While browsing the Internet today, I came across a piece from National Public Radio dated March 11, 2013. It has the ominous title, “Forgiveness Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be.”
Let us examine their points to see if they are true. The program included an advice columnist, Emily Yoffe and psychiatrist, Richard Friedman.
An opening salvo comes from Yoffe, who describes myriad letters she receives from people whose parents are old, sick, and who never were there for the son or daughter when growing up. She thinks it can be inappropriate to forgive with this statement, “…there can be a tremendous cost to the person who was abused to go back to the abuser and say, all is forgiven.”
Our rebuttal: When we forgive we do not have to go to the person and proclaim it. We can forgive from the heart and keep our distance if the other is abusive.
When it was Dr. Friedman’s turn he said this, “…to ask these people to go back and try to, quote, ‘repair’ their relationship with their parents would do more harm than good.”
Our rebuttal: To forgive is not necessarily to repair a relationship. That is the job of reconciliation. To equate forgiveness and reconciliation is to distort the meaning of each. Forgiveness is a moral virtue and one can offer the virtue of mercy to another without reconciling. Reconciliation is not a moral virtue but instead is a negotiation strategy of two or more people coming together again in mutual trust.
Emily Yoffe then reiterates the moral equality of forgiveness and reconciliation when she says this, “People can be re-victimized by the sense that you must forgive and move on, and that’s going to mean reconciliation and helping.”
Our rebuttal: We should not swing at forgiveness and give it a black eye when we really mean to swing at a different target, reconciliation.
Forgiveness is not all it’s cracked up to be. If this is so, the NPR program certainly did not defend this premise. Instead, it engaged in distortions and perhaps gave itself a black eye.
Why do you advocate all the time for forgiveness when the research on assertiveness shows that it is effective in stopping another’s inappropriate behavior? The passivity of forgiveness just does not compare to this.
Why should we take sides on this? For those who reject forgiveness, there are other approaches. For those who view assertiveness approaches as too harsh, there is forgiveness.
Regarding research, we respectfully disagree. You can find the research based on forgiveness therapy with adults at: Peer Reviewed Experimental Studies. You can find the research based on forgiveness education with children and adolescents at: Journal Articles on Forgiveness Education. As you will see, the research shows that those who forgive experience considerable emotional healing.
Finally, forgiveness is not a passive activity. It is an active struggle to love through pain, hardly an inactive approach.
Over at the Maverick Philosopher blog there is a post on March 13 which states two points worthy of further discussion:
- “It is morally objectionable to forgive those who will not admit wrongdoing, show no remorse, make no amends, do not pay restitution, etc.”
- “Only conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness.”
Are these statements true?
Let us look at point 1 and first ask, “What is this thing we call forgiveness? Is it a skill of some kind or a coping strategy or perhaps a moral virtue?” Given Yves Simon’s (The Definition of Moral Virtue, 1986) definition, it seems that forgiveness can be classified as a moral virtue because it possesses all of the qualities of such a thing. The moral virtues possess the following characteristics as does forgiveness: Forgiveness is concerned with the good of human welfare; the one who forgives has motivation to effect the moral good (it does not just happen by chance or by mistake); at least to a limited degree, the one who forgives knows that the expression of forgiveness is good even if he or she does not articulate a precise moral principle underlying the forgiving act; forgiveness as moral virtue is practiced by the person (although forgiveness can be a one-time act, it usually is repeated when other injustices occur); the forgiver need not be perfect in the expression of forgiveness toward the other; different people demonstrate different degrees of the virtue; and the one who is practicing the moral virtue tries to do so as consistently as he or she can.
If, then, forgiveness in its essence is a moral virtue, we must ask what kind of virtue it is. For example, is it more concerned with justice (what is right and wrong) or is it more concerned with mercy (going beyond what is fair, going the extra mile, suffering for others)? It seems that forgiveness is not an act of justice because those who forgive do not give proportionately or equally relative to what a wrongdoer has given. One who insults is forgiven when the offended one is patient and kind in the face of the insult. Forgiveness is an act of mercy. Thus, regarding point 1 above, is it truly offensive if the wronged offers that mercy prior to an apology? We think not because it is always a good thing to offer patience and kindness even prior to another’s remorse or repentance. If we frame forgiveness instead as a moral virtue centered in justice and if the other is not just by apologizing, then, yes, it is morally offensive to forgive in this context. Yet, forgiveness is not an act of justice and so point 1 appears to be false.
