Our Forgiveness Blog

Do We Have Choices or Are They Illusions?

An article on forgiveness in The Times of India appeared today. I base this blog post on the following quotation from the author of this piece:

“Everything we do, while we are identified with body and mind is the result of conditioning and the choices we make are also influenced by this. Also, we don’t choose our parents nor siblings. Or the environment you lived in as a child or teachers at school.

Yet all these elements conditioned you into the person you are today. And they impact your choices. To know this is the beginning of awareness and compassion. The paradox is that real choice happens when we realize that there is never any real choice. So forgive and let go.”

We just had a materialist bomb drop on us. A “materialist bomb” is this: A person reduces human psychology to one and only one narrow area to such an extent that it looks like we have no free will. If we take neurobiology to an extreme, we could say that our brains make us think and behave in certain ways with no flexibility built in for our own innovation, creativity, or choice.

Or, rather than looking within for a material cause of our actions (the brain is an interior material cause), we can look to social conditioning such as positive reinforcement or punishment to explain why we behave as we do. After all, if someone bops you on your head every time you say the words “free will,” for example, you will probably end up cringing whenever you hear those two little words. You have been materially conditioned to cringe at the words “free will.” It is not your choice to cringe. Something in the material world is making you do this.

All well and good until we practice reductionism and make the rather difficult-to-make claim that none of us really has any choices at all. It is our brains and social conditioning that make us who and what we are.

Is that all there is to us as persons? If so, then there is no true right and wrong, no injustices against you because, well, the person’s brain is wired in a certain way and the social conditions of his or her environment have made the person this way.

There is nothing to forgive because no one chooses to hurt you. The person could not help it. Forgiveness is rendered useless. More dramatically, forgiveness is an illusion.

But, is it true that there is nothing but brain structure and social reinforcements to explain who we are? Whoever says “yes” to this, then I have the following thought-experiment for you. It comes with a warning label because the thought is violent.

Imagine that you are a parent. Your daughter was raped in Central Park. You are fuming. At the trial, the defense lawyer says this, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We all know that our society has perpetuated the idea that women are men’s property. This has fostered an unintended sense of aggression in my client toward women. We all know that our society reinforces men to exploit women, not that they want to do so, but they are taught that. There is nothing my client could do but rape the one woman who happened to be jogging by that day. And let us not forget testosterone. That, combined with negative norms about women and the social reinforcements all ganged up on my client. He could not help himself. Therefore, I strongly request the dismissal of all charges against him.”

A show of hands, please, from anyone who agrees with this lawyer. We all know why we disagree with the request. It is because no matter what the norms are in society and no matter what the accused man’s social conditioning or testosterone levels were on that day, he had hundreds of choices of how to act. To say that he had to act in this and only this way is to deny reality. It is to deny the raped woman justice. It is to deny her the possibility of forgiving because forgiveness is an illusion that we need to guard against, not embrace.

There are no choices? I choose not to believe it.

Forgiveness is alive and well because injustices do happen by people’s freely chosen actions, and sometimes those actions are wrong and punishable, not dismissed for the illusion of an exclusively-materialist cause to our behavior.

Forgiveness as an illusion? No. When someone harms you, he or she could have behaved in many other ways, including choosing—choosing—to be respectful and kind.


Just Checking in Regarding Your Unfolding Love Story

On January 19, we posted a reflection on our blog site in which we encouraged readers to grow in love as their legacy of 2012. We said this:

“Give love away as your legacy of 2012.

How can you start? I recommend starting by looking backward at one incident of 2011. 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?

It is now about a month-and-a-half later. 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 2012 will be 25% over at the end of March. Have you engaged in 25% of all the loving responses that you will leave in this world this year?

Tempus fugit. If you have not yet deliberately left love in the world this year, there is time…..and the clock is ticking.

Finding Meaning in Suffering: I Am Someone Who Can Love Despite Hardship

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.

What Is a Good Society?

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?

“I Will Not Talk in Class,” 100 Times on the Blackboard

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?