Ask Dr. Forgiveness
Can I forgive without having empathy toward the one who hurt me? In other words, is sympathy enough?
Let us first define our terms. Empathy involves stepping inside the other’s shoes and understanding the world from his or her viewpoint. To sympathize with another is to see his or her distress and to react to that (without necessarily feeling that person’s feelings, as occurs with empathy). Yes, I do think that people can forgive by looking toward the other and seeing his or her woundedness without then going the extra step of entering into that person’s world through empathy. Sometimes, the thought of empathizing with a hurtful other is too frightening for the forgiver to try to accomplish. At such times, insight about how others have treated the person and his or her difficulty in dealing with this treatment can be sufficient to move forgiveness along.
Is it fair to say that the longer people harbor anger, then the longer they are allowing pain and unhappiness and a sense of hopelessness to rule their lives?
Yes, I think it is fair to say that. At the same time, we have to be careful not to condemn those who are wounded by the unfair treatment of others. Sometimes, very angry people never have been shown the door of forgiveness that could set them free from the hopelessness you mention. Let us do our part to lessen a person’s experience with this kind of anger.
It seems to me that with the advent of social media, people now have an excuse to show their anger publicly, to vent as a group, and therefore this is a forum for anger to be nurtured, to grow, and even to grow beyond what is reasonable. How can we incorporate forgiveness into social media for good?
You make a good point that anger seems to have the upper hand right now in social media as people vent about politics, community unfairness, and other issues of injustice. Yet, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to get the message out about forgiveness as one approach to unfairness. Introducing a quotation about forgiveness on one’s own social media page, for example, could reach hundreds of people. Persevering in your posting about forgiveness could bear more fruit now than you might realize. As people are free to vent on social media, as you say, you now are free to talk about the paradox of being good to those who are not being good to you.
Does it take a long time to forgive someone? I know people who, even after 10 years, can have some left-over anger or mourning about what happened. Does the length of time depend on how much anger one has at the beginning of the unfairness?
The length of time to forgiveness can vary greatly across people and even within any given person, depending on who did the hurting and how deep the anger is. We find that consistent work on forgiveness for about 12 weeks for many people can produce a reduction in anger and a promotion of emotional healing.
This is not a rigid rule at all. Some people require a year of forgiveness work before the anger no longer is in control. A key to keep in mind is this: Even if you have some anger left over, even if you have not perfectly forgiven, you can lead an emotionally-healthy life although some anger remains. Keep working on forgiving, knowing that it is a path to keeping anger under your control rather than the reverse.
When I try to bear the pain of what happened to me, so that I do not pass that pain to others, I notice that you also suggest feeling compassion toward the other. When I try this (bearing the pain and having compassion), it seems that I am adding even more pain to myself. I have a lot of pain and it is not going away any time soon from what I can tell. How can I endure this added pain when I try to be compassionate?
You are aware that you already have pain and that it is enduring, not easily ended. I admire you for your courage to try to be compassionate under this circumstance. If you find that the pain increases as you try to be compassionate, I recommend that you take a step backwards and do more cognitive work. By this I mean the following: Try once again to think about who this person is who hurt you. Try to see his or her struggles, his or her wounds, not to excuse what happened, but instead to see a human being, a person who has worth, not because of what was done, but in spite of that. As you begin to see his or her woundedness, then the compassion may emerge more gently, more slowly and be endured more easily. Please keep in mind that this is not easy, just as doing rehabilitation work on an injured knee is not easy. There will be pain, but the rehab of the heart will diminish the pain.