I recently read an article by an abused person who seemed angry at forgiveness itself. The person talked of a cultural demand for forgiving an abusive person. This put pressure on the one abused. The culture of forgiving, as it was called, seemed to create a sense of superiority in those who forgive in contrast to those who refuse to forgive. Further, the person seemed angry because this cultural demand for forgiving was creating a sense of entitlement for the abuser, an entitlement that forgiveness be granted.
At the same time, forgiveness itself deserves accuracy. If forgiveness is to be criticized, it is my fervent hope that the criticism comes from a place of truth about forgiveness’s flaws, and not from a position of error.
I think there are errors in the criticism of forgiveness which I would like to correct here and I do not want to be misunderstood. By this essay, I am not saying that the person should forgive. I am not saying that this person is inferior. I am saying that forgiveness should not be dishonored because someone does not want to avail themselves of that forgiveness.
So, please allow me three points:
- People who forgive rarely feel superior based on my own experience talking with those who have forgiven. The path of forgiveness is strewn with struggle and tears. After walking such a path, a person can feel relief, but it is difficult to feel superior as the person wipes off the emotional stress and strain from that journey. If a person happens to feel superior, this is not the fault of forgiveness itself. It is innocent. Again, as in point 1, it is the fault of people misunderstanding what they have just done.
- Anyone who demands that others forgive is creating the pressure. It is not forgiveness itself that is creating it. Forgiveness is seen in philosophy as a supererogatory virtue, not demanded, but given if and only if the person wishes to do so. A supererogatory virtue does not make demands, even if people do demand.
- Some who perpetrate injustice do play the forgiveness card and tell the victim that without forgiving, then the victim is a hypocrite. “Sure, you talk of forgiveness, but then you do not forgive me,” the story goes. This is a power-play by the one who perpetrated the injustice and should be recognized as such. Again, as in points 1 and 2, the fault is with particular people, in this case those who act unjustly. It is not the fault of forgiveness itself.
Forgiveness can be given a black eye by people, those who misunderstand. My client, forgiveness, is innocent and I ask the court to dismiss the charges against it.
If materialist brain activity determines how we behave, then we have no personal responsibility for our actions. If behaviorist punishments, reinforcements, and modeling determine how we behave, then we have no personal responsibility for our actions. If we have no personal responsibility for our actions, then we have to stop the illusion that we, ourselves, engage in right or wrong behavior, as if this were our own choice rather than materialistically determined for us either by interior activity of the brain or exterior activity of others and society. Moral right and wrong become, then, illusions.
When we forgive, therefore, we are responding to illusions. Forgiveness itself, therefore, is an illusion. Are you by any chance feeling very upset by another’s injustice against you? How will you rid yourself of persistent resentment if you cannot forgive? Biological materialist views of the brain and social materialist views of behavior modification will block you from forgiving and from experiencing inner emotional relief……if you have faith in these two (or really, either one of) these philosophies of human anthropology and anti-ethics.
In fact, your job is to stop using such words as “another’s injustice against you” and begin to talk of synapses and urges produced from the brain and inevitable behaviors emerging from how others have reinforced or punished you in your life. Forgiveness? Get over it. It is an illusion. Why live a life of illusion when you can wallow in your resentment…..without relief…..for…..the…..rest…..of……your……life.
Isn’t the practice of materialistic philosophies fun?
For the past week, I have been in a world conflict zone doing workshops on forgiveness education for teachers. In each of the workshops, which now number eight, in this region I invariably get this kind of question:
The basic point is that the hurt is too large for the student, or anyone else, to consider forgiving in such a context.
A further point is a false assumption: If forgiveness cannot be successfully applied to the enormous injustices of the world, then forgiveness is weak and useless.
I must disagree and do so with an analogy. Suppose a person wants to start to become physically fit after a decade of decadence with no exercise whatsoever. Suppose now that a trainer gives the person one and only one directive: You must start by running a marathon. It just would not work. Does this invalidate the quest for physical fitness, rendering the goal weak and useless?
You see, the questioners start with the marathon of forgiveness and do not see that we should not start there. We need to build the forgiveness fitness one small step at a time. Just because a student cannot forgive the murderer of his brother today does not invalidate his trying to forgive his friend who failed to show up for gathering yesterday.
