Archive for August, 2021

Forgiveness and Finding Meaning in Sacrifice

〈This is an excerpt from my book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.〉

When you sacrifice for others, you are doing a lot more than acting in service to them. They may be bleeding emotionally inside, and you then bleed inside to help them stop bleeding inside.   For example, Brian’s mother, Yolanda, was overly-controlling toward him and his partner, Simone. Instead of distancing himself from Yolanda, he spent time gently giving her examples of her not letting him, in her own mind, develop independence in adulthood. This took energy, a checking of his anger so it did not spill out to her, and some suffering on his part to help her to understand.

Of course, we have to exercise temperance here too. Sacrifice does not mean that you do damage to yourself. The paradox is that as you sacrifice for others, you experience emotional healing.

Dr. Frankl, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, provides a remarkable case study of the kind of meaning one can find in sacrificing for others. His example is not in the context of forgiveness.  I relate it to you so that you can see how sacrifice works and becomes an aid to the one who is doing the sacrificing. An elderly physician came to see Dr. Frankl because of the loss of his wife 2 years earlier. Dr. Frankl saw that he was psychologically depressed. His question to the physician was this: “What would have happened to your wife if you were the one to go first?” With that question a bigger picture opened for the physician. Had he gone first, then it would have been his beloved wife who would be visiting Dr. Frankl for her depression. By her going first, she was spared years of grief. The physician then understood that he could willingly take on the suffering on behalf of his wife……….

Can you see how a sacrificial attitude, within reason, could aid you in forgiving and in overcoming resentment? I say within reason because you do not want to overdo this either. If a person refuses to hear what you have to say, or refuses to accept your sacrificial gestures and begins to use you, then it is time to reexamine the approach. None of these approaches is foolproof. If you see benefit in the sacrificial attitude and related behaviors, then what is your particular plan? What will you do that is hard for you to do in service to the other? How long will you give this undertaking? Do you see even a glimmer of evidence……that the other is open to even small change? Be sure to monitor your coping level during this exercise so that the sacrifice does not lead to an even greater resentment. If that begins to happen over a period of time, then it is time to reevaluate this particular approach in your case. If, on the other hand, it seems to be working, then stay at it as long as you can and as long as the other is willing to work with you in changing behaviors.

Reflect on the possibility that without your forgiveness, that person may never learn to live well. You may be playing a part in helping him or her grow deeply as a person. How might that be? He or she is being given a chance to see what genuine love is and to see it in action. Your sacrificial approach may even be playing a part in the very survival of this person. Of course, you do not want to go so far with this sacrifice that you do damage to yourself. Instead, the point here is that as you give of yourself, within reason, this giving might prove to be emotionally healing for you. When you are ready, write down your answer to the question of how you may be aiding the other’s healing.

Dr. Frankl then gives the reader an insight that is worth remembering: Sacrifice changes as soon as it is linked to a sound meaning that underlies it. The physician now had a meaning for going on, and his willing acceptance of outliving his wife was a sign that he loved her and wanted her safe.

Robert

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If I forgive and then do not want to interact any longer with the person, is this false forgiveness or what you call pseudo-forgiveness?

No, this is not necessarily false or pseudo-forgiveness. This is the case because to forgive and to reconcile are not the same. Forgiveness is a moral virtue; reconciliation is not a moral virtue, but instead is a negotiation strategy of two or more people coming together again in mutual trust. If the other’s behavior continues to be hurtful, with no change in sight, then your not wanting to reconcile seems reasonable, at least for now until the other truly changes. If, in contrast, the other is now trustworthy and you do not want to interact, perhaps you still are harboring resentment. In this case, continuing to forgive might open the door to a genuine reconciliation.

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I am amazed that some people still do not understand and appreciate forgiveness, whether it is the giving or the receiving of it. Why are there so many people who don’t understand or accept forgiveness?

I think one reason why people do not understand forgiveness is because we so rarely take forgiveness deeply seriously in any society.  For example, when have you heard, in a family or a classroom, an extended discussion of what forgiveness is and why it is important?  I think it is time to change that and start discussions of what forgiveness is and what it is not.  Why some reject forgiveness, I think, has two answers.  First, some people misunderstand forgiveness as weakness or as automatic reconciliation with hurtful other people.  Second, some people are so profoundly angry that their resentment then gets in the way of their own healing as they reject the idea of forgiveness.

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From your studies, when in human history was there a first mention of the inherent worth of all persons?

From my own studies, I think this idea of the inherent worth of all persons first appeared in Hebrew scripture thousands of years ago, in their very first book of Hebrew scripture, Genesis 1, where it says that people are made in the image and likeness of God. The idea is repeated in that same chapter. Given that the Hebrews knew God as infinitely worthwhile, it follows that people also have worth, even if they behave unjustly toward you.

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A tornado recently destroyed part of my community. It has been rumored that someone called on us to “take the higher ground and forgive.” This does not seem quite right to me. What is your opinion?

Because forgiveness is a moral virtue, it concerns goodness toward persons not inanimate objects. A goal of forgiving is to possibly enter into a new relationship with another person. Because you cannot enter into a relationship with a tornado, it follows that you do not forgive such weather events.

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