Our Forgiveness Blog

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

Keeping Anne Gallagher’s Memory and Work Alive

On this date eight years ago, and with a heavy heart, I posted the obituary below on a peace hero of Northern Ireland, Anne Gallagher. 
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In that tribute, I vowed to keep Anne’s life-giving work alive and this post is one small indication of that promise. I am pleased to report that our forgiveness education work in Northern Ireland has continued. We are entering our 20th year of such service to the educators in that land. This all started through Anne’s tireless efforts and passion for peace in her homeland.
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Anne, I hope you are pleased with what we have done on the path which you started to walk so long ago.
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Robert


In Memoriam: Anne Gallagher, Seeds of Hope

It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of a true patriot for peace, Anne Gallagher of Dublin, Ireland (August 7, 2013).

ANNE GALLAGHER (1953-2013)

Anne started the peace organization, Seeds of Hope, in Ireland as a way to counter the after-effects of The Troubles. Even though the peace accord was signed in 1998, hearts were still embittered by the struggles that began to erupt in early 1972 with Bloody Sunday. Some of Anne’s friends and relations took up combat and were part of paramilitary organizations in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Anne, in contrast, sought dialogue as a way to peace.

Anne was instrumental in the International Forgiveness Institute’s transition to forgiveness education in Belfast. She tirelessly set up meetings with us at various schools such as Ligoniel, St. Vincent de Paul, and Mercy Primary School. Because of Anne’s endorsement of us, doors flew open and within about one month of trying, we were accepted into schools within the inter-face areas of the city (where contentious groups live segregated lives but in close proximity to one another)..

I recall vividly in 2003 sitting with three ex-combatants who wanted to know more about forgiveness education. They were unsure if it was a good idea. Anne set up the meeting. You see, we needed their permission to go into a particular school because some of the ex-combatants informally controlled their neighborhoods. One of them, battle-tested, said to me, “My son is in that school. Forgiveness will make him weak.” I swallowed hard and asked, “Do you want your son to grow up and live as you have?” He bowed his head and with love in his heart for his son said, “No.” It was then that he gave us permission to enter the school.

Anne was always close to danger like this. She did not care, even though some of her brothers were scared for her. Yet, she had a spark in her eyes and a conviction deep within that peace must be sought even if it meant putting oneself on the line at times.

Anne Gallagher represents peace in Ireland. We at the IFI will do our best to keep alive her vision for Seeds of Hope in each human heart. Peace be with you now, Anne.

Robert

Author’s Note: Read about the Northern Ireland Troubles, about Bloody Sunday, and about learning to forgive in the “Seeds of Hope Ex-Prisoners Think Tank Report” co-authored by Anne Gallagher (whose four brothers became involved in the Northern Ireland conflict and served long prison sentences, one being shot dead upon his release.)
— Anne Gallagher photo by Brian Moody


 

Sometimes It Takes 36 Years to Get Your Point Across: The Case for Forgiveness Therapy in Correctional Institutions

In 1985 I began to explore the social scientific study of forgiveness.  At the time there were no published empirical studies on person-to-person forgiveness.  For my very first attempt at a grant (36 years ago),  I wanted to see if we could help men in a correctional institution to heal from past trauma due to severe injustices against them prior to their crime and imprisonment. The approach was to offer forgiveness therapy for those who experienced severe abuse when they were children, as a way of reducing the resentment that can be displaced, sometimes violently, onto unsuspecting others.

For that first grant attempt over three decades ago, I was interviewed by a world famous experimental psychologist who was part of this granting agency.  This world famous person listened to my idea and then proclaimed, “This is an absolutely excellent idea.  I am going to rate your protocol as #1 in this competition.”  About a month later, much to my surprise, I received a rejection letter from the granting agency.  I made a phone call to the world-famous experimental psychologist and asked about the contradiction between his saying how excellent the work is and then I received a rejection notice.

New Study: “Approximately 90% of the men in the maximum security correctional institution have had very serious injustices against them in childhood, such as ongoing sexual abuse and abandonment.”

He angrily and intensively said to me, “Dr. Enright, you embarrassed me!  I went into the meeting with very high-powered  people, praised your work, and the entire committee was outraged.  They said to me, ‘Give Enright money to help prisoners forgive??  No.  In fact, those prisoners should be seeking forgiveness from all of us for the crimes they committed! Rejected!'”

