Barriers to Forgiveness
A Reflection on the International Educational Conference on Agape Love and Forgiveness, Madison, Wisconsin, July 19-20, 2022
Main Point 1: Despite cross-cultural differences, forgiveness has a common meaning across historical time and across cultures.
Main Point 2: To my knowledge, there never has been a conference on agape and forgiveness before this one.
Main Point 3: It is time for modern culture to reawaken the ancient moral virtues of agape and forgiveness for the good of individuals, families, and communities.
After over a year of detailed preparation by Jacqueline Song and the dedicated team, the agape love and forgiveness conference is now history. That history is preserved in the videos which have captured each talk presented at the conference (the videos are available here: Agape Love and Forgiveness Conference Videos).
I have at least three take-away points as I reflect on this conference:
- The cultural diversity was strong, with presentations by people from Israel, Northern Ireland, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United States. Despite the wide cultural differences, one thing was clear: The meaning of both agape and forgiveness do not change as we get on an airplane and visit cultures that are far away from one another. Instead, the core meaning of agape remains in that as a person loves in this way, it is for the other person(s) and the expression of this love can be challenging for the one who willingly offers it. The core meaning of forgiveness remains as a person, unjustly treated by others, a) makes the free will decision to be good to those who acted unfairly, b) sees the inherent worth in those others, c) feels some compassion for them, d) willingly bears the pain on those others’ behalf, and e) offers goodness of some kind toward them. Yes, those who forgive may not reach all five of these characteristics, but they remain the goal, that to which we want to strive if excellence in forgiveness is our end point. Yes, there are important cultural nuances as one Islamic educator introduced forgiveness to the students with quotations from the Qu’ran and as an educator from a Christian school opened the New Testament to the students. The rich diversity had a glue that bound all together—-the objective reality of what these two moral virtues mean across historical time and across cultures. Objective meaning met cultural nuance at the conference.
- Unless I missed something in my travels with forgiveness over the past 37 years, I do not think there ever was an international conference that focused specifically on the moral virtues of agape and forgiveness. If this is true, why is it the case? What has happened within humanity so that these two key moral virtues, so prominent for example in Medieval times, would be characteristically ignored in educational contexts with children and academic contexts in university settings? I think the transition from accepting objective truth about moral virtues (for example, justice is what it is no matter where we are in the world even when there are cultural nuances) has given way to an assumption that relativism is the new truth and so we all can choose the virtues we like and define them as we wish. Do you see the contradiction in such a statement? In the abandonment of objective reality that there is a truth, the new thinking is that relativism (in which there is no truth) is the new objective truth. It is time to reintroduce communities to the moral virtues, which we all share as part of our humanity. We need to know what these virtues are by definition and how we can give them away to others for their good, for our good, and for the good of communities.
- When I look across the globe at communities that have experienced conflict, that now carry the weight of the effects of decades and even centuries of conflict, I have come to the conclusion that a reawakening of the moral virtues of agape and forgiveness is vital if we are to heal from the effects of war and continued conflict with all of its mistrust and stereotyping of the human condition. Agape and forgiveness challenge us to see the personhood in everyone with whom we interact, even those who are cruel to us. This does not mean that we cave in to injustices because the moral virtue of justice requires fairness from all. The healing of hearts, families, communities, and nations will be better accomplished if people now can shake off the dust from agape and forgiveness, that have been so ignored in modernism, and find a new way with the old virtues. It seems to me that agape and forgiveness, as a team, is a powerful combination for the healing of trauma for individuals and relationships. I fear a continuation of the same old conflicts in hearts and in interactions if we do not go back and rediscover the life-giving virtues of agape love and forgiveness and bring them forward now in schools, families, houses of worship, and workplaces.
What is one of the biggest impediments to forgiveness interventions in schools, homes, and organizations?
Having implemented research-based and service programs of forgiveness since about 1990, I can say that one of the most significant challenges is the quest for novelty, for that new, cutting edge activity that fills people with a short-term rush of enthusiasm. When novelty becomes an end in and of itself, it is then that it becomes an impediment to the slow and steady build up of the moral virtue of forgiveness in hearts, homes, and communities. This is the case because the newly popular can extinguish that which has been there for years.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal emphasized that one of the major distractions to growing as persons is what he called diversion. In his book, Pensees, Pascal spends a lot of time discussing this issue of diversion, or being so busy with whatever is preoccupying the person at present that there is no time to contemplate what is important in life.
Consider this quotation from #171 in the Pensees: “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”
So, even if a family or an organization or even a community discovers the beauty of forgiveness and implements it, then the challenge is this: How do we keep forgiveness present to us instead of latching on to the newest fad, the newest game, the newest social cause that will fade when the next newest-whatever emerges in about a year or two?
