We talk about taking the personal, the global, and the cosmic perspectives when trying to understand and forgive another person. The personal perspective, which you find difficult to take, asks the forgiver to examine the past of the offending person and to see if this person suffered injustices and emotional wounds from others. Because you cannot know these issues, you can move to the global and cosmic perspectives. I will share only the global perspective for you here. If you find it helpful, then you might want to go more deeply and consider the cosmic perspective, depending on your belief system.
In the global perspective, we ask people to see the common humanity between yourself as forgiver and the one who offended you. Here are some questions centered on the global perspective: Do you share a common humanity with the one who hurt you? Do you both have unique DNA in that, when both of you die, there never will be another human being exactly like you on this planet? Does this make you special, unique, and irreplaceable? Does this make the one who hurt you special, unique, and irreplaceable? Will that person die some day? Will you die some day? You share that as part of your common humanity. Do you need sufficient rest and nutrition to stay healthy? Does the one who hurt you need the same? Do you see your common humanity? In all likelihood, even though you cannot know for sure, that person has been treated unfairly in the past by others. You very well may share the fact that both of you carry wounds in your heart.
People have different affective reactions when hurt by others. As you say, sometimes people respond with sadness, some with confusion, and some with anger. I focus on the theme of anger because that is the one emotion that can deepen and cause even greater pain than currently is the case. People who are sad can and should go through the forgiveness process if they so choose. Going though the forgiveness process should lessen the sadness, even if it will not eliminate the sadness entirely in all cases. People who are very angry and who have been so for a long time should especially think about forgiving as a protection for their own well-being, as well as for the possibility of a renewed relationship, if this is a goal. Deep and abiding anger has been shown to relate to a number of mental health challenges as seen in the book, Forgiveness Therapyby R. Enright and R. Fitzgibbons (2015).
Our research shows that the decision to go ahead with forgiving is one of the hardest parts of this process. I think this is the case because change in general is difficult. For example, if we decide to get into physical shape, going to the gym for the first time, seeing all of that equipment, and deciding on the type of gym membership can be stressful. Moving to a new town and apartment for a new job is change that can be stressful. I think the decision to forgive is similar. We have questions: What, exactly, is forgiveness? Will it work for me? Will the process be painful? These initial worries can be alleviated by courageously going forward, even slowly. As people enter the process of forgiveness and they see even small benefits at first, then this increases confidence in the process and hope for a positive outcome.
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.
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.
“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 through their own barriers so that they can confront the injustice, forgive, heal, and then become resilient.”
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.
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. ◊
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.
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.
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.