I then went in different directions (other than corrections) with the randomized clinical trials of Forgiveness Therapy (now considered an acceptable form of psychotherapy by the American Psychological Association) until 5 years ago when professionals in corrections began to contact me saying that our Forgiveness Therapy approach might work well with incarcerated people and they asked me if I thought that was a good idea. Well……yes, I said.

We continued to be rejected as we submitted at least three more grant requests, all of which were rejected.  So, we decided to move ahead with no funding.

Our point of Forgiveness Therapy in correctional institutions is this:  Forgiveness Therapy first screens those in corrections to see if they have suffered abuse while growing up.  Our scientific examination of this, now published in the Tier-1 journal, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, shows that approximately 90% of the men in the maximum security correctional institution have had very serious injustices against them in childhood, such as ongoing sexual abuse and abandonment.  In other words, the unjust treatment toward them as children has left them with a deep resentment that can then be displaced onto others in society.  If we can find a way of reducing and even eliminating that resentment, then the person may be more amenable to traditional rehabilitation.  Forgiving the abusers is the way to do this.

To forgive is to strive to be good to those who are not good to the forgiver.  The one who forgives is practicing the moral virtue of forgiveness without excusing the behavior, or forgetting what happened (so it does not happen again), necessarily reconciling with the abuser, or abandoning the quest for justice.

For a year-and-a-half, a corrections psychologist within a maximum-security correctional institution engaged in a randomized experimental and control group clinical trial in which the professional worked with two groups of men, who were screened for abuse against them during childhood and currently have clinical levels of anger, anxiety, and depression and low empathy toward other people in general.  The research program took 6 full months for two experimental groups.

Study Results: Forgiveness Therapy can be a new, empirically-based protocol for correctional institutions which might precede and augment traditional approaches already in place.

The results show strong statistical effects for the Forgiveness Therapy in that those in the experimental group, after they forgave their abusers from childhood, went to normal or near normal levels of anger, anxiety, and depression and their empathy for people in general rose significantly relative to the control group that had traditional rehabilitation strategies.  These results were maintained 6 months after the treatment ended for the first experimental group.  These results are unprecedented in the published literature within a maximum security correctional institution.  It is extremely difficult to improve empathy in this context.  We found the strongest psychological effects for any rehabilitation approach ever published. Here is a reference to that Tier-1 publication:

Yu, L., Gambaro, M., Song, J., Teslik, M., Song, M., Komoski, M.C., Wollner, B., & Enright, R.D. (2021). Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.

We now are receiving inquires about this approach from scholars in Brazil, Israel, and Pakistan.

So, I have gone from being a total embarrassment to a granting agency 36 years ago to someone whom correction officials and researchers want to contact because of a vital idea.  Viewpoints can change over a 36 year period.  Sometimes we just have to be patient with true ideas that are life-giving until some in the world are ready to receive those ideas.

Robert

Read more about Dr. Enright’s prison work:

Your Unfolding Love Story for 2021

In March of 2014, we posted a reflection here in which we encouraged you to grow in love as your legacy of 2014.

The challenge was this: Give love away as your legacy of 2014.

We challenged you again in 2015…..and 2016……and we kept going. 

Our challenge to you now is this: Give love away as your legacy of 2021.

One way to start is by looking backward at one incident of 2020. Please think of one incident with one person in which you were loved unconditionally, perhaps even surprised by a partner or a parent or a caring colleague.

Think of your reaction when you felt love coming from the other and you felt love in your heart and the other saw it in your eyes. What was said? How were you affirmed for whom you are, not necessarily for something you did? What was the other’s heart like, and yours?

Can you list some specific, concrete ways in which you have chosen love over indifference? Love over annoyance? If so, what are those specifics and how are they loving? We ask because 2021 is about half over. When it is January 1, 2022, and you look back on the year 2021, what will you see? Now is your chance to put more love in the world.

Tempus fugitYour good will, free will, and strong will can point to a year of more love…..and the clock is ticking.