This idea of persevering in forgiveness is vital according to Aristotle, who reminds us that it takes much time and effort to grow in any of the moral virtues. We start with questions about what it even means to forgive. As we work out our misconceptions (it is not excusing or automatically reconciling with someone who is harmful), we then begin to practice forgiveness, applying it to those challenging situations in which we are treated unjustly. This can occur in schools as well. Yet, once the new mathematics textbook appears, or the new anti-bullying approach, or the new field trip guidelines, forgiveness as a part of schooling can quietly fade away, as a rowboat does, from the dock, as the moorings are slowing and imperceptibly loosened from the wooden piling. Forgiveness can slowly drift out to sea without anyone even noticing.
The first step in persevering with forgiveness once it is planted in a group is to realize that it could very easily fade away. This kind of consciousness must not be lost. As a second strategy, we all need to take a lesson from Pascal and know that diversion is not necessarily our friend, especially when it comes to growing courageously in the moral virtues and then persevering in practicing them.
Long live forgiveness, even in the face of the temptation of adding more and more diversion into our lives.
Think about one time in your childhood when you had what seemed to be a serious disagreement with a friend. At the time, did it seem like this breach would last forever? Did it? How long did it take to either reconcile or to find a new friend? Time has a way of changing our circumstances. This is not to advocate a kind of passive approach to life here—such as, “Oh, I’ll just wait it out and not bother to exert any effort.” That is not the point. The point is to take a long perspective so that you can see beyond the next hill to a place that is more settled and the pain is not so great. You already saw in your childhood that conflicts end. And the consequences of those conflicts (feeling sad or angry) also end. Why should that same process of change not also apply now? Try to see your circumstance, as realistically as you can, one month from now. Try to see your circumstance six months from now. Try to see yourself two years from now. Will you be the same person? Will you respond to injustices in the exact same way as you did three months ago? Probably not. You will likely be able to meet challenges with greater strength and wisdom as you continue on the forgiveness journey.
Enright, Robert. 8 Keys to Forgiveness (8 Keys to Mental Health) . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
When a person is ready to be forgiven, the other may not be ready to forgive.
I have stated previously that to forgive is courageous and even heroic when treated unjustly by others. As you do the hard work of being good to those who are not good to you, as you approach the other with this offer of forgiveness, it sometimes can get complicated. The complications then can lead to new hurts and even a new opportunity to forgive. Consider six issues regarding the granting of forgiveness and the seeking of it:
1. When people forgive, they go through what can be a lengthy and challenging process. They commit to doing no harm to the one who was offensive. They try to see the offending person in a much wider context than only the offending behavior. They try to see the inherent worth in the other, offer compassion, stand in the pain lest they give that pain right back to the other, and they try to be merciful. Such overtures at times can backfire as the other is not ready to seek forgiveness. Thus the forgiver might be met with such statements as: “What do you mean? I did nothing wrong. You are overly sensitive and are over-reacting.”
2. When people have offended and seek forgiveness, they, too, go through a potentially lengthy and challenging process. They try to see the offended person as wounded, as in need of some assistance to overcome the hurt. The offending people see the inherent worth of the offended, have empathy on what they are enduring, and want to reach out to make things right. Such overtures at times also can backfire as the offended one is not ready to forgive. The forgiveness-seeker might be met with these kinds of statements: “What’s your game now? You are constantly doing this and I have had it. Don’t bother me with your sob story.”
3. The take-home message for those of you either trying to forgive or seeking forgiveness is this: Try to see where the other person is in the process (of either forgiving or seeking it). Both of you may be in very different developmental places in your respective healing journeys. Getting a sense of which of you is far along and which of you is not ready is highly important so that each of you can be patient with the other and with the self. . . .
Read the final three issues of this blog on the Psychology Today website where it was posted on December 5, 2018.
“It is difficult to truly defend yourself when your character is assailed.”
The theme of gaslighting has become popular in the psychological literature. It now is well known that the word “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, in which the female character is continually falsely accused of wrongdoing, which causes her considerable emotional distress. Gaslighting is present when there are false denials by the other or false accusations toward you by the other. At least 4 kinds of gaslighting are described in the current literature:
2) The other person has a character flaw, an ongoing pattern that is denied. “You keep saying that I neglect the children. Look. I am playing with them now. You do have a way of exaggerating.”
3) The other person accuses you of an act or a series of acts you did not commit. “You skimmed funds from our checking account.”4) The other person accuses you of a serious character flaw. “You are so continuously angry that I can’t stand it any more. I am out of here.”
Ghosting occurs when the other ignores you, abandons you, and shuts off all communication with you.
I have had people approach me for advice when they are the victims of the 2 G’s, both gaslighting and ghosting, a particularly difficult combination because the victims cannot defend themselves as the other accuses and then leaves. The victims are left alone to wonder and to doubt their own perceptions of themselves.
