Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I would like to teach forgiveness to some people, but I find that they are not receptive to the idea that forgiveness is worthwhile. How do I proceed, given their resistance?

I have three points for you to consider.

First, because forgiveness is ultimately their choice, if they are not ready to proceed, you should honor that.

Second, a person’s rejection of forgiveness today is not necessarily his or her final word on the matter. So, be aware of changes in attitude.

Third, there is nothing wrong with occasionally discussing forgiveness, bringing it up in conversation, as long as you do not push an agenda. Conversation concerns at least two people and their worlds. If your world includes forgiveness, then sharing that world with others is legitimate, again as long as you are sharing who you are and not using this in a manipulative way. Who you are may play a part in whom the other will become as you share this aspect of yourself.

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When I think about it, I have a long list of people to forgive, starting from childhood and moving up to the present in my adult life. It all seems so overwhelming, With whom should I start and why? How can I get organized as I forgive in this way?

This is a common and important question. It is important because to organize all of this information is not simple. In my new book, the Forgiving Life (particularly Chapters 8 and 9), I systematically walk you through this process of getting organized in the way you request.

Here is the gist of those chapters. First make a list of people, from the family in which you grew up, who have hurt you. As many times as they were seriously unjust to you, list those incidents as best you can. Then move to peers and school experiences, then to adolescence, and into adulthood with work and relationship experiences. List each incident of considerable injustice as best you can.

Then start in the family of origin (where you grew up) because it is there where you may have established your own pattern of behavior. I recommend that you do not begin forgiving the one person for the one event that was most challenging for you. Start smaller and learn to forgive before moving up the scale of hurt to the one person and one event that caused you the most hurt. From there, move to schooling or peers, whichever needs your forgiveness work the most and again follow the same pattern. Start with the smaller issues and work up to the larger. Eventually you will come to the present day where you may have to forgive a partner or someone else close to you. You already will be strengthened by all of the prior work and so this new task will not be the huge challenge it might have been, had you not built up your forgiveness muscles first by forgiving people from your past.

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I know that to forgive, I must confront my anger toward the person who hurt me, but to be honest with you, I fear my anger. I fear that I could get out of control because the person who hurt me was very cruel, over and over again. I do not like fearing myself. Please help me to overcome this.

First you should realize something very positive: You are aware that you are very angry. Some people deny the extent of their anger, which does not help in cleansing oneself of it. After all, how can you reduce the anger if you are minimizing it? If you have a deep cut on your arm and you are afraid of infection, what do you do? If your fear freezes you to such an extent that you cannot clean the wound and apply an anti-biotic, then that fear is preventing healing. It is similar with injustices and anger. Fear of the anger is the problem more so than the anger is the problem.

Please keep in mind that you do have available to you a kind of cleansing agent, a kind of anti-biotic against toxic anger, and it is forgiveness. As you practice forgiveness, you will see that the anger diminishes. Even if it returns, you have forgiveness to help you once again. As you become better at forgiving, you will fear your negative emotions less because you now have at your disposal a powerful antidote to them. Enjoy the cleansing power of forgiveness.

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I find that whenever I forgive someone, it is never really over. What I mean is I can wake up weeks later and I am angry all over again. This is getting discouraging. What can I do to be rid of the anger so it does not return?

Because we are all imperfect people, we forgive imperfectly. When we have been deeply hurt, the anger can subside, but at times we are reminded of the person and the incident of injustice which makes us angry again. Please realize that this is typical. As encouragement for you, please note that people tell me that as they practice forgiveness, the anger, when it returns, does so at a milder level than before. As you continually practice forgiveness toward new people and new injustices, you may find that as you re-visit forgiveness toward someone whom you already have forgiven, the process is accomplished more quickly and with more thorough results than before. So, welcome to the club of imperfect people. When anger returns, return to forgiveness. In this way, you will be in control of your anger rather than the anger being in control of you.

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How do I stay motivated to forgive? It is hard work. I sometimes feel like giving up. What can you offer to me to keep me going when I want to stop?

You are in good company when you say that forgiveness is hard work. Aristotle said the same thing about growing in any virtue….and that was about 3,500 years ago. It has not become any easier to persevere in the virtues, especially forgiveness. As I point out in a recent blog (What Is a Good Society?), it becomes even more difficult to persevere when our own local communities and our larger society de-emphasize the practice of forgiveness.

With all of that said, I recommend three things:

1) Be aware that you have a strong will. Put this into practice. If you were engaged in a workout regimen, you would need this kind of will. If you were studying for an exam in school or finishing an important project at work, you would need this kind of will.

2) Find a “workout buddy,” someone with whom you can openly discuss your striving to persevere in the virtue of forgiveness. Mutual support can be very beneficial to enhancing the strong will.

3) Finally, consider establishing a Forgiving Community, a small group that gets together regularly on our??Forum??to discuss the perplexing and challenging questions of forgiveness. Such support can lead to deeper insights and strengthen the will. You can meet together virtually and/or physically to discuss the issues most important to your group.

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