Ask Dr. Forgiveness

What advice do you have for people who now want to forgive those who perpetrated 9/11?

My advice is specifically for those who want to forgive. In other words, they are ready to do so. First, I would recommend doing a little research on those who have been identified as planning and perpetrating the attacks. I say that so that you can concretely see who the people are. It is easier to forgive a person you can see rather than an abstract set of people.

From there, I recommend working on seeing them as persons. You can gain some insight into this from this post: We All Have Inherent Worth.

Next, you might want to consider what we call “bearing the pain” of what happened. You are not giving in or taking on pain that will not leave. When you bear the pain you commit to not passing the pain that you now have onto other people. Sometimes we displace our pain onto innocent others. As we bear that pain, the paradox is that it leaves.

Finally, you might draw inspiration from this video. It concerns one mother who lost her son in the attacks on 9/11 and another mother whose son was convicted in taking part in those attacks. They have formed a bond through forgiveness.

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Are some things so bad that they are unforgivable?

Thank you for the question. We have addressed a similar issue already on May 10, 2012. Your question, however, has given us the opportunity to clarify one issue. We actually do not forgive “things” or “offenses.” We forgive people and only people. So, we forgive people for “things” they do or “offenses” they commit. No person in the world has done something so bad that another person cannot forgive him or her. Some will choose not to forgive, but this does not mean that others could not or will not forgive him or her.

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Without the other guy apologizing to me, it seems so phony to offer forgiveness. How am I helping him if i just forgive? If he apologizes, then he sees the error of his ways. Waiting to forgive after the other apologizes is more loving than unconditional forgiveness. Do you agree?

Thank you for your challenging question. I think you and I have a confusion of terms. To forgive is to exercise a moral virtue of mercy toward an offending other person. All moral virtues, whether it is justice, or patience, or kindness can be expressed unconditionally. By this I mean we can choose to be fair or patient or kind without permission to do so, without someone else doing something first that then allows us to exercise the virtue.

Why should this not be the same with the moral virtue of forgiveness? Why should forgiveness be the one and only moral virtue that is conditional on someone doing something (apologize or repent or pay back something) before we can exercise that virtue?

I think you might have in mind the issue of reconciliation, which of course is related to forgiveness (but different than it). Reconciliation is a negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust. It probably is prudent (depending on the severity of the offense, of course) to withhold reconciliation until the person sees what he/she did, feels sorry for it, expresses the sorry as an apology, and decides to not be hurtful again (within reason because we are all imperfect).

So, you can lovingly and unconditionally forgive and then hold the person to a high standard in the act of reconciliation. This, then, does not render forgiveness “phony,” but instead shows the link between the moral virtue of forgiveness and the negotiation strategy of reconciliation.

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My fiance recently separated from me. During therapy she mentioned that she loved me, but was extremely angry at me. When we first started dating there were some infidelity issues on my end, and what’s worse, I lied about it or hid the truth. It has been several years, and there have been no further infidelity issues. I lied, because I was trying to protect our relationship. I have come completely clean in therapy, but I am not sure if there is anything I can do beyond the counseling…

Your fiancé appears to be harboring resentment from your past infidelity. Does your therapist emphasize forgiveness as part of the healing process? If not, you might consider asking him or her to work with both of you on giving and receiving forgiveness.

If your therapist will not do this, then you should consider switching therapists to someone who knows forgiveness therapy. I recommend that you purchase a copy of The Forgiving Life book for your fiancé, for the therapist, and for yourself. All of you can then have the same goal with the same content on which to work.

Your fiancé’s anger can be overcome through forgiveness therapy, especially if you have truly changed, as you have indicated.

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Sometimes my adolescent son and I argue just like my own father and I used to argue. It is kind of odd to see this reproduced across the generations. In your book, The Forgiving Life, you talk about this and recommend that we forgive people from our past who may be influencing our present. My question is this: How do I help my son to forgive his grandfather for what he inflicted on me without betraying a confidence and without hurting my son’s image of his grandfather?

The intergenerational pattern of forgiveness can get complex, as you are seeing. The good news here is that your son need not forgive his grandfather for what he inflicted on you. You need to forgive your father for this. You son should forgive his grandfather for what the grandfather did to your son. So, you can keep the issues of injustice private between your father and you without necessarily sharing the specifics with your son.

I do recommend that you point out the pattern of anger between the generations. This will help your son to see that you and he have learned a pattern of behavior that needs to be broken or else he and his children are likely to continue the unwanted pattern.

Please try to point out the intergenerational pattern of anger to your son in as non-judgmental a manner as possible. In other words, first forgive your father and then discuss the patterns with your son. In this way you are less likely to even subtly condemn your own father as you discuss the anger pattern with your son.

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