Robert


 

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them: How to Resurrect the Virtue of Forgiveness from Its Deathbed

A soaringly insightful essay entitled, “The Fading of  Forgiveness,” by the Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Timothy Keller, appeared in the May, 2021 issue of Comment magazine. Rev. Keller uses  a series of quotations to make his point that the moral virtue of forgiving is fading in modern Western culture. The quotations can be summarized this way: Forgiving allows oppressors to dominate you. So, do not forgive. Otherwise, you will stay oppressed.

In other words, the call to forgive is seen as a trick by oppressors to keep the oppressed forgiving and therefore more continually oppressed. If the oppressed are convinced that they must forgive, with no choice in the matter, and if they are taught to think in either/or ways (they must either forgive or seek justice, but never both), then the critics of forgiveness have a good point. Yet, they are wrong in their understanding of what forgiveness actually is. The harsh critics of forgiveness need good forgiveness education to realize that forgiving is a choice, not a commanded law that must be done, and that the moral virtues of forgiving and justice can and should occur together.

Another wise article, this one by Dr. Kari Konkola, appeared in Humanitas magazine in 2019, “What Psychology Might Learn from Traditional Christianity.” As with Rev. Keller, who is seeing the demise of forgiveness, Dr. Konkola sees the demise of humility in modern Western culture. This is the case because of similar themes echoed by Rev. Keller. There is a rise in emphasis on justice apart from mercy which leads to excessive cries of injustice, excessive accusations of oppression with concomitant increases in anger and rage, divisions and acrimony, and a decided lack of an appreciation of reconciliation, harmony, and a working toward a genuine common good.

The cause, he argues, is a rise in pridefulness which may have origins in our genes, with the evolutionary tendency toward dominating others through the genetic mechanism of the survival of the fittest. For Dr. Konkola, and many Christian thinkers in the 15th through the 17th centuries, the antidote for this oppressing and self-interested activity is the now-faded moral virtue of humility. Humility restores the practice and the valuing of forgiving and inspires the reawakening of the call to the common good, now being lost as people strive to be better than others, to dominate others.

When we put these two articles together, we see a common theme discussed by both authors: Christian teaching in its ancient form was a call to forgiveness and humility, not to be dominated or to dominate, but instead to spread love to others, for the common good, for harmony among people so that we all work together to end oppression, to end others’ sorrow.

If both authors are correct, then deep Christian education needs to embrace  forgiveness education, with its emphasis on love and humility as the forgivers, in suffering for their oppressor, offer the hand of potential harmony to those who misbehave. Good forgiveness education instructs students that they must not abandon the quest for justice when they exercise mercy. Good forgiveness education does not over-emphasize the “therapeutic” culture (that forgiving only is for the forgiver) but goes more deeply into the insight that forgiving in its essence is a decision to love and to engage in loving actions toward someone who was not loving toward the forgiver.


Forgiving is a choice, not a commanded law that must be done; the moral virtues of forgiving and justice can and should occur together.”

Dr. Robert Enright


Are forgiving and humility fading in modern Western culture? Perhaps it is time for educational leaders and parents to galvanize their wisdom and energy to provide this kind of education for the children. Then let the children lead the revival of these central virtues that can thwart ideologies of power-over-others. Let the children learn through forgiveness education that the means of love and humility eventually lead to a better world than do the means of cultural revolution and destruction, which are devoid of such love and humility.

For example, the Catholic community with its worldwide schools seems particularly positioned for such forgiveness education. Implementing forgiveness in these schools on a worldwide basis just might reawaken a world which is starting to fall asleep to forgiveness and humility. Our International Forgiveness Institute already has constructed 17 forgiveness curriculum guides for students from age 4 to age 18, including an anti-bullying guide and two curriculum guides for parents.

Using those guides, Forgiveness Education has been implemented successfully in Greece, Iran, Israel, Liberia, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Turkey, the United States and other countries. A more concentrated effort by the educational leaders and parents could be the beginning of a revolution of quiet and gentleness and love, in contrast to the tired ideologies of meeting unfairness only with anger and resistance and fire and destruction.

What will win: the genes calling for the survival of the fittest or the grace to overcome these by learning to love and forgive and then finding the path to justice for all? Once they have accurately learned about forgiveness, and if they so choose to forgive, then let the children lead us.

Robert

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