Small steps first are necessary and they help us build toward bigger forgiveness later. This is why forgiveness education is so important. It helps students explore what forgiveness is and is not in the quiet of a classroom…….before tragedy strikes and the unjustly-treated person now must stumble to ask: What is forgiveness? Should I forgive or not forgive? Am I excusing the one who acted badly? How do I go about forgiving? How long might it take?
We need forgiveness education…………..now.
I heard this statement from a person who holds a considerable degree of academic influence. The learned scholar, however, did not give a learned response as I will show in this little essay.
Suppose that Brian is driving his car and is hit by a drunk driver. Brian’s leg is broken and he must undergo surgery and subsequent rehabilitation therapy if he again will have the full use of his leg. What happened to him was unjust and now the burden of getting back a normal leg falls to him. He has to get the leg examined, say yes to the surgery, to the post-surgical recovery, and to months of painful rehab. The “burden of change” specifically when it comes to his leg is his and his alone.
Yes, the other driver will have to bear the burden of paying damages, but this has no bearing on restoring a badly broken leg. Paying for such rehabilitation is entirely different from doing the challenging rehab work itself.
Suppose now that Brian takes the learned academic’s statement above to heart. Suppose that he now expects the other driver to somehow bear the burden of doing the rehab. How will that go? The other driver cannot lift Brian’s leg for him or bear the physical pain of walking and then running. Is this then unfair to Brian? Should we expect him to lie down and not rehab because, well, he has a burden of restoring his own leg? It would seem absurd to presume so.
Is it any different with injustice requiring the surgery and rehab of the heart? If Melissa was unfairly treated by her partner, is it unfair for Melissa to do the hard work of forgiveness? She is the one whose heart is hurting. The partner cannot fix the sadness or confusion or anger……even if he repents. Repentance will not automatically lead to a restored heart because trust must be earned little by little. As Melissa learns to trust, she still will need the heart-rehab of forgiveness (struggling to get rid of toxic anger and struggling to see the worth in one who saw no worth in her) that only she can do. Once hurt by another, it is the victim who must bear the burden of the change-of-heart.
We must remember: The rehab and recovery are temporary. If the forgiver refuses to engage in such recovery, then the injurer wins twice: once in the initial hurt and a second time when the injured refuses to change because of a woeful misunderstanding that he or she must passively wait for someone else to bear the burden of change for him or her.
Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas tend to have bad consequences. Learned academics are not necessarily learned in all subjects across all cases.
In his thought-provoking book, The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, Dr. John Sarno says that a condition he calls “goodism” can lead to even greater anger and rage and to more back pain than a person had prior to engaging in “goodism.” Goodism is the striving to be good to such an extent that one cannot possibly live up to the self-imposed expectation. It leads to stress which can, if repressed, hurt a person physically.
So, then, how does this relate to practicing forgiveness? Forgiveness is concerned with being good. In fact, to forgive is to exercise a moral virtue of love and mercy, both signs of goodness. Thus, might the practice of forgiveness actually lead to more anger, to more rage, to more unpleasant physical symptoms than to the reverse of this, especially when we are unable to live up to these requirements to love someone who has not loved us?
Yes…..if we go about forgiving in the wrong way.
If we are forced to forgive (I must do so to be good) and if we strive for perfection in forgiving (I must be perfectly loving), then we are not going about forgiveness correctly. We need to choose to forgive, be drawn to it, and go about it with gentleness and patience. We need to take small steps: do no harm before I feel compassion; see the other as more than the offense before feeling love; striving for civility at first rather than love. We need to exercise humility, not grandstanding “goodism,” as we start on the path to forgiveness.
If people are forgiving and develop more back pain or more anger or more anxiety, then these forgivers (or the clinician who is helping) should examine whether they are doing this out of grim obligation or to show people how perfect they are. The forgivers should adjust how they are approaching forgiveness and go about the process with more gentleness and patience, one small step at a time.
Genuine forgiveness is not “goodism.” Forgiveness, genuinely understood and practiced, is not dangerous to our health.
Robert Enright and Jacqueline Song