Our Forgiveness Blog

In Memoriam: A Tribute to Our Long-Time Board Member and Friend, Msgr. John Hebl

On March 11, 2024, our International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) lost our Board Member and friend, Msgr. John Hebl, who passed away at his home in Oxford, Wisconsin. He joined our IFI in 1994 and gave us 30 years of wonderful service with his wisdom and passion for forgiveness. He is an important figure in forgiveness science because he was the very first person, in the entire history of psychology, who did an empirically-based, peer-reviewed published study on a forgiveness intervention. In that article, published by the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychotherapy, he screened 24 elderly women who suffered injustices, mostly within the family and friendship contexts. He randomized the women into the experimental group, in which he brought them through our Process Model of Forgiveness, and the control group, in which social issues were discussed, such as the influence of senior citizens on society, attitudes toward aging, and family conflicts. Each lasted for eight sessions, once a week, for about an hour each time. Findings showed that the participants in the experimental group grew statistically significantly more than the control group participants in forgiving people who have hurt them. Those in the experimental group also grew statistically significantly more than the control group in their willingness to forgive others in general. The reference to this historical work is this:

Hebl, J., & Enright, R. D. (1993). Forgiveness as a psychotherapeutic goal with elderly females. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(4), 658–667. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-3204.30.4.658

Msgr. John was a dynamic, busy person as he led a Catholic parish and, at the same time, pursued successfully a doctoral degree in counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he did the groundbreaking research described above. Prior to this, he was a Brigadier General in the United States military service. I used to kid him, saying, “We all will have to address you as Father, Doctor, General Hebl!”

Rest in peace, Msgr. Hebl. Thank you for being a pioneer in forgiveness research, for serving people all these many years, and for contributing to a better world.

 

Finding Meaning As We Suffer

In recent months, the theme of suffering and finding meaning in that suffering has emerged more and more because of current events in the world, including the conflicts in Ukraine, in Israel and Gaza, and in Nigeria as examples.  To reflect on the importance of finding meaning in suffering, we are reposting an essay first published here at the International Forgiveness Institute on October 15, 2013:

Let us start with the prophetic words of Shakespeares Macbeth, as he mourns the passing of Lady Macbeth in Act 5, Scene 5:

Image by Pexels.com

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Lifes but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

There is no meaning in life and therefore there is no meaning in suffering.  To live and to suffer are meaningless. Yet, experience tells us that this kind of thinking is a dangerous illusion.  Did Martin Luther King, Jr. have no meaning when he wrote his Letter from the Birmingham jail?  Did Maximilian Kolbe see no meaning in life when he asked the Nazis to let him take the place of a condemned man who had a family?  Whether ones beliefs are in God or in random variations generated by mutations, we are either made for or have evolved toward finding meaning in our life.  The skeptic would say that my point is a happy illusion:  Yes, we need to believe this, but we do so just to stay alive; it is adaptive to think fairytale thoughts.

Yet, what else in nature can you identify that is so very important and at the same time is an illusion?  I can think of nothing.  If finding and having meaning is tied to our well-being, then there must be something to it.  The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz (which Maximilian Kolbe chose not to survive for a higher good of protecting another person), observed this: Only those who survived Auschwitz found meaning in the profound suffering endured there.  Those who found meaninglessness died.  Finding meaning in this case was tied to positive, concrete outcomes.  There was a need (to find meaning) that was fulfilled (surviving and even thriving).  Can you think of any other real need that is not tied to something real that can fulfill it?  If not, then it seems reasonable to say that we have real needs with real fulfillments and finding meaning and achieving the state of thriving are concretely, really linked together without illusion.

When we are treated deeply unjustly by others, we suffer. If we have come, through wisdom, to know the meaning of life, then we will find meaning in our suffering. If we find meaning in both life and suffering, we have the foundation to forgive well and to survive well the cruelty against us.

Sound and fury, signifying nothing?  Please be careful in so concluding.

 

The Invisible People and Inherent Worth

Have you ever visited people who are in a maximum-security correctional institution?  After going through many secured doors, there you are with some people who literally never will walk out of those doors.  In one of my visits to such a facility, I sat with 10 men who recently went through a forgiveness program.  I was eager to hear about their experience with it.  They liked it.

Image by Pexels.com

What struck me the most, actually, was not their kind and positive response to the forgiveness program, but instead was their view of who they are to other people. “Once you are in here, you become invisible,” one man asserted.  The others perked up at this point and agreed with the statement.  “We are invisible” was the resounding theme.

It seems that this proclaimed idea was deepened by the forgiveness program, in which each man learned about, and thought deeply about, an important tenet of forgiveness: We are all persons of worth, not because of any bad behavior, but despite this.  Each man learned this and applied it successfully to those who deeply abused them while they were in childhood or adolescence. Those who hurt them have worth despite the cruelty.  This view helped them to forgive and to shed clinical levels of anger, anxiety, and depression.

