Our Forgiveness Blog
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a world renown psychiatrist, made the point that the only ones who survived concentration camp were those who somehow could find meaning in what they suffered. Those who saw their suffering as meaningless died.
In other words, finding meaning in this case meant to find life. What fascinates me about Dr. Frankl’s observations is that finding any meaning seems to count in staying alive. Whether a person saw the suffering as a way to toughen the self, or as a way to reach out to other suffering people was not the main point.
I wonder now, in reflecting on Dr. Frankl’s broad view of meaning in suffering, whether he had it entirely correct. Yes, it may be the case that any meaning can keep a person alive. Yet, what kind of meaning in suffering actually helps a person to thrive, not just to live? Perhaps people thrive only when they derive particular meaning from suffering. Of course, we do not know for sure, and any comment here is not definitive because it is open to scientific investigation and philosophical analysis. With that said, I think that when people realize that suffering helps them to love others more deeply, this is the avenue toward thriving.
How does suffering help people to love more deeply? I think there are at least three ways this happens: 1) Suffering makes people more aware of the wounds that others carry; 2) Suffering makes people more determined to help those others bind up their wounds, and 3) Suffering gives the sufferer the courage to put into action these insights and motivations to make a difference in the lives of others.
As people love in this way, there are characteristically two consequences which help them to thrive: 1) Those who deliberately love in the face of suffering grow in character, each becomes a better person, and 2) The recipients of this love-in-action have their well-being enhanced. As those who suffer see the fruit of their loving actions, this increases satisfaction with life, increasing thriving.
When we have been treated unjustly by others, this is an occasion of suffering. Let us cultivate the habit under this circumstance of finding this meaning: I have an opportunity now to love those who have hurt me. The one avenue to loving the unjust is to forgive them. Let us remember this meaning to forgiveness: “In my forgiving, I am someone who can love despite hardship.” As we say this routinely and come to know it is true, we may find that we have been given an opportunity to thrive as persons.
Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement is alleged to have said that a good society is one in which it is easy to be good. I write this blog post today as I reflect on some recent news stories (posted in our Forgiveness News section of this website. We have the shooting of innocent teenagers in Ohio, we have two Americans shot in the head and killed in Afghanistan as retaliation for burned Korans at a NATO base, and we have the murder of a 4-year-old. Anger can sometimes be deadly for the other guy who just happens to be in the angry person’s way.
I wonder what those outcomes would have been had those with the weapons been bathed in forgiveness education from age 5 though 18. I wonder what those outcomes would have been had each one of the weapon-carriers, as they grew up, practiced forgiveness in the home. I wonder.
The wounds in the world are deep and everlasting, it seems. What we do here at the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. (helping people if they so choose to learn to forgive and then practice forgiveness) will never be out of date. Yet, my big worry (yes, it is a big worry) is this: Will there be sufficient laborers in the forgiveness vineyard to bring the virtue of forgiveness to children so that they can become fortified against the grave injustices that come to too many too often as adults?
I worry about those 6-year-olds, sitting now in classrooms, learning their mandated ABCs, without also learning the ABCs of how to deal with injustice. You see, society is not emphasizing forgiveness. We are not being taught forgiveness on a regular basis. We are in a society where it is not easy to be a good forgiver. And so too many of those who are bullied in school do not even think to forgive those who perpetrate the bullying. In Ohio this week, one bullied student’s response was a gun and then murder.
So much pain in the world and yet too many societies do not have the vision and the resources to bring forgiveness education far and wide. Liberia has. The Minister of Education has recently approved forgiveness education for every classroom in the country, as it emerges from a devastating 14-year civil war. Yet, at least to date there are not enough resources, there are not enough servants to get this done on the kind of scale required for Liberia to pull itself up from the ravages of anger.
Question for those who are listening: The next time a city wishes to build a $250 million complex for athletics or entertainment or whatever, who has the persuasive skills and accompanying wisdom and courage to ask that one half of one percent of that be siphoned off to forgiveness education? If we could go back and ask the deceased student in Ohio or the two Americans found in their chairs in their Afghan offices or the innocent 4-year-old what is the higher priority….what do you think they would say to us?