The 4th kind of gaslighting above, the assault on one’s character, is particularly difficult because there is no one concrete piece of evidence as occurs in points 1 and 3. Either the accused person did or did not steal, for example, in point 3. It is easier to verify a one-time behavior as having occurred or not than to defend an accusation of an ongoing character flaw. After all, if one is accused of being overly angry, the victim probably can remember once or twice being too upset or having a bad day. These occasional imperfections, of course, do not constitute a character flaw, but nonetheless might lead to some level of agreement with the accusation, even though it is false.
Martha sought help because her husband, Samuel, was constantly accusing her of being insensitive to his needs. “You are always wrapped up in your own issues. I try and try to make time for you and yet, when I do, you push me away,” he would say. Martha was astonished by this because she truly tried to focus on him and his needs when he came home at night. He used this accusation as an excuse to leave the home and stayed away for 8 months with no text, email, or phone contact. Martha was left to wonder with no way of working this out with him. “Was I insensitive?” she wondered. “Might I have tried harder?” Her self-doubt led to low self-esteem. She started to lose weight and have depressive symptoms.
Josh approached me because his partner Abby was constantly accusing him of being overly angry. She said that she cannot take all of the anger any more and so she is leaving, which she did. As in the above case, Abby shut off all communication with Josh. Before she left, he asked her for instances in which he had been too angry to the point of fault. She said this before leaving, “Do you remember two years ago when we were having an argument and you put your fist down on the car’s hood? That scared me and I just can’t take that sort of thing any more.” When Josh was about to rebut the accusation, Abby was gone. He was left to think this through by himself.
As Josh realized that his resentment was getting too high, he asked me for advice on forgiving Abby.
The preliminaries when forgiving involve:
1) seeing that as you forgive, you are not excusing;
2) understanding that you may never reconcile with someone who accuses and distorts deeply and consistently;
3) further understanding that you can and should seek fairness. This is especially important if the abuse is ongoing or even deepens.
A beginning part of forgiveness is to concretely explore the other person’s injustice. What, exactly, is the injustice? When did it occur, how frequently did it occur, and how serious is it? As we explored Abby’s accusations, Josh realized the following:
- Abby’s final accusation was of an incident that occurred 2 years ago, not at all recently.
- His “putting his fist down on the car’s hood” was not a pounding of the fist at all, but a gesture of emphasis over yet another accusation she was making at the time.
- Abby could not come up with even one anger-incident in the past two years other than the false accusation about the fist and the hood.
When Josh more clearly saw all of this, he realized how seriously unjust were Abby’s accusations.
Josh then began to explore more deeply Abby’s own life and the challenges she faced. For example, when growing up, her mother faced serious healthissues and so the mother had little time for Abby, who felt worthless. Next, Josh examined Abby’s earlier relationship which ended in divorce. Abby back then was accusing her first husband in a way that Josh now was experiencing.
This exploration set Josh free from his own self-doubts, from his own subtle self-accusations of “if only I had done more.” He could see Abby’s pained life which opened him to forgiving her, not because of what she did, but in spite of this. The process of forgiving uncovered Abby’s gaslighting. The process of forgiving uncovered Abby’s ghosting which was not Josh’s fault. He was able to see her confusions, her pain. Thus, he forgave her from his heart and, of course, he could not discuss this forgiveness with her because she had abandoned him. Yet, the gaslighting and ghosting did not destroy his integrity and his psychological health. Forgiving helped him to identify the problems and to find a healthy solution to the effects of those problems, the primary effect of which was unhealthy anger and a developing low self-esteem.
Martha had a similar outcome. As she freely decided to forgive and as she looked more closely into Samuel’s life, she discovered, through talking with some of his colleagues and friends, that his accusations and abandonment were hiding a serious drug habit which started a year before leaving. Her examination of his unjust behavior not only uncovered that he was gaslighting and ghosting but also that he was living a lie and was using the gaslighting and ghosting as a coverup. As his drug habit continued, he asked Martha to be his partner again, which she refused given his lack of insight into his own behaviors. Seeing his pain helped her to forgive. Forgiving, which took many months, set Martha free from anxiety and self-recrimination. Not everyone would be ready to forgive in this situation, but it was Martha’s choice to do this.
In both cases, reconciliation did not occur. A person can forgive without seeking to reconcile if such reuniting could be very harmful to the victimized person.
If you are the victim of the double injustices of gaslighting and ghosting, consider the process of forgiveness if you choose to do so. It may help you see more clearly that, in fact, you have been treated unjustly. It may help you to label the other’s behavior as unjust, to see the pain in the other that has led to the 2 G’s of gaslighting and ghosting, and allow you to escape the harmful effects of these dangerous behaviors.
Posted in Psychology Today May 08, 2018