Forgiveness: 3 Misconceptions
When I began 30 years ago to apply social scientific methods to the ancient moral virtue of forgiveness, my students and I ran into a rather large problem. People were afraid to forgive. When we probed this fear, we began to realize a common theme across the fearful. They equated forgiving with automatically and dutifully going back into abusive situations. “My spouse denigrates me. If I forgive, then I go back for more……but I do not want to go back for more. Thus, I will not forgive.”
It took us a while, but eventually we saw that to forgive is not the same as to reconcile. Forgiveness, as with justice and patience and kindness, is a virtue, originating inside people as an insight (I can be good to those who are not good to me) and as a feeling of empathy and compassion for the offending other, not because of the offense but in spite of it. Forgiving behaviors flow from the insight and compassion.
Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a behavioral negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust. You can forgive and not trust a person in their weak areas (you do not lend money to the compulsive gambler even though you can try to be good to the person in other ways as a sign of forgiving). You can forgive and not reconcile at all if the other remains abusive.
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. This insight opened the door for social scientific work on forgiveness for us because to forgive is not to create unsafe situations for the forgiver.
We now turn to two, what I call, Modern Misconceptions, the latest critiques of forgiveness, particularly Forgiveness Therapy, a new form of psychotherapy which emerged from the research journey begun three decades ago (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). These Modern Misconceptions are quite different from the early misconception because they target forgiveness itself—not fear—and are highly critical of this potentially life-changing virtue, even if practiced well and with patience.
Modern Misconception 1 goes something like this: You who advocate for Forgiveness Therapy or Forgiveness Education with students (Enright, Rhody, Litts, & Klatt, 2014) ask way too much of forgivers. You ask them to bear the burden of their own healing and that is not fair. They already have been hurt so why ask them now to struggle after forgiveness?
Two burdens are theirs: the original offense and now Forgiveness Therapy. Yet, as with the equating of forgiveness with reconciliation, this Modern Misconception has an error embedded within it. It is not at all an added and unnecessary burden to help a person, whose heart is broken, to forgive.
Take a physical analogy to make the point clear. Suppose James pushes Jeremy to the ground, dislocating his shoulder. Is it unwise now to ask Jeremy to enter into a rehabilitation process to repair the shoulder? Is it an added burden we should never ask because he is hurting? It would seem that the unfairness lies, not in the encouraging of medical treatment, but the reverse—discouraging it because it will be rigorous and painful.
Is it not the same with Forgiveness Therapy for those who choose it? The heart is broken, yes, because of the original unfairness. If the person chooses rehab of the heart—Forgiveness Therapy—isn’t this repair good even though rigorous and painful? The Modern Misconception might keep people from rehab of the heart and so it needs to be challenged.
Modern Misconception 2 has emerged from my giving 13 invited forgiveness talks in an area of the world plagued by a land dispute that is disrupting individual, family, community, and political peace. The misconception unfolds this way: You say that forgiveness is good, but how will it get my land back? It will not get my land back. Therefore, forgiveness is weak and ineffective. I will have nothing to do with it.
My response is to give a multiple choice question to the skeptic. Which of these two would you rather have:
- You live for the rest of your life without getting your land back and you also live with a deep anger that disrupts your inner life and the life of those around you; or,
- You live for the rest of your life without getting your land back and you are free of the deep anger that disrupts you, your loved ones, and your community?
Which do you choose? In every case across the 13 lectures, the skeptic ends up choosing answer (B), living without the debilitating resentment. It is at that point that the person is willing to explore the subtleties of forgiveness without dismissing it. Such exploration could, in the long run, save lives from psychological devastation. The error in Modern Misconception 2 occurs when the person focuses exclusively on the original problem (land dispute) without even realizing that a second, just as serious, problem has emerged because of the land dispute—resentment entrenched in the heart. Forgiveness can cure this second problem while not being able to solve the original problem. Without seeing this, the person rejects forgiveness as weak.
Misconceptions…..they can drive a person away from forgiveness or become a stimulus for more thoroughly exploring what forgiveness has to offer. Left unexplored, the Modern Misconceptions could leave some people without a path of healing that could have been theirs……if only they had explored more deeply.
Posted in Psychology Today February 18, 2017
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R.D. , Rhody, M., Litts, B., & Klatt. J.S. (2014). Piloting forgiveness education in a divided community: Comparing electronic pen-pal and journaling activities across two groups of youth. Journal of Moral Education, 43, 1-17.