Our Forgiveness Blog
Editor’s Note: Exactly 10-years ago this week, in this very same website section, Dr. Robert Enright urged his blog followers to consider adopting a New Year’s resolution to “have a strong will as a forgiver.” Given the unprecedented hyperawareness of forgiveness and forgiveness interventions that has developed since then, his 2012 essay “A Reflection on Resolutions” merits an encore. Here is part of what he wrote:
“This New Year’s Day, my challenge to you is: resolve to have a strong will as a forgiver. . . By that I mean your inner determination and behavioral manifestation of staying the course, finishing the race. . . We talk in society about free will and good will, but rarely about the strong will that helps us stay the course.
“To forgive requires a free will to say yes to the path of mercy and love, a good will to embrace mercy in the face of unfair treatment, and a strong will so that you do not stop persevering in forgiveness. To persevere in forgiveness is one of the most important things you can do for your family, your community, and for yourself.
“Without the strong will, you could easily be like the rowboat, once tethered to the dock, now loosened from the moorings as it slowly drifts out to sea. As the cares of the world envelope you, the opportunity to cling to the forgiving life may slowly fade until you are unaware that the motivation to keep forgiving is gone.
“Having a strong will means that you will remember what you resolved; you will follow through with the resolution. You have the opportunity to make a merciful difference in a world that seems not to have a strong enough collective will to keep forgiveness alive in the heart. The choice is yours. The benefits may surprise you.”
Dr. Robert Enright, Ph.D., who pioneered the social scientific study of forgiveness, is co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. He is also a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a licensed psychologist. The various titles and labels that have been bestowed on him during his 37-year career devoted to forgiveness include:
- Dr. Forgiveness. . .
- Dr. Bob. . .
- The forgiveness trailblazer. . .
- The father of forgiveness research. . .
- The man who pioneered the social scientific study of forgiveness. . .
- Creator of a Pathway to Forgiveness. . . (the Enright Process Model of Forgiveness)
- The guru of what many are calling a new science of forgiveness. . .
- Aristotelian Professorship in Forgiveness Science. . .
Have you ever made a promise to love, honor, and obey outside the covenant of marriage? In a certain way, I have.
That promise, which I made in 2002, has now been fulfilled as we turn the clock to 2022. We at the International Forgiveness Institute had just decided to start forgiveness education programs at the century’s turn. The point was this: If learning to forgive can aid people’s recovery from deep injustices against them, then wouldn’t it be a good idea to help young children learn to forgive so that, once the storms of life hit them as adults, then they would have a tool, forgiveness, to avert confusion, resentment, and even possible abiding anger and anxiety? It seemed to be worth a try and so we looked around the globe with this question: Where is there a society that now is post-conflict, which has suffered, and which might benefit from forgiveness education?
Our team at the International Forgiveness Institute, after much thought and discussion, centered on Belfast, Northern Ireland for four reasons: 1) There had been The Troubles across Northern Ireland, in which Irish Catholics and British Protestants were in an escalated conflict since 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry; 2) there was a signed peace accord in 1998, which reduced the conflict, but still there was a post-conflict sense of tension; 3) the two groups were English-speaking and so we would not have to start with interpreters; and 4) Ireland and Northern Ireland are two of the closest ports-of-call from the Eastern United States.
So, off my two sons and I went in July of 2002, landing first on the West Coast of the Emerald Isle and then to Belfast, where we met the esteemed Anne Gallagher, who formed Seeds of Hope to do her best to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Anne was amazing in introducing us to primary school personnel and we had the great honor to start forgiveness education in both St. Vincent de Paul Primary School and Ligoniel Primary School, both on the Ligoniel Road in Belfast.
“Forgiveness isn’t something that’s talked about with reconciliation, but it’s needed to bring closure to the pain and suffering experienced in Northern Ireland. You can’t contemplate hope unless you address despair. To heal the wounds of Northern Ireland I believe you have to see humanity in the face of the enemy. Forgiveness is a journey.”
Anne Gallagher (1953-2013)
Upon my first visit to the principal of St. Vincent de Paul School, Mr. Brian McParland, he heard our proposal for forgiveness education and agreed that this is a vital vision for Northern Ireland. He assented to having this programme pioneered in his school. Yet, he quickly added this: “You will not last more than 3 years here in Belfast.” I was surprised to hear that and asked, “Brian, why do you say that?” He looked at me and said, “No one lasts more than 3 years in Belfast. After that time, people grow weary, the thrill of travel wears off and they quit.” I took a deep breath and answered, “Brian, I will give you 20 years.” He looked at me with kindness, but said nothing.
