtue” and then automatically conclude that it is good. I don’t see it that way. To me, forgiveness is an evolved biological survival mechanism to keep people from killing each other. In other words, your calling forgiveness a “moral virtue” is a cognitive illusion to make it sound more special than it actually is. If you see it as a biological advance along the evolutionary continuum, it seems then to reduce the high value you place on it. What do you think?

Let us suppose for a moment that you are correct. Even if you are correct, this does not mean that people **automatically** forgive as if this is some kind of an instinct. People still have to:

  • cognitively understand that to forgive is to be good to those who are not good to them;
  • decide to appropriate forgiveness, making it a choice, not an automatic response;
  • struggle to forgive. It takes effort and even some pain to be good in this context;
  • understand that there are no guarantees from the other that reconciliation will occur and occur well.

Do you see that to forgive still is something that is slowly formed within a person as good, comes out as a heroic choice, moves forward as kindness toward others, and is done even if it will not lead to others stopping their destructive behavior? If you see this, then what words other than “moral virtue” would you use? If this only is an evolved biological mechanism, then why do so many people not understand what forgiveness is and refuse to forgive? It seems to me that if forgiving were an evolved biological action, then we would see more people engaging in it and without such a struggle to complete it well.

For additional information, see: What is Forgiveness?