As a further challenge to point 1, what other moral virtue requires a prior response from another before one can exercise that virtue? We know of no other. The one who wishes to exercise the virtue would be trapped if this were the case. He or she could not be a moral agent until someone else decided to do something.
We can now see that the statement in point 2, “Only conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness” cannot be true. In fact, if we made mercy contingent on others’ prior responses of some kind (not prior needs, but prior responses directly to the one offering mercy), then mercy as we know it would be distorted beyond recognition. It would no longer possess the qualities we have come to recognize in the merciful.
To answer our question: Waiting for an apology is not unwarranted, but it is not necessary if one is to be a genuine forgiver and if we are to understand properly the moral virtue of forgiveness. Forgiveness as an unconditional response of mercy seems to more readily preserve what moral virtues are and what forgiveness is in particular.
For more on unconditional forgiveness, see our January 7 blog, “Must the Other Apologize Prior to My Forgiving?”
The snow is melting. The days are becoming longer. Even the birds are starting to chirp. Spring is a wonderful time of new beginnings. New relationships develop and fantasies of improving old relationships may increase. For most people, time spent with friends and family brings happiness. However, for some, relationships with family members and/or friends can be a source of stress related to past conflicts. There are many ways to cope with conflict and feelings of anger and resentment but one approach that we don’t often hear about is the idea of Forgiveness. In an article I read in Runner’s World, the author states, “Butter brings families together, mends old wounds and softens the harsh glare of old resentments, and even makes peas taste good” (Parent, December 2011, p. 50). I don’t know if forgiveness can make “peas taste good” but I do believe that forgiveness can be just as effective as butter, if not more so, in “bringing families together, mending old wounds and softening resentment.”
Many misconceptions and misunderstandings surround what it means to forgive, how to forgive, and when to forgive. Forgiveness involves a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and sometimes even love toward him or her ( Enright, 2001; North, 1987). Notice in the definition that you have a “right” to feel resentment and that the offender does not “deserve” your compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward the offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors (Enright et al., 1991). Forgiveness does not mean that you deny your offender’s wrongdoing or excuse your offender or the wrongdoing.
One frequent misconception of forgiveness is that it is the same as reconciliation. Although frequently confused with reconciliation, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation and does not automatically lead to reconciliation. You can forgive and choose not to reconcile. Forgiveness is something you, as the injured, can do on your own and reconciliation requires a change in behavior on the part of the offender; possibly including an apology and the admittance of wrongdoing. Some criticize forgiveness because they think that advocating forgiveness leads to further abuse. However, in the case of a woman married to a partner who continuously cheats on her, she can leave her partner and work on forgiving without staying in the relationship. I would only advise her to consider reconciling if her partner changed his behavior and admitted to his wrongdoing. Forgiveness can also lead to reconciliation. It might be the first step in the process of getting back together with an offender who is sorry for his or her actions.
Forgiveness is a complicated topic and it is definitely not easy, but the benefits are well worth the effort. Future blogs on forgiveness will discuss the role of anger and apology when forgiving, the relation between forgiveness and forgetting, how religion relates to forgiveness, and who benefits when one forgives. Forgiveness is not the only approach to dealing with deep, personal, and unfair hurt. Remember, there’s butter. It is just one response that is not always thought about or tried.
Suzanne Freedman, Professor, University of Northern Iowa
Premise #1: To forget is to not remember in the sense of moving on and not letting the emotional effects of injustices bother us any more.
Premise #2: To forgive is to forget.
Conclusion: Therefore, when we forgive, we do not remember what happened to us, making us vulnerable to continued injustice.
When we fail to remember what happened to us, this can be dangerous because we might let others again take advantage of us.
Because forgiveness might hasten our not remembering, forgiveness is dangerous.
What is wrong with the above argument?
In logic, we have just committed the fallacy of equivocation. By this we mean that there are two very different meanings of at least one word in the argument. The first use of the term “forget” in Premise #1 equates to “moving on” or “putting the injustice behind us.”
The second use of the term “forget” in the Conclusion of the syllogism equates to a kind of amnesia, a blotting out of what happened rather than a moving on from what happened.
Yes, when we forgive we forget (meaning #1) in that we move on.
No, when we forgive we do not forget (meaning #2) in that we can no longer remember anything of what happened, making us vulnerable to another’s continued injustice.
To forgive is to forget in a certain meaning of that term and given that meaning, to forgive is not dangerous, at least not in the sense of “dangerous” meant here.