Our Forgiveness Blog
I recently heard a speech in which the speaker equated forgiving with seeing the humanity in the one who offended. The one who was victimized sent a letter to the offender stating that the offending person owes the victim nothing. The speaker said that the letter was sent to set the self free. While these aspects of forgiving (seeing the other as more than the offense and writing the letter for one’s own sake) are both laudable and part of forgiveness, they do not, in themselves, constitute what forgiving is in its essence.
Had the speaker said something such as the following to the audience, it would be reasonable because the speaker would be instructing the audience that this is not the sum total of forgiveness: “I have worked at seeing the offending person as much more than his actions against me. I sent a letter to him to set myself free. These are part of forgiveness, perhaps the best I can do for now, but there is much more to what forgiveness is than this.” Otherwise, the messenger is engaging in the logical fallacy of reductionism, or reducing what forgiveness is to less than what it actually is.
Such a clarification is important for this reason: Because forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is about goodness directed deliberately toward the other person for that offending person’s sake. A letter sent for one’s own benefit is quite different from sending it to aid the one who offended. Again, the motive of self-healing is good, but there is more. The benefits toward the self are consequences of forgiving; these benefits for the self are not what forgiveness is in its essence.
Forgiveness is a response of mercy toward the one who offends. It also includes the cultivation of compassion toward that person, the bearing of pain for the other, and the giving of a gift because that is what mercy does. Forgiveness, then, is centered not only on insight about the other person but also on a deliberate gift-giving toward that person. This does not mean that all who forgive reach this fuller level of forgiving, but it does mean that this is the goal.
When people are asked to speak to an audience, this implicitly sets up the expectation that the speaker has a certain wisdom about the topic so that the audience will get as clear an understanding of the topic as possible. When the speaker then engages, without realizing it, in the logical fallacy of reductionism, this does not advance deep knowledge of that topic.
The take-away message of this blog post is this: When you hear a scheduled talk by someone who is considered an authority on the subject of forgiveness, be very careful not to conclude that what the speaker is saying must be the truth and nothing but the truth because the person was asked to speak. Sometimes, there is reductionism or patently false information given on the complex topic of forgiveness. Let the listener beware.
Because forgiving others is a moral virtue, we cannot reduce the act of forgiveness to a psychological technique. For example, we cannot engage one time in “the empty chair technique” and have a deeply hurt forgiver sit in the chair of the one who acted unjustly and then gain full insight into that person’s wounds with a resultant overflowing compassion toward that person. To clarify, there is nothing wrong with this technique, but we cannot think of it as complete. As an analogy, if you will take out a gym membership to get into physical shape, your goal is not reached as you go on the treadmill one time or do 20 bicep curls only once. To become physically fit, you need repetition, for a long time.
It is the same with becoming forgivingly fit. Your task is not accomplished by engaging in one set of actions, in one psychological technique. Growing in any of the moral virtues takes time, perseverance, and a strong will to keep at it. As Aristotle reminds us, we need three things to grow in the moral virtues: practice, practice, practice.
We can even engage in our forgiveness practice when we do not have a particular person in mind to forgive today. Here is an example: As we forgive, we struggle to see the inherent worth in others. So, as we interact with people today, even those with whom we are getting along, we can say to ourselves, “This person probably has a history of being wounded in some way by others in the past. This person has built-in worth that cannot be taken away.” As you pass by strangers in a store or on the street, you can say the same about them. The key here is to train one’s mind to see the inherent worth in others so that you can then apply this learning toward those who hurt you, as you decide to forgive.
Here is another idea for growing in forgiveness fitness: Make a list of as many people as you can remember who have hurt you, from your childhood to now. List who the person is, what occurred that was unjust, and your degree of hurt on a 1-to-10 scale. Then order all of these people from the least hurtful (but still a challenge for you now) to the most hurtful. Start with the one person who hurt you the least and go through the forgiveness process with that person. When you think you have accomplished forgiving this one person, and it might take weeks, then go to the next person on the list. Continue until you reach the person who wounded you the most. You then may be ready to forgive this person because you have engaged in practice, practice, practice in forgiving and so your forgiveness fitness likely has increased.
Becoming forgivingly fit takes time, perseverance, and a strong will. As in becoming physically fit, you will notice a difference inside of you that includes well-being and even a sense of wholeness. What do you think: shall we hit the forgiveness gym now?
〈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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Read more about Dr. Enright’s prison work:
- Forgiveness Therapy in a Maximum-Security Correctional Institution: A Randomized Clinical Trial
- The Visit to a Maximum Security Prison
- Forgiveness Therapy for the Imprisoned in Israel
- Reflections from Prison: “Forgiveness Saved My Life”