An observant reader asked me recently if our Forgiveness News section might be comprised of many stories in which people are “faking forgiveness” so that they get national and international recognition from the media. After all, the person reasoned, for a few moments their images, words, and actions are in front of thousands or even millions, depending on which media sources carry the story.
While quick pronouncements of forgiveness might lead some to doubt the sincerity of the act, we have three counter-arguments in the debate.
1) We must realize that some people are “forgivingly fit,” in that they practice forgiveness regularly in the smaller injustices of life. Such practice readies them for when the tragic injustices come. In other words, years of practice accumulate and aid the forgiver now in the new, gargantuan challenge to forgive, say, the murderer of a loved one. As we watch the person forgive, we do not see the years of practice underlying the act and so we wonder about the sincerity, which is very real because of the practice.¹
2) Sometimes, our psychological defenses come to our aid when tragedy strikes. These defenses shield us from the intense anger which could emerge now. Yet, after a while, as the defenses begin to weaken, the anger arises afresh and so the initial pronouncement of forgiveness, when the angers subside, is not the final word on the matter. In other words, there still is forgiveness work to do, and this is not dishonorable. Forgiveness is hard work and requires re-visiting from time to time regarding situations we thought we had long-ago forgiven.
3) For reasons that are unclear to the social scientific community, some people, despite not having practiced forgiveness over and over, do forgive seemingly spontaneously. Their psychological defenses are not masking deep anger. They forgive in a thorough way on the first try. This seems rare, but it does happen.
Phony forgiveness? No, not necessarily. What might appear on the surface as phony could be heroic forgiveness forged in the daily struggle to overcome the effects of injustice.
“Many people are hesitant, even afraid, to forgive because they fear that the other will take advantage of them. Forgiveness is for wimps, I have heard many times. Yet, is that true? Is the offer of goodness, true goodness, extended from a position of your own pain, ever done in weakness? How can one offer goodness through a position of pain and see it as weak? And see the giver of this goodness as weak? My point is this: We all may need to delve more deeply into what forgiveness is so that we can make the best decisions possible for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the ones who hurt us.”
Excerpt from Chapter 3 of The Forgiving Life: A Pathway to Overcoming Resentment and Creating a Legacy of Love
by Dr. Robert Enright.
Never giving up. Perseverance. The strong will. Forgiveness is hard work and the more severely you are hurt by another person’s injustice, the harder will be you work. It is too easy to enter forgiveness with a kind of euphoria, full of hope that all will be well soon. As you then start to sprint, you realize that you are in a marathon……not a sprint. It is then that your strong will has to come into the picture to aid you in continuing to practice forgiveness until you make significant progress.
Learning to forgive those who hurt you deeply is analogous to starting a physical fitness program. You may start with a light heart and much enthusiasm, and these wane as the exercises get routine, as the muscles get sore, as the enthusiasm melts. It is then that sheer determination must help you through. It is similar with forgiveness. After a while, the practice of forgiveness may become a chore rather than an enthusiastic exercise of hope. Please note that the perseverance is well worth the pain of continuing the marathon. After a while you will notice an emotional strength building in you. After a while you will see that you are now stronger than the hurts against you. After a while you will see that through the exercise of your strong will, you are now forgivingly fit. Let the strong will help you to complete the journey of forgiveness.
“Ahhh…..I’m glad that’s over!!” How many times have I heard that….and even said it to myself. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that if we go through a forgiveness process, such as the one outlined in the book, The Forgiving Life, then all is well and we are healed.
Yet, because forgiveness is a process that takes time, we cannot presume that if we go through that process once with a particular person in mind, then the journey is over. Forgiveness is not that simple for the deep injustices of life.
I was talking with a psychiatrist friend recently and he said this: “Sometimes I tell my patients that they will have to be working on the process of forgiveness for the rest of their lives.” He was not implying that they will never reach the goal of forgiveness. Instead, he was suggesting two things: a) Even when we have forgiven, the anger can creep back into our hearts and that is the time to open the door once again to forgiveness and b) As we forgive, we go deeper into its meaning and in new discoveries about the process; thus, as we continue to develop we have not finished forgiveness or perhaps forgiveness has not yet finished with us.
So, do not grow discouraged if you have been slammed by injustice. The road to forgiving will get easier and more familiar…..but at the same time you may be on that road for the rest of your life. Take heart because this is not a burdensome road. What happened to you may be burdensome, but the process of discovery about whom the other person is, about who you are as a person, and about humanity itself is filled with fresh and healing insights. After all, when you walk the path of forgiveness, you are walking in love. This is not such a bad path to be on, right?
Enjoy the journey of forgiveness.
“But, I just don’t know how to forgive. How do I go about it?”
I have heard this so often…..and it breaks my heart because it should not happen. How have people’s teachers somehow failed to show a growing child the path to forgiveness? Don’t we work hard—very hard—to show a child how to find his or her way home so that, when lost, there is a map in the memory? Why do we fail to work even harder to place the map of forgiveness in a child’s mind? To have to grope in the dark for the forgiveness path when one’s heart is bleeding is not fair. When we neglect to show children the path out of darkness and into the light of forgiveness, we are neglecting a key point of being human….a key point in surviving tragedy and others’ mayhem.
Children need forgiveness education to know that, when forgiving, a first step is the freedom to admit injury. Another has withdrawn love from me and I am hurting.
Facing such a reality helps people to see the injustice for what it is. It can give a person courage to look injustice in the eye and call it by its name. Such courage can propel a person to commit to forgiving, committing to reducing resentment and offering goodness in spite of the hurt.
The courage helps the forgiver to let compassion grow in the heart as a response of mercy to those who have not had mercy on the forgiver. Eventually, the forgiver begins to find meaning in the suffering and to reach out to the offender, at least within reason so that the forgiver protects the self from further serious injury.
This path is vital to a restored emotional health. We need to see this and to have the courage to teach children how to forgive so that they do not ask, in confusion, as adults: “How do I forgive? I do not know the path.”