Society, what do you think?
Decades ago, teachers would sometimes demand that a student stand at the blackboard and write with chalk 100 times, “I will not talk in class.” We have always wondered, at the end of the writing, whether the student is humbly repentant or more annoyed than ever. Well, the 2012 version of this punishment is being applied in an Ohio courtroom with an adult, Mark Byron, who is estranged from his wife. He wrote the following on his Facebook page, which is not accessible to his spouse, “If you are an evil, vindictive woman who wants to ruin your husband’s life and take your son’s father away from him completely, all you need to do is say you’re scared of your husband or domestic partner and they’ll take him away.”
Domestic Relations Magistrate Paul Meyers in January found Byron in contempt of a protective order. Byron can avoid a 60-day jail sentence and a fine by posting an apology, composed by Meyers, to Mrs. Byron on the Facebook page. The same apology must be posted every day for 60 days no later than 9 a.m.
The central question for us at the IFI is this: When is an apology sincere and must it be sincere to have an effect on the one who apologizes? It seems to us that the apology will only be effective for Mr. Byron if it comes from the heart, if he actually means it. Otherwise, will this end like it has for so many students, who, after scrawling their statements on the blackboard, do a slow burn because they were forced to comply?
The National Center for Reason and Justice announced recently that they will be appealing the case of Fr. Gordon MacRae, sentenced to prison in 1994 for the crime of sex abuse against Thomas Grover. Mr. Grover’s former step-son has now claimed that his former step-father fabricated the story. Mr. Grover’s former wife labeled him as a “compulsive liar.” A former substance-abuse counselor for him now claims that he made so many allegations against so many supposed perpetrators that the stories were not credible. Mr. Grover has a history of arrest, prior to and after the accusation against Fr. MacRae, including multiple forgeries and burglary. These offenses were not made known to the jury.
It looks like, if Fr. MacRae is exonerated, he will have a large list of people to forgive. Walk a mile in his shoes and then answer the question: Who do I need to forgive? The obvious first choice is the accuser. Then comes anyone who remained silent during the trial (they could have shared impressions of Mr. Grover’s character in 1994). Then there is Fr. MacRae’s lawyer, who apparently did not dig deeply enough into Mr. Grover’s arrest record. The prosecutor played a part in the sentencing, as did the judge and jury. One can only imagine the injustices perpetrated on Fr. MacRae in prison. The list of people to forgive is long and the injustices deep, if he is found innocent. Injustice can lead to further injustice which can lead to anger and more anger. Forgiveness, properly understood and practiced, can cleanse the inner life of its caustic resentments and set the inner house in order. The road for that may be long for this priest, imprisoned for more than 17 years.
In the process of forgiveness that we have outlined in two different books (Forgiveness Is a Choice and The Forgiving Life) there is one part of the process in which we ask the forgiver to “Do no harm” to the one who has been unjust. This idea of “Do no harm” is actually transitional to the even more difficult challenge to love the one who has hurt you. Yet, “Do no harm,” even though an earlier and supposedly easier part of the process, is anything but easy.
To “Do no harm” means three things: 1) Do not do obvious harm to the one who hurt you (being rude, for example); 2) Do not do subtle harm (a sneer, ignoring at a gathering, being neutral to this fellow human being); and 3) Do not do harm to others. In other words, when you are angry with Person X, it is easier than you think to displace that anger onto Persons Y and Z. If others have to ask, “What is wrong with her (him) today?” perhaps that is a cue that you are displacing anger from one incident into your current interactions.
It is at these times that it is good to take stock of your anger and to ask, “Whom do I need to forgive today? Am I ‘doing no harm’ as I practice forgiveness? Am I being vigilant not to harm innocent others because of what I am suffering?” My challenge to you today: Do no harm to anyone throughout this entire day…..and repeat tomorrow…..and the day after that.