Our Forgiveness Blog
I recently read an article in which the author started the essay by defining forgiving as the release of deep anger.
In fact, there is a consensus building that forgiveness amounts to getting rid of a negative emotion such as anger and resentment. I did a Google search using only the word “forgiveness.” On the first two pages, I found the following definitions of what the authors reported forgiveness to be:
Forgiveness (supposedly) is:
- letting go of resentment and thoughts of revenge;
- the release of resentment or anger;
- a conscious and deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person who acted unjustly;
- letting go of anger;
- letting go of negative feelings such as vengefulness.
I think you get the idea. The consensus is that forgiveness focuses on getting rid of persistent and deep anger. Synonyms for this are resentment and vengefulness. Readers not deeply familiar with the philosophy of forgiveness may simply accept this as true. Yet, this attempted and consensual definition cannot possibly be true for the following reasons:
- A person can reduce resentment and still dismiss the other person as not worth one’s time;
- Reducing resentment itself is not a moral virtue. This might happen because the “forgiver” wants to be happy and so there is no goodness toward the other, which is part of the definition of a moral virtue;
- There is no specific difference between forgiveness and tolerance. I can get rid of resentment by trying to tolerate the other. My putting up with the other as a person is not a moral virtue;
- Forgiveness, if we take these definitions seriously, is devoid of love. It is not that one has to resist love. Yet, one can be completely unaware of love as the essence of forgiveness while holding to the consensual definition.
- A central goal of forgiveness is lost. Off the radar by the consensual definition is the motivation to assist the other to grow as a person. After all, why even bother with the other if I can finally rid myself of annoying resentment.
The statement “forgiveness is ridding the self of resentment or vengefulness” is reductionistic and therefore potentially dangerous. It is dangerous in a philosophical and a psychological sense. The philosophical danger is in never going deeply enough to understand the beauty of forgiveness in its essence as a moral virtue of at least trying to offer love to those who did not love you. The psychological danger is that Forgiveness Therapy will be incomplete as the client keeps the focus on the self, trying to rid the self of negatives. Yet, the paradox of Forgiveness Therapy is the stepping outside of the self, to reach out to the other, and in this giving is psychological healing for the client. It is time to challenge the consensus.
I hear so often that to forgive is for your own healing and is not for the one who hurt you. This kind of statement happens so often that it is time to address the issue: Is this true? To answer this question, we have to know what forgiving actually is. To forgive is to exercise a moral virtue (Enright, 2012; Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). What is a moral virtue? According to Aristotle, as explained by Simon (1986), all moral virtues, whether it is justice, patience, kindness, or even forgiveness, focus on what is good for others and for the community. When we are engaging in justice, we are good to the other who, for example, built a dining room table for us at the cost of $500. Being good in this case is to pay for the work done. Patience is goodness toward others at whom one is irritated, such as toward a grocery store clerk who is simply doing one’s best with a long line of customers. What then is forgiveness? It is being good to those who are not good to you by deliberately reducing resentment toward that person and by offering, to the extent possible, kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the other. You are not offering these directly toward the self, but to the other.
Here, then, is where the confusion comes in: A paradox of forgiving is that as we extend ourselves in kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the offending other person, it is we, ourselves, as forgivers who often experience emotional healing as the consequence of offering forgiveness to others. Thus, the answer is this to the question, “Is forgiveness for the self or for the other?”: Forgiving is definitely for the other and one major consequence—not the act itself, but a consequence—-is that the forgiver benefits.
As another related issue, one can forgive out of a motive of freeing oneself of resentment, but to do so entails a focus on the other with the morally virtuous qualities for the other of kindness, respect, generosity, and love.
The statement, “Forgiveness is for you, not the other”, is to confuse essence (what forgiving is at its core) with the consequence and essence with one’s motivation. The essence of forgiving is a positive response, as best one can at present, for the other. The consequence in many cases is the actual self-healing. One’s motive can be the hope of self-healing from burning anger. Of course, one need not have as the motive or intended consequence self-healing. One’s motive may be entirely for the other as a person of worth. Even so, self-healing can occur even when the motive is other-centered.
When we make the distinctions among: a) what forgiving is; b) some of the consequences for the self of forgiving; and c) one’s motives for beginning the process of forgiving, we see that the moral virtue of forgiving itself (in its essence) is for the other.
- Enright, R.D. (2012). The Forgiving Life. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Simon, Y. (1986). The Definition of Moral Virtue. New York: Fordham University Press.
