Homework to Help
Because forgiving others is a moral virtue, we cannot reduce the act of forgiveness to a psychological technique. For example, we cannot engage one time in “the empty chair technique” and have a deeply hurt forgiver sit in the chair of the one who acted unjustly and then gain full insight into that person’s wounds with a resultant overflowing compassion toward that person. To clarify, there is nothing wrong with this technique, but we cannot think of it as complete. As an analogy, if you will take out a gym membership to get into physical shape, your goal is not reached as you go on the treadmill one time or do 20 bicep curls only once. To become physically fit, you need repetition, for a long time.
It is the same with becoming forgivingly fit. Your task is not accomplished by engaging in one set of actions, in one psychological technique. Growing in any of the moral virtues takes time, perseverance, and a strong will to keep at it. As Aristotle reminds us, we need three things to grow in the moral virtues: practice, practice, practice.
We can even engage in our forgiveness practice when we do not have a particular person in mind to forgive today. Here is an example: As we forgive, we struggle to see the inherent worth in others. So, as we interact with people today, even those with whom we are getting along, we can say to ourselves, “This person probably has a history of being wounded in some way by others in the past. This person has built-in worth that cannot be taken away.” As you pass by strangers in a store or on the street, you can say the same about them. The key here is to train one’s mind to see the inherent worth in others so that you can then apply this learning toward those who hurt you, as you decide to forgive.
Here is another idea for growing in forgiveness fitness: Make a list of as many people as you can remember who have hurt you, from your childhood to now. List who the person is, what occurred that was unjust, and your degree of hurt on a 1-to-10 scale. Then order all of these people from the least hurtful (but still a challenge for you now) to the most hurtful. Start with the one person who hurt you the least and go through the forgiveness process with that person. When you think you have accomplished forgiving this one person, and it might take weeks, then go to the next person on the list. Continue until you reach the person who wounded you the most. You then may be ready to forgive this person because you have engaged in practice, practice, practice in forgiving and so your forgiveness fitness likely has increased.
Becoming forgivingly fit takes time, perseverance, and a strong will. As in becoming physically fit, you will notice a difference inside of you that includes well-being and even a sense of wholeness. What do you think: shall we hit the forgiveness gym now?
How can we pass forgiveness to subsequent generations? Let us begin to explore some answers to this question through the implementation of forgiving communities.
By “forgiving community” we mean a system-wide effort to make forgiveness a conscious and deliberate part of human relations through: discussion, practice, mutual support, and the preservation of forgiveness across time in any group that wishes to cultivate and perfect this virtue (alongside justice and all other virtues). The Forgiving Community is an idea that can become a reality wherever there is a collection of individuals who wish to unite toward a common goal of fostering forgiveness, developing the necessary structures within their organization to accomplish the goal, and preserving that goal for future generations. We will consider The Family as Forgiving Community here and in a subsequent post, we will consider The School as Forgiving Community.
The central points of the Family as Forgiving Community are these:
1. We are interested in the growth of appreciation and practice in the virtue of forgiveness not only within each individual but also within the family unit itself.
2. For family members to grow in the appreciation and practice of forgiveness, that virtue must be established as a positive norm in the family unit. This necessitates that the parents value the virtue, talk positively about it, and demonstrate it through forgiving and asking for forgiveness on a regular basis within the family.
3. For each member of the family unit to grow in the appreciation and practice of forgiveness, that virtue must be taught in the home, with materials that are age-appropriate and interesting for the children and the parents.
4. Parents will need to persevere in the appreciation, practice, and education of forgiveness if the children are to develop the strength of passing the virtue of forgiveness onto their own families when they are adults.
To achieve these goals, one strategy is the Family Forgiveness Gathering.
Family Forgiveness Gathering
The parents are encouraged to create a time and place for family discussions. We recommend that the parents gather the family together at least once a week to have a quiet discussion about forgiveness. They are to keep in mind that to forgive is not the same as excusing or forgetting or even reconciling and that forgiveness works hand-in-hand with justice.
Questions for the family forgiveness meeting might include:
– What does it mean to forgive someone?
– Who was particularly kind and loving to you this week?
– What did that feel like?
– When the person was really loving toward you, what were your thoughts about the person?
– When the person was really loving, how did you behave toward that person?
– Was anyone particularly unfair or mean to you this week?
