Ask Dr. Forgiveness

How can we keep forgiveness initiatives going in schools and social groups, such as correctional institutions?

In my book, The Forgiving Life, I talk about the free will, the good will, and the strong will. Rarely is that third kind of will—the strong will—discussed in philosophy.  A key to planting forgiveness and reconciliation, after initial enthusiasm identifies these as vital to the human condition, is the strong will. This needs to be fostered. Otherwise, we have continual patterns of: 1) interest shown, 2) some initial activities to introduce the moral virtues into a school or social group, 3) only to be met, over time, with the fading of the initiative.  So, an important question is this: How can we foster the strong will so that the programs continue for a long time?
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I have calmed down a lot toward my ex-partner. Does this mean that I have forgiven him?

Forgiving is much more than just calming down.  This is the case because some people calm down because they have dismissed from their life the one who was unfair.  When a person calms down, there is not necessarily a sense of goodness toward the other, only an inner state that is no longer angry.  Forgiveness is an active virtue of trying to be good to those who were not good to the forgiver.  A calm inner world is not necessarily that.

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I just do not have the confidence to forgive one of my parents from issues of long ago. I keep telling myself that I will not be able to get it done. What can you suggest to me that might boost my confidence?

First, I suggest that you look back on your life to concrete examples of your forgiving others. Have you had at least one successful attempt in your past? If so, you have shown yourself that you can forgive.

Even if you have never forgiven someone, you can start now with someone who is easier to forgive than your father. Try to recall someone who has hurt you in the past, but who has not hurt you severely. Start the forgiveness process with him or her and keep at it until you have forgiven. Once you succeed with this person, then try another, again who has not hurt you gravely.

Once you have successfully practiced forgiveness on these two people, keep in mind the path that you walked and now apply it to your parent. The practice may give you the confidence you need.

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I am discouraged. As I look at societies in this early part of the 21st century, I see far too much mayhem, too much outrageous injustice.  Offenders rarely self-accuse; they rarely have a well-formed conscience and so they just do not learn that what they have done is dark and completely unacceptable.  Therefore, forgiveness is not just a choice, but an absolute necessity.  It is not the forgiveness itself that discourages me.  What discourages me is this:  the mayhem will continue and so the incessant need to forgive will continue.  What insights do you have for me?

I think your discouragement is in the strong likelihood that the mayhem, as you call it, will continue in societies.  Yet, let us engage in a thought experiment.  Let us suppose that there never was such a moral virtue as forgiveness.  The only moral virtues in this alternative universe are the quest for justice and the courage to carry this out.  What, then, would individuals and families and communities be like?  Would it not be the case that the vengeance, the hatred, and wars would be continuous?  Would it not be the case that such wars would grow more violent, even more unjust?  Would humanity ever discover love?

Now, compare the world I just created in this thought experiment with our current world.  Yes, the injustices continue. Yes, we can address many of these with justice, but at the same time, we can add love to our interactions, at least within our own communities, so that the enmity, the hatred, and the toxic anger within people can be lessened and not passed on to the children.  Our world has the potential for love, even though it is not always realized in actuality.  What a world it would be if there was not even the potential for love.  Forgiveness on its highest level is to exercise love.  So, I hope that you have more hope now because love is real and available to all who have the wisdom to choose it.

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My anger is what motivates me to solve problems and to uphold justice. Forgiveness is the “opiate of the people,” reducing anger and thus reducing our motivation to seek and to find fair solutions. Can you convince me otherwise?

This is a good challenge and so I thank you for the question. There are different kinds of anger. One kind, which I call healthy anger, is expressed within reasonable, appropriate limits and can energize us to seek fair solutions. You are talking about healthy anger.

We also have the kind of anger that sits inside of us and chips away at our energy, our well-being, our very happiness. This kind of anger we could call resentment or unhealthy anger. Forgiveness targets this kind of anger and helps to reduce it so it does not destroy the forgiver. As a person forgives, he or she sees more clearly, not less clearly, that what happened was unfair. Thus, someone who forgives is not likely to fall into an unnatural state of lethargy regarding the injustice.

So, keep your healthy anger and fight for justice. Forgiveness is not a foe of justice, keeping it at a distance. Instead, justice and forgiveness can work side by side for a better world. If you think about it, don’t you think that you will be better able to fight for justice if your energy is not brought low by unhealthy anger? Forgiveness can be of considerable help here in aiding the person to control the kind of anger that can thwart the quest for justice.

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