Ask Dr. Forgiveness

My son has been bullied in school and I have asked him to forgive and at the same time to report any bullying to the teacher. He is very angry with me about the idea of forgiving because he says the other students will laugh at him. He is in seventh grade. How can he forgive so that others do not see him as a weakling?

How your son understands forgiveness and how he manifests it are very important in this context. First, he needs to know that forgiveness starts with his internal response of reduced resentment. It can be a struggle to get rid of intense anger, but that is a first step. He might begin this by seeing what those who bully usually bring to that situation: a deep sense of their own insecurity, anger over something unrelated to the one being bullied (such as being abused in the home), and low self-esteem. This might help your son to see that the bully is emotionally wounded. From there, once your son is less angry, he can show forgiveness without actually using the words, “I forgive you.” Your son, for example, could become ready to help the other with a school assignment. He could respond with confidence–looking the other in the eye and to do so without malice– if the one who bullies asks a question. He must see that to forgive is not to give in to the other’s demands. To forgive is not to repudiate justice. As he sees that forgiveness comes from a position of strength, he may be more ready to try it. As we both know, it ultimately is his choice, although your encouraging him is part of his growth as a person.

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What if it will create even more tension if you go to a person and say, “I forgive you.” Could this start a big argument if she is not ready to hear it?

The short answer is: Yes, you are correct. An argument could ensue after you proclaim your forgiveness. Yet, forgiveness does not have a rigid set of rules associated with it. A person can forgive without ever using the word “forgiveness” to the one forgiven. There are many ways to show and express forgiveness: with a smile, with a new attention to what a person is saying, with a returned phone call, with a kind word about the person to others. If you think that proclaiming, “I forgive you” will cause an argument, then either do not say those particular words or hold them until later, until the person may seem ready to hear them. Your forgiveness can be sincere without using those particular words. As a final point, your forgiveness can be complete from your end, not necessarily from the other person’s end, who may or may not accept your gift, as you forgive without words of forgiveness. It can be complete because you are showing compassion and concern for the person who was unfair to you.

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The forgiveness path is just one more obstacle to overcome along life’s tough road. A family member of mine was murdered. I cannot see forgiving this person. Even if I did, that process seems just as outrageously hard as sitting here with no recourse toward the murderer. Am I stuck either way, as a forgiver or as someone who cries out for justice but finds none (the murderer has not been caught)?

First of all, my sincere sympathy for the pain you are being asked to endure. No one should have to go through this. The fact that you are even asking about forgiveness is showing a heroism that I want you, yourself, to see. An important insight that you have is this: No matter what you choose, you will have pain. I would like to gently challenge one of your words: “stuck.” I can understand how you might feel stuck as someone who cries out for justice which is not forthcoming. You are not stuck, however, if you decide to forgive. I think you might be “stuck” right now because of indecision—Should you forgive or not? If you decide to go ahead, then you are no longer “stuck.” Yes, you will have pain because growth in forgiveness is painful. Yet, the pain of working through forgiveness is temporary. The pain of crying out for justice and not finding it may go on indefinitely. When you are ready to get un-stuck, please consider reading the book, The Forgiving Life. It helps you to grow in forgiving and to grow as a person of virtue—strong and even thriving in the face of great pain. I wish you the very best in your journey toward healing.

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I’ve been trying to forgive someone who just keeps hurting me over and over again. How can I forgive this person, when the anger is renewed with each new offense?

This is a question that I receive on a regular basis. You are not alone in this. Please keep in mind that the 100th time a person hurts you may be more painful than the first because of the accumulation of resentment in you. This possible build-up of resentment makes forgiveness all the more necessary. So, I recommend three approaches for you:

1) Persevere in forgiving so that the resentment does not overwhelm you. Forgive the person each time he or she hurts you because of unfair treatment.

2) As you forgive over and over, you will get better at forgiving. Be aware of your growing confidence to forgive and your growing ability, which might mean that you forgive more quickly and with better results each time.

3) Please do not forget that you do not practice forgiveness in isolation of the other virtues. As you forgive, ask for justice, and do so after you have forgiven again so that you approach the person with less anger.

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If a person begins to forgive and then decides that he is no longer ready, is it OK to slow down or even stop the process? If I did that, I feel that it would be unfair to the person who is asking to be forgiven.

There are two issues here. The first is the offended person’s forgiveness process and the other is the feelings and needs of the one who wants to be forgiven. The first issue is basically care of the self, which we have to do. As long as the one forgiving is slowing down or stopping for a good reason, then it is fine to back off, rest, and try to gain strength before pressing on to forgive. Forgiveness is hard work. A reason that is not good is this: slowing down the process to frustrate the other person. This, of course, would be revenge, which is not even close to the process of forgiveness. So, slowing down or stopping for now can simply show the forgiver how hard it is to sustain this virtue.

The second issue concerns the needs of the one who wants forgiveness. Again, we are presuming a good reason for the forgiver’s slowing down. Under this circumstance, it is part of the offending person’s bearing the pain in waiting. There are no guarantees once a person asks for forgiveness and so part of that process is to have patience and to give the forgiver a chance to grow into a forgiving response. The waiting can be painful, but if endured for the sake of the forgiver, it can lead to forgiving, receiving the forgiveness, and reconciling.

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