Not Everyone Quickly Embraces Forgiveness

As we all know, a new idea can sometimes be difficult to introduce and advance. Here, for example, is the story behind Dr. Robert Enright’s very first attempt to help people in prison learn to forgive:

The year is 1985 and Dr. Enright has advanced to become a “full professor of educational psychology” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Fresh off a sabbatical leave during  which he crystalized his ongoing forgiveness research strategy, the young professor learned about an organization that funded forward-looking scientific research projects so he submitted a proposal–one that would help imprisoned people learn to forgive.

Dr. Robert Enright, as a young University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Educational Psychology and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (inset) along with a more-recent photo.

That proposal was, literally, his very first grant attempt in the science of forgiveness.  Up to that point in the social sciences, there had been no journal articles ever published with an empirical emphasis on person-to-person forgiving. Dr. Enright was obviously a pioneer in that field.

The intake worker from the granting agency not only called Dr. Enright in for an interview but ended that interview by saying, “This is a great idea. I am going to rate your proposal as #1.” Thinking the grant business was going to be easier than he had thought, the applicant went back to his university office to await the inevitable check in the mail.

About a month later, Dr. Enright received a very nondescript rejection letter from the  organization. Confused by the contradiction between high praise and quick rejection, he phoned the person who rated his project #1 and asked why the grant was rejected.

“Professor Enright,” the interviewer answered with disdain, “you embarrassed me! I went into the funding meeting with enthusiasm for your work but the rest of the group was incredulous and said, ‘Give Enright money to help prisoners forgive??  Why, they should be asking forgiveness from us!! Proposal rejected!!'”

While rejections obviously hurt, Dr. Enright did not give up. He fine-tuned his proposals and spent more time analyzing potential funding organizations. Since that first refusal, he has successfully generated significant dollars for his scientific research projects on forgiveness and forgiveness therapy that he has conducted in venues around the world.

Five years ago—30 years after this initial rejection—-he was approached by counselors at a men’s maximum security prison.  They asked him if it might be a good idea to start a forgiveness therapy program to assist the imprisoned men to forgive those who had hurt them when they were children or adolescents. 

“That sounds like a pretty good idea to me,” Dr. Enright replied, as he smiled to himself………. It only took three decades for people to catch up with the idea that learning to forgive may be an important next-step in correctional rehabilitation.  That conversation now has started forgiveness therapy research programs in correctional institutions within the United States with plans to expand into Brazil, Pakistan, and possibly Israel.

Moral of the story: Sometimes good ideas are worth a 30-year wait. 

 

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