I have been studying forgiveness for the past 36 years and this questions keeps coming up. To me, this means that it is a vital question as well as one filled with emotion for those who ask. Given that we have worked in contentious world zones now for two decades, I have learned that the answer is important and can be contentious.
So, here are my views:
Because forgiveness is a moral virtue, as are justice, patience, kindness, and love, it should be seen as similar to all other moral virtues. Is there ever a case that a person would say to another, “You must not ever be fair or just in situation X for this reason…….”? This likely would never seem correct to anyone because we all have the freedom of our will to be fair whenever we want to enact justice. To prevent a person who is intent on fairness would seem unfair.
I think it is the same with regard to forgiveness under any circumstance. If the potential-forgiver has thought about the situation, determines it was unfair, and willingly chooses to forgive, then it is that person’s free will choice to do so.
Yes, others may look on with disgust or confusion because of another person’s decision to forgive, especially in the grave issue of genocide, but again, we have to fall back onto the quality of forgiveness, what it is in its essence: Forgiveness is the free will decision to be good to those who have not been good to the forgiver. In doing so, the forgiver never distorts the injustice by saying, “It’s ok what happened.” No. What happened was wrong, is wrong, and always will be wrong. Forgiveness now is a response to the other person or persons who perpetrated this wrongdoing. The potential-forgiver can and should fight for justice even when forgiving. Forgiveness should not cancel this quest for fairness and safety. In fact, forgiving may help a person to reduce hatred which can consume one’s energy and well-being. The forgiving, there, might free the unjustly-treated person to strive with more vigor for fairness.
In the final analysis, some people do decide to forgive those who perpetrated genocide. This is the free-will decision of the person and if this is done rationally then it is good because the appropriation of true moral virtues in a rational way is good by definition. When there is a philosophical distortion of forgiveness, such as engaging in the vice of cowardliness in which the false-forgiveness allows the unjust and powerful others to dominate people, then this is not forgiveness at all. It is a masquerade of forgiveness. Yet, true forgiveness, that does not back down, is a moral virtue whether or not others looking on judge it to be this or not.
At the same time, some people will decide not to forgive others who perpetrated genocide. This, too, is the person’s free will decision and those looking on, as in the case above, might best handle this situation by realizing that people have a difference of opinion at present on this moral dilemma of forgiving under the most trying of circumstances.
Can and should a person forgive those who perpetrate genocide? Yes, some can and should if they have good reasons to do so. Should all then forgive? No, because this suggests control over a person’s own private decision, which should be left to the one who experienced the trauma.
Do you remember 2019, the year before last year? It was a year plagued by worldwide unrest, hurricanes, and societal conflicts. When it mercifully sputtered to its end, people sang and drank and danced happily on its grave, assured that 2020 surely would be a much better year.
For a few months, it was. But then, thanks primarily to what was first labeled a “miniscule coronavirus” discovered in a far-away land, 2020 turned out to be much worse for many millions of people around the world. It was one of the most challenging years in modern history—a year to forget, but one we will always remember.
Yet, as a forgiveness researcher and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI), I am proud to report that despite its many challenges, 2020 turned out to be our most productive year ever since I began studying forgiveness three decades ago.
HERE ARE JUST A FEW OF OUR NOTABLE ACCOMPLISHMENTS FOR 2020:
1) We completed and had published 11 significant scientific research projects. I was able to team up with a different group of uniquely-qualified specialists for each of those projects. Covering a wide range of cultural diversity, and encompassing studies in seven countries with both adult and child participants, those studies included:
- Development and implementation of a totally new forgiveness tool—The Enright Group Forgiveness Inventory–that has important implications for world peace. As part of that project, we tested the tool in China, Taiwan, Slovenia, and the U.S. It will soon be available on the IFI website at no cost to researchers.
- Completion of three “peace education initiatives” in China, Iran, and the U.S. that are designed to inspire and engage educators, students, and community leaders. I continue projects like these because I genuinely believe that forgiveness is the missing piece to the peace puzzle and that the IFI must continue its mission of “Healing Hearts, Building Peace.”
- Seven other projects documenting how Forgiveness Therapy can positively impact the homeless and those in prison, help prevent bullying (Spain), assist female acid attack victims in Pakistan (a significant social issue there), and others.
+ See all the 2020 IFI Research Projects +
2) As recognition and adoption of our Forgiveness Therapy interventions grows, I was able to develop and deliver more than a dozen targeted forgiveness presentations in the U.S. as well as in Scotland (Edinburgh), Northern Ireland (Belfast), and Slovakia (Bratislava) during 2020. Audiences included cancer treatment specialists, pediatricians, oncologists, and other medical specialists; prison maximum security staff and inmates