– What did it feel like when you were treated in a mean way?
– What were your thoughts?
– Did you try to forgive the person for being unfair to you?
– What does forgiveness feel like?
– What are your thoughts when you forgive?
– What are your thoughts specifically toward the one who acted unfairly to you when you forgive him or her?
– How did you behave toward the person once you forgave?
– If you have not yet forgiven, what is a first step in forgiving him or her? (Make a decision to be kind, commit to forgiving, begin in a small way to see that the person is in fact a person of worth.)
The parents are reminded that they do not have to know all the answers.
In the process of forgiveness that we have outlined in two different books (Forgiveness Is a Choice and The Forgiving Life) there is one part of the process in which we ask the forgiver to “Do no harm” to the one who has been unjust. This idea of “Do no harm” is actually transitional to the even more difficult challenge to love the one who has hurt you. Yet, “Do no harm,” even though an earlier and supposedly easier part of the process, is anything but easy.
To “Do no harm” means three things: 1) Do not do obvious harm to the one who hurt you (being rude, for example); 2) Do not do subtle harm (a sneer, ignoring at a gathering, being neutral to this fellow human being); and 3) Do not do harm to others. In other words, when you are angry with Person X, it is easier than you think to displace that anger onto Persons Y and Z. If others have to ask, “What is wrong with her (him) today?” perhaps that is a cue that you are displacing anger from one incident into your current interactions.
It is at these times that it is good to take stock of your anger and to ask, “Whom do I need to forgive today? Am I ‘doing no harm’ as I practice forgiveness? Am I being vigilant not to harm innocent others because of what I am suffering?”
My challenge to you today: Do no harm to anyone throughout this entire day…..and repeat tomorrow…..and the day after that.
Those of you who have the absolute perfect spouse, please raise you hand……anyone?
Now, those of you who are the absolute perfect spouse, please raise your hand…..I see no hands up.
OK, so we have established that we are not perfect and neither is our partner. Yet, we can always improve. Note carefully that I am not suggesting that you read this to improve your partner. I write it to improve you, the reader.
Here is a little exercise that I recommend for any couple. Together, talk out the hurts that you received in your family of origin, where you grew up. Let the other know of your emotional wounds. This exercise is not meant to cast blame on anyone in your family of origin. Instead, the exercise is meant for each of you to deepen your insight into who your partner is. Knowing his wounds is one more dimension of knowing him as a person. As you each identify the wounds from your past, try to see what you, personally are bringing into the relationship from that past. Try to see what your partner is bringing in.
Now, together, work on forgiving those from your family of origin who have wounded you. Support one another in the striving to grow in the virtue of forgiveness. The goal is to wipe the resentment-slate clean so that you are not bringing those particular wounds to the breakfast table (and lunch table and dinner table) every day.
Then, when you are finished forgiving those family members from the past, work on forgiving your partner for those wounds brought into your relationship, and at the same time, seek forgiveness from him or her for the woundedness you bring to your relationship. Then, see if the relationship improves. All of this is covered in greater depth in my new book, The Forgiving Life.
So many people think that it is improper and perhaps even morally inappropriate to forgive when the other refuses to apologize. “My waiting for the other to apologize shows that I have self-respect. I will not put up with the injustice,” I have heard people say.
Yet, why is your self-respect tied to another’s behavior toward you? Can’t you respect yourself for who you are as a person rather than waiting for another to affirm your importance as a person?
“But, if I wait for the apology, this is a protection for me and for the relationship. The apology is a greater assurance that the other will not do this again.”
Yet, cannot you forgive from the heart and also ask fairness from the other before—before—he or she apologizes? One does not achieve justice through only one path, in this case the other’s apology.
If you insist on the other’s apology before you forgive then you are saying this to yourself: I will not allow myself the freedom to exercise mercy toward this person until he/she acts in a certain way (an apology in this case). Do you see how you have curtailed your freedom, including your freedom to heal emotionally from the injustice? Forgiveness has been shown scientifically to reduce anger, anxiety, and depression. Your insistence on an apology may delay or even thwart your healing.
When you insist on the other’s apology before you forgive, you—you, not the other person—trap yourself in the prison of unforgiveness…..with its resentment and unhappiness. This does not seem like the ethical thing to do.
Forgiving freely whether the other apologizes or not is the path to freedom, healing, and a clear-headed call to justice.