Despite the encouraging findings of mental health improvement in the men, some people might wonder: Is it possible that the forgiveness program had a negative effect on them?  Here is what I mean: By studying the vital idea of the inherent worth of all people, these men might now become sad or angry that others are not necessarily treating them with this kind of built-in worth.  In other words, might the forgiveness program have accentuated this negative situation for them, leading now to the view that they are “invisible” to others and further to the view that they definitely should not be treated this way?  The contrast between who they truly are as persons (which is persons of worth) and how they are viewed and treated by others might have become more clear because of the forgiveness program. Yet, I do not see this as a negative for the following four reasons.

First, the forgiveness program did not create the awareness that they are “invisible.”  It may have clarified this, but the idea already was in their mind.  I say that because, in relating their stories to me, they shared that they were aware of this reality soon after entering the institution. Second, with the forgiveness program, they learned this: Even if people do not treat them as persons of worth, they now can treat themselves as persons of worth.  Third, they now have the tool, forgiveness, to forgive those who treat them as less worthy than who they really are.  Fourth, those who have learned this lesson of forgiveness can now be supports for one another as they show each other this: We are each valuable; we each have built-in worth.

As one example of extending inherent worth to others, one person said this to me: “I am never getting out of prison.  Yet, I now have a new purpose which is to help my cell mates learn to forgive.”  He developed a new purpose in life after a forgiveness program.  He has made a commitment to easing the pain in others……because he sees that they have inherent worth and are worthy of emotional healing from what they have suffered in the past.

We need to widen our view of those in corrections.  What can we do so that we see their inherent worth?  What can we do to communicate this to them, without the error of extremism by falsely claiming that, because of this worth, they now can be fully trusted outside these walls and should be unconditionally released?  In other words, we do not want to make the philosophical error of equating worth with unmitigated trust and therefore call for the release of all in correctional facilities that actually might keep others safe.

Being “invisible” is hard.  Knowing deep down that one has infinite worth, despite this treatment by others of being ignored, can protect people from the lie that they have no value.  Forgiveness can restore a person’s sense of value even when others look away.

 

The Two A’s of Forgiving: Awareness Before Action

What precisely are you doing and not doing when you begin to forgive someone for something this person has done to you? I think the most basic problem is this: defining forgiveness before we actually practice it.

Some would argue that you are acting weakly because only the weak are able to forgive; the strong always win out, much likeNietzsche proclaimed in the late 19th century. Some would argue that returning to an unhealthy situation exposes you to abuse, but this confuses reconciliation and forgiveness. Even if you are disregarding the person who treated you unfairly, some would argue that you are moving on by “forgiving.” Not one of these truly conveys what forgiveness actually is.

Goodness toward those who have treated us unfairly is what forgiveness is. This goodness can take the form of giving up resentment, showing mercy and compassion, and even showing agape love (though this love may take some time to develop and small steps toward it may be necessary). See the reference below for more information on agape love.  Most of the time, when people argue about forgiveness, the main point of contention is usually its definition.  If the definition is incomplete or wrong, then the process of going about forgiving someone who offended may be distorted. Awareness before action is the key to beginning forgiveness well.

Enright, R.D., Wang Xu, J., Rapp, H., Evans, M., & Song, J. (2022). The philosophy and social science of agape love. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 42(4), 220–237. https://doi.org/10.1037/teo0000202

On Contemplating the Forgiveness Process to “Do No Harm”

There is a part of the forgiving process that we have described in two distinct publications, The Forgiving Life and Forgiveness Is a Choice, where we ask the forgiver to “Do no harm” to the one who has been unfair. In actuality, the concept of “Do no harm” serves as a bridge to the much more challenging task of loving someone who has wronged you. Even though it’s an earlier and purportedly simpler step in the process, “Do no harm” is anything but simple.

Three things are meant by “do no harm”: 1) Don’t try to deliberately hurt the person who offended you (such as being impolite); 2) Don’t do covert harm (such as sneering, ignoring at a gathering, or remaining impartial toward this one who shares personhood with you); and 3) Don’t hurt other people because of your inner discontent from the one who was unfair to you. Stated differently, it is surprisingly simple to channel your resentment toward Person X onto Persons Y and Z. Perhaps it is a sign that you are projecting anger from a past encounter onto your present interactions if people have to inquire, “What is wrong with my friend today?”

It’s wise to assess your level of resentment at these moments and consider who you should forgive today. Consider asking yourself: As I offer forgiveness, am I “doing no harm”? Because of what I am going through, am I exercising caution so as not to hurt innocent people?

I’m offering you a challenge today: Don’t hurt anyone today. Do the same tomorrow. Do it the day after that.