Ask Dr. Forgiveness

It seems challenging to have an agreement on what forgiveness is. Although your teaching is very clear about what forgiveness is and is not and although I understand that people’s general understanding of forgiveness is not the best representation of what it is at its core, it still remains to be a challenge for me to tell people that their understanding is somewhat limited and less accurate than what it actually is. Recently, I was reading about Forgive for Good by Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford, and I think, in my humble opinion, his definition of forgiveness is more about controlling one’s thought and emotions for the purpose of personal healing. Even my dictionary states that to forgive is “to stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” What would you say to those who who tell you that they don’t agree with your definition of forgiveness which encompasses both positive and negative aspects in emotions, cognition, and behaviors toward those who have treated you unjustly? Thank you for your pioneering work in the study of forgiveness.

Either forgiveness is subjective, meaning something different to each person, or it is objective, with a coherent, non-contradictory definition of what it is in its essence. If forgiveness is subjective, then there is no need for me to answer this question because it is “different strokes for different folks.” Yet, your question suggests that you see that an objective answer exists. There are over 800 books now in print about this topic and I have to presume that each author struggles to bring forth a true definition of forgiveness, otherwise why write the book?

So, it seems intuitively obvious that forgiveness is objective with an essence to it, which means that it has a meaning apart from other similar constructs such as tolerance, legal pardon, neutrality, indifference, mild annoyance, and “moving on from an offense.”

Given the objectivity of forgiveness, what does the term “to forgive” mean? It cannot be both a moral virtue and only thought control to aid oneself. Why? Because no other moral virtue is exclusively about oneself. Virtues flow out of one person to others for their good. If we insist that forgiveness is not a moral virtue, then it is imperative that those so insisting tell us what it is (and break with about 3,500 years of thinking on this matter).

For now, we are safe in assuming that forgiveness is a moral virtue. Thus, if it is, then it cannot—absolutely cannot—be defined as the cessation of resentment for an offense. Why? Because I can demonstrate tolerance and cease to resent. I can demonstrate indifference, and mild annoyance (without the emotional depth of resentment), and even “moving on” from an offense and cease to resent.

So, how can we distinguish forgiveness from all of these other ideas? We do so by defining it in such a way as to honor the “moral virtue” aspect of forgiveness. All moral virtues involve goodness toward others. What is the goodness that forgiveness offers? When a person forgives, he or she deliberately offers the goodness of understanding, kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the offender.

Of course, people need not completely fulfill this definition to be forgiving. We all fall short of perfection in expressing any virtue. Our human imperfections do not invalidate what forgiveness is.

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How has your experience been to introduce your forgiveness process to healthcare professionals? Is there a medical group or hospital that effectively integrates forgiveness into any healing process?

Health care professionals are very positive about incorporating forgiveness into their practices. We have given numerous workshops and lectures at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, Meriter Hospital, and the Dean Clinic here in Madison, as just some examples. We have information and links here on our website about: 1) how Cancer Treatment Centers of America has incorporated forgiveness therapy into their treatment plans; and, 2) references to WebMD, both on our “Why Forgive?” page.

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How long does it take to forgive someone for a serious offense? I was physically abused by my father when I was a child. It is time to rid myself of this and to have a better relationship with my aging father.

The amount of time will vary depending on a number of important issues such as:

1. how long ago the injustice happened (very recent and deep wounds are harder to forgive for most people);

2. how much practice a person has had in forgiving (the more the better);

3. how well one knows the pathway to forgiveness;

4. how motivated one is to forgive; and,

5. how deeply one is hurt (the deeper the hurt, the more time that is needed).

When we worked with incest survivors for one hour a week, it took on the average 14 months for most to deeply forgive. We find that it takes at least 12 weeks of hard work before a person begins to say that he or she has forgiven someone for a serious injustice.

So, be prepared for some challenging work, take breaks, and live your normal life as you do this. You may find some genuine relief in a few months. This should benefit not only you but also your father and your family.

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When I was a child my parents would often ask my brother and me to shake hands and “just forgive” each other when we had an argument. It was as if the “I forgive you” was the finishing touch of moving ahead to something else. As a result, I have come to think of forgiveness as a somewhat superficial way to solve problems. What do you suggest I now do as a father so that my children do not grow up with a superficial understanding of what it means to forgive?

Your sense is correct: How we teach our children about forgiveness may have some lasting impressions which remain with them into adulthood. I do not necessarily mean that no further understanding will develop. Instead I mean that the impressions created in childhood (forgiveness is important; forgiveness is unimportant; forgiveness is about loving others; forgiveness is like a quick handshake) remain long after childhood.

A key is this: Do not water-down what forgiveness is. Yes, simplify, but do not distort. For example, our first grade (in the USA) teacher/parent guide for forgiveness education (for 6-year-olds) teaches children that forgiveness:

1. occurs in the context of unfairness;

2. involves seeing the inherent worth of all, including those who hurt them;

3. involves the moral qualities of kindness, respect, generosity, and love;

4. does not necessarily include reconciling if the other is dangerous;

5. does not mean that we throw justice out the window.

This may seem like a lot to ask of 6-year-olds and it is. The teacher or parent teaches through stories such as Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. The children are able to grasp all five concepts above and then to put them into action in the classroom and playground when peer conflicts arise. The instructional guides provide questions and answers for the children as the instructor reads each book.

The first-grade curriculum guide is available, along with guides from pre-kindergarten (age 4) through grade 11 (again, using the USA grade system) for age 16-17, in our Store.

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I am very upset by the regular occurrences of mass shootings in the United States. This one that occurred yesterday in Connecticut is just too much to even imagine. I know this is a large problem with many ways to solve it. Please share your views about how to put a stop to this.

We share your view that what happened in Connecticut is unspeakable evil. We have been committed for the past decade to anger reduction in children and youth. Without a systematic way to address this growing problem, we will continue to be stunned by the aggression pouring forth from young men in the United States in particular. Anger is gripping too many youth and we must stop it. I am not exaggerating the extent of emotional struggle in our youth. A major study published about two years ago stated that almost 50% of adolescents in America have a psychiatric disorder. Excessive anger is a significant aspect of this, shall we call it an, epidemic.

Our approach, which has scientific backing, is to have developmentally appropriate forgiveness education curriculum guides for teachers. We have these from pre-kindergarten through grade 11. Teachers spend about one hour a week for about 12-15 weeks and anger can be reduced from clinical or near-clinical levels to normal levels of anger in students. Perhaps it is time for school districts to take seriously this approach to improving the emotional health of students at all levels of development.

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