Ask Dr. Forgiveness

How can we teach ourselves to bear the pain that comes our way if we find no purpose to the suffering? It seems so impossible.

If it is impossible to bear the pain caused by another’s unjust behavior, then one solution is to search for this kind of reasonable purpose. What might be some purposes of suffering on behalf of another who has hurt us? Here are four possibilities: a) bearing suffering patiently helps us to become stronger persons; b) as we bear suffering for another, we do not displace the suffering and anger onto others; c) as we bear the suffering for another, we do not displace the suffering onto our offender, which is a merciful gift to him or her; d) all of the monotheistic faiths exhort people to imitate God. If you are a monotheistic believer, then you are becoming more like God by bearing with others’ injustice in a patient and merciful way.

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I am 48 years old. My parents were both neglectful and abusive to me and my 2 siblings. If they were parents today, they would have been arrested and their behavior had profound negative impact on all three of their children. My parents have never admitted or apologized for what they did and instead created a sort of fantasy story that they tell about our childhood. All 5 people involved know the stories are untrue. Me and my siblings have, in some form, reconciled with our parents and they have been excellent grandparents. The probelm is, I have trouble forgiving them because they often revert to harmful behavior (which brings the memories and emotions flooding back) and they do not acknowledge what they did many decades ago. Is the “perpetrator’s” admission required and is having no contact or relationship compatible with forgiveness?

They “have been excellent grandparents.” This may be the key to your question. At the same time, you say that your parents “often revert to harmful behavior.” Are you willing to write back and give some specific examples of “harmful behavior”? We can keep those behaviors confidential if you wish. I am trying to discern whether what you call “harmful behavior” is indeed harmful or whether current behavior which is not necessarily harmful is triggering a classical conditioning response in you. The distinction between “harmful” and “triggering a classical conditioning response” is very important for us to make because the conclusion may determine whether or not you and your children interact with your parents again.

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My cousin says that she forgives me for something I did about a year ago, but when I am around her she seems like she has an attitude toward me now. I think she has not forgiven me. Should I bring this up to her or just let it go?

It seems that you already have been patient, waiting for her to reduce the resentment, but it is not happening. It is time to first forgive her for her unforgiveness and then gently approach her about it. It seems that she still has work to do to completely forgive you. You might want to ask her to forgive you and then wait patiently for her to accomplish the task.

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My daughter who is in her 20s basically ran away from home, not literally because she is above the age, but you know what I mean. She will not talk to me and is basically shunning me. I have no clue what I did and I want her back not as a live-in child but as someone who loves and I love her. What can I do to let her know that all is forgiven?

Please think back to your daughter’s upbringing and ask yourself these questions: What happened as she was growing up that she would interpret as serious injustice against her? Did she grow up without a father, for example? Was there any behavior by others that deeply hurt her? The hurts that she experienced could go back a long way, so please take your time in sorting out the injustices that she faced. These injustices likely have made her resentful and her resentment may be fueling the “running away.” If you can acknowledge the injustices and her hurts directly to her (even in a letter or email) this will be an important first step in a slow return to the giving and receiving of love between you. Please have patience as this could be a slow process. She may need to forgive you and others. You may need to forgive her for her current behavior.

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Is it possible for someone to actually improve in forgiveness? If so what do you suggest as some keys for me to do that?

Forgiveness is not a superficial action (such as saying, “It’s ok” when someone is unfair to you). Instead, it is a moral virtue, as is justice and kindness and love. Aristotle told us over 3,500 years ago that one challenge in life is to become more perfected in the virtues. In other words, we do grow more proficient in our understanding and expression of the virtues, but only if we practice them. It is a struggle to grow in any virtue, including forgiveness. So, first be aware that you can grow in this virtue. Then be willing to practice it, with the goal of maturing in love, which is what forgiveness is (loving those who are unkind to us). You need a strong will to keep persevering in the struggle to grow in forgiveness. In sum, you need: understanding of what forgiveness is, practice, a strong will, and keeping your eye fixed on the goal of improving in love a little more each day.

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