Ask Dr. Forgiveness

My boss lies to me persistently. I have, however, no definite proof. He tells me that I am paranoid and imagining things. He has sent me to the College doctor for a check-up, even though I perfectly well. The situation is complicated by the fact that do I have a psychiatric history. How does forgiveness work in this situation? My boss would say there is nothing to forgive, given that he hasn’t lied to me (lying again). Jonny

The first issue here comes down to this: Who is perceiving the reality of this situation correctly, the boss or you? Are you sure he is lying, given the context of his denial? Is there a way to confirm his lying through confirmation with a colleague? Is there any possibility that you have misunderstood something about the boss and so you are incorrect about his lying? This is the first step, to determine the truth of your observation. It is important for you to do so because of the disagreement that you and he are having. There is nothing dishonorable about your being wrong about this. If you are right, it is courageous to forgive.

Let us now suppose that you have determined as objectively as you can that the boss lies. You now have a list of times he lies, including his denial of lying. I would start with the least objectionable lie and forgive him for that. The path to forgiving is outlined for you in my new book, The Forgiving Life, especially chapter 10. After you become familiar with the forgiveness process, I recommend that you forgive him for one more specific lie. From there, you might consider forgiving him for his pattern of lying, including the most recent incident of denying that he lies.

All of this is dependent on your thinking through exactly what your boss does in the lying and how this in fact adds up to lying on a consistent basis. I would proceed with forgiving only after you are convinced that you are the one who is correct.

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My father left my mother about a year ago. My brother and I are adults now and we both try to support my mom. I am the only one who tries to support my dad. This has led to quite a bit of tension between my brother and me. We disagree about forgiving him. What should I do to reduce this tension with my brother?

This is never easy, when one person forgives and another in the family gets insulted by the act of forgiveness. I think the key issues here are these:

1) Be sure to acknowledge that your father’s leaving is morally wrong. I am presuming that your mother did nothing so egregious as to deserve this. Your brother might think that by your forgiveness, you are condoning your father’s leaving, which you are not because forgiveness does not condone wrongdoing.

2) Gently point out that forgiving is a free will choice by the one who offers the forgiveness. You are free to offer it and your brother is free not to offer it. Your individual choices do not make either one of you bad people.

3) Try to find common ground, such as your shared desire for your mother and father to be reunited. This common goal may help you to work as a team.

4) Finally, your brother’s refusal to forgive today is not necessarily his final word on the matter. Be open to change in him. If he becomes open to forgiveness, he might want and need to ask your forgiveness for how he responded to you when you forgave.

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As we know, some people are more skilled athletes than others, no matter how hard some try. Do you think something similar occurs with forgiveness? Might some people just be better at forgiving than others, no matter how hard they try?

This is a very challenging question primarily because it asks about natural dispositions in forgiving and no one knows the answer with certainty. My answer, based on reason, is open to feedback and change. I have three points to make.

First, I have never met a person who says, “Forgiveness is easy for me. It just seems to be part of my nature.” So, even if some people are better at forgiving than others, it still is not easy for anyone. In other words, even if one person seems to find it easier to forgive than others, that person still has an uphill struggle to become more perfected in the virtue. In contrast, some people with minimal practice do not find it hard to throw a baseball 90 miles an hour, although even this needs practice to achieve excellence.

Second, some people may find it easier to forgive than others because of what has happened to them “out there” in their family or community, as certain influential people show the person the way to forgiveness. The support from others could explain why some people have an easier (not an “easy,” but an “easier”) time forgiving than others. The person, then, might appear to have a natural disposition to forgive, but it has been made possible by others’ teaching and encouragement.

Third, there probably are certain qualities “in here” (inside the person) that aid a person in forgiving more readily and more deeply than others. Yet, it seems to me that those inner qualities, such as humility and love, are won only after a hard-fought struggle to advance in them. The developments, in other words, require much work and do not necessarily just happen, as can be the case with throwing a baseball at a higher velocity than the average person.