Well, as I consult Siri on the Apple Watch, I see that the calendar is about to turn to the year 2022. Hold on for a minute. . . I have to do a little bit of quick math. Ahh, yes. . . it has been exactly 20 years now since my promise to Mr. McParland. Our International Forgiveness Institute has successfully implemented forgiveness education now in many schools of Belfast and surrounding communities.
As we end the 20th year, some of us at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are doing a research program with 18 classrooms of primary 7 students (grade 5 in the United States), across Northern Ireland, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. This will culminate in an international conference in Madison, Wisconsin, led by Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute, in which these teachers will participate.
As I look around, I see that Mr. Brian McParland now is retired from his educational duties. Mrs. Claire Hilman, the principal at Ligoniel Primary in 2002, also is retired. Dear Anne Gallagher now has passed to eternal life. No other educators who joined us two decades ago are still there. As I look around, I see that I have kept my promise now only to God and me. And that is sufficient for the promise-keeping. I hope that at least some in Northern Ireland are the better for it.
A promise kept may bear fruit of which none of us is aware and this is why we press on with the vision for forgiveness education, started two decades ago.
On December 16 this year, I had an interview with Justin Ballis, writer for the London-based magazine, What the Doctors Don’t Tell You, that aims to provide evidence-based holistic solutions to illness. Mr. Ballis was one of the most informed interviewers on the topic of forgiveness whom I have ever encountered. The interview covered an impressively wide range of topics on forgiveness, one of which centered on criticisms leveled against the practice of forgiving those who hurt us. In his researching the skeptical views, Mr. Ballis came across a journal article on “the dark side of forgiveness” by Dr. James K. McNulty:
McNulty, J.K. (2011). The dark side of forgiveness: The tendency to forgive predicts continued psychological and physical aggression in marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 770-783.
This discussion with Mr. Ballis got me thinking: If well-informed journalists are aware of Dr. McNulty’s article, then it is important to have a thoroughgoing critique of that work, which is flawed in many ways. So, with this in mind, here is an excerpt (chapter 14) from my book with Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, Forgiveness Therapy (American Psychological Association, 2015), in which we examine the science behind this work:
McNulty (2011) claimed to have found scientific support for the view that forgiving within marriage perpetuates injustice. Seventy-two first-married couples took part in a survey in which they responded to hypothetical situations regarding forgiveness. For example, one of the partners asks the other to mail a very important package which the other partner then forgets to do. On a 1-to-7 scale, the respondent reports the degree of forgiveness that he or she would offer to the forgetful spouse. We have four criticisms of the study’s conclusions: a) The questionnaire was very short (five items); b) the questions were all hypothetical and not actual situations in the marriage; c) only one of the hypothetical scenarios is actually serious (an alleged affair), and d) the questionnaire simply asks the participant if he/she would forgive without ever defining the term. The forgetful spouse who failed to mail the package did not act with intent to harm. The one choosing to have an affair did. In other words, some respondents may be confusing genuine forgiveness with excusing or “letting go.” This is a serious flaw to the work (failing to distinguish related but quite different terms) that could have been overcome by asking people what they mean when they use the word forgiveness. The findings could reflect this: Those who score high on this scale are doing the most excusing or condoning, which could make them vulnerable to further abuse. In other words, those who excuse may not seek a proper justice solution upon “forgiving.”
So, there is our critique. My conclusion? It is this: If there is a “dark side” to forgiveness, the above study is not the one to show it.
OK, everyone, it is time to reflect on those good old school days of yore, those care-free days when everyone thought we did not have a care in the world. Yet, sometimes we carry burdens from those days and we do so in the silence of our own hearts. When was the last time that you, as an adult, had a discussion about your days in elementary, middle, or high school? When was the last time you had such a discussion with an emphasis on the emotional wounds you received back then? I am guessing that such discussion-times have been quite rare.
I wonder how many of you reading this still have some unresolved issues from the good-old-days. It is in school, within the peer group, at recess, on the sports team that our current sense of self is shaped, at least to a degree. Sometimes we are influenced by those days to a greater extent than we realize.
So, it is time for a little quiz. Please think about your days in school and see if you can identify one person who was unjust to you, so unjust that when you think about the person now, it hurts. This person is a candidate for your forgiveness. I have an important question for you: How has this person inadvertently influenced your own view of yourself? How has this person’s actions made you feel less than who you really are? Do you see that it is time to change that?
My challenge to you today is to take steps to forgive the person for those behaviors long ago that have influenced you up to this very moment. It is time to take a better look at what happened, to forgive, and then to ask the question after you forgive: Who am I now as I admit to the injustice, admit to it negatively influencing how I have seen myself all these years, and who am I now as I stand in forgiveness?
Perhaps the good old days will seem a little brighter once you forgive. You will have lifted a silent burden.
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.