Ask Dr. Forgiveness

What if I think that forgiveness is not the solution?  Then what?

Forgiveness is not necessarily a solution to injustice because to right that wrong you need the moral virtue of justice.  Forgiveness is a response to injustice in that you are now confronting the effects of the injustice (anger, possibly a strained relationship, disharmony in the family or organization) and so it is important to address those negative effects, if you choose to forgive.  So, if you are thinking about forgiveness as solving the problem of injustice, I think you are asking the wrong question about forgiveness. Instead of “How will forgiveness solve this problem?” I would urge you to ask a different question: “How can forgiveness help me (and us) overcome the negative effects of the injustice?”

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Is it possible that for some people forgiveness does not “work” in that they find no relief?

When this happens, I recommend: 1) more time in forgiving this person and, if this still is not working, 2) try to see if this person reminds you of someone else in need of your forgiving.  For example, a person is having trouble forgiving his wife.  His wife has behavioral patterns similar to his mother, whom he has not forgiven.  I then recommend that he forgive his mother first.  When he then focuses on forgiving his wife, the anger toward his mother is not getting in the way of that forgiving.

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You have said that once we forgive people, then we are ready for the next injustice and we might be able to go ahead a little better the second time. Isn’t that statement self-righteous? I say that because some people and some injustices are much harder to forgive than others. Why do you claim that we just get better and better in our forgiving?

Aristotle made the wise point that as we practice any of the moral virtues, this practice helps us get better in how we appropriate the virtues.  He never implied, nor do I, that the next incident will lead to quicker forgiveness than the first one and the person easier to forgive just because of the practice.  Instead, Aristotle implied this:  We will be more familiar with the process of practicing the virtue and so we may be more efficient and accurate in our next attempt.  Yes, you are correct, in that the next person who hurts us might do so in a very grave way, making it hard to forgive.  Yet, if we bring a lot of experience to this new person and situation, we may get through it more deeply and more quickly than otherwise might have been the case.

To get very concrete about this, suppose that to forgive Person A, you ideally needed two weeks.  To forgive Person B, without your having any prior practice in forgiving, you would need six months to forgive because the incident was so unjust.  Yet, if you have a lot of practice in forgiving, then your forgiving Person B now might take only three months rather than six.  Yes, this is still much longer than what was needed to forgive Person A, but the time needed for this with Person B is shortened precisely because the former practice is aiding your forgiving Person B now.

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Dr. Viktor Frankl says that we can find meaning in our suffering.  I think that is really insensitive to those who are oppressed.  It is insensitive to say to the oppressed: “Oh, you are a victim of racism. Rise above it by finding meaning.” What do you think?

Dr. Frankl never meant to imply that we should seek to be oppressed (or ignore the oppression) so that we can find meaning in our suffering.  You seem to be dichotomizing finding meaning and seeking justice, as if we can do only one or the other.  We must remember that Dr. Frankl was in concentration camps during World War II.  He certainly did not imply that this was good for him so that he could find meaning in his suffering.  Instead, we need to right the wrongs of injustice by practicing the moral virtue of justice and, as the same time, find meaning in our suffering.  These two (seeking justice and finding meaning in suffering) are teammates, not opponents.

Editor’s Note: Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. He was the founder of logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy which describes a search for a life meaning as the central human motivational force. Dr. Frankl published 39 books including his best-selling autobiographical Man’s Search for Meaning, based on his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps.
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You say that suffering makes us stronger.  I say, when it comes to children, that what they need is to be safe from abuse, not to become stronger.  What do you think?

I do not imply that we should seek suffering for the purpose of becoming stronger.  Instead, my point is this: When we are treated unjustly and as we suffer, we often mature as persons.  For example, we become more sensitive to the suffering in others.  Now here is the important distinction between what I just said and what I think you are saying:  Even adults, when they are abused and suffer, need to find a place of safety.  To become strong does not negate the necessity of doing all one can to be safe.  So, both adults and children need to be kept safe as they suffer.  Both, also, may grow stronger as they suffer.  To be safe and to grow stronger can occur together.

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