We all need work to advance as forgivers.

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I would like to follow up on the question about the Narcissistic Personality. Don’t you think that after a while, a person who does not strive for goodness, including forgiving and being forgiven, and neglects the central virtue of justice (as stated by Plato) can actually diminish his humanity? He is being less than he could be. Therefore he is less human than he could be. What do you think?

This is an interesting challenge and it is nuanced. First, let us address the nuances in the question and then move to the issue of the person’s humanity. The original question presented a dichotomy: either the one with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is human or not human. I answered that the one judging might see the one with symptoms of NPD as not human, but that is more of a problem centered in the one who judges, not in the one suffering from NPD.

You now have posed a question that is not a dichotomy. It is a question centered on degrees of humanity (you use the words “less human” rather than the words “not human”). If you claim there is “less” of something, then is it fair to say that there can be “more” of that same thing?

If so, let us examine this idea of “less” and “more” human. You mentioned Plato and so let us stay with this philosopher for a moment. The ancient Greeks thought that one developed as he or she practiced the virtues. In other words, when people practice forgiveness or justice, that person does not practice the entire, completed, perfected virtue, but instead practices it to the degree that it has been perfected in him or her (and it is never completely perfected). Each person, in other words, has a lesser or a greater degree of wisdom, consistency, and expertise when it comes to the virtues.

With this model of virtues in mind, it can be said that some people are closer to the perfection of humanity than are other people because they are growing wiser, more consistent, and more expert in the virtues, which define, in part, how human we are.

Yet, and this I think answers your question, all humans have the capacity for being virtuous, even if slightly and even if it is just potentiality at present (say, if the person is in a coma). Thus, all persons are human, even those with severe NPD, with all of its resultant self-centeredness. Some people are more human than others if we define humanity classically as growing in the virtues. At the same time, no one is less than human because, as taken for granted here, to be human means that we at the very least have the capacity to be virtuous.

To summarize:

  • Can any one person not be human? No.
  • Can any one person be less than human? No.
  • Can any one person be less than he or she could be as a human? Yes.
  • Can one person be more human than another, meaning that he has advanced in the perfection of the virtues more than this other person? Yes.
  • Does this then make the one more perfected in the virtues more worthy, more valued than the other? No because both are human and all humans are persons with inherent worth. The practice of forgiveness helps us to see that.
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How should I respond to some one to whom I have asked forgiveness for wrong doings, says that I have been forgiven, but constantly reminds me of my wrong doing?

There are two basic reasons why someone would remind you of the wrongdoing: 1) The person is now interested in helping you correct a behavior still in need of correction, or 2) He or she is still quite angry, despite the proclamation of forgiveness.

With regard to point #1, I ask you to examine your behaviors to see if the ones that led to your seeking forgiveness are still present. If so, then the person’s reminders are charitable, intended to help you change.

Yet, you used the word “constantly,” which suggests to me that point #2 is actually operating here, not point #1. If this is the case, then you have to approach the person with the understanding that he or she might think forgiveness was offered to you, but it has not been offered in any complete form. Perhaps the person has taken some important steps in this direction, and I urge you to try to see this first if it is the case. Then, with this perspective (that the person might at least be trying to forgive you), I recommend the following:

1) When he or she brings up the transgression again, you should work on forgiving the person first before approaching him or her.

2) When you approach the person, you could say something like this, “I notice that you forgive me for what I did, but you keep bringing it up. This is making it hard for me to move on in a dignified way. Is it possible that you are still angry with what I did? Is it possible that you need to forgive me more deeply?”

If he or she has anger left over, please be ready for a response that could be defensive (“Oh, no, I am not angry any more”) or confrontational (“What do you mean? You are too sensitive.”) In either of these cases, you may need to practice forgiving this person for the continued anger and his or her inconsistent message of forgiveness. You may have to repeat this pattern for a little while: forgive, approach the person gently about the issue, forgive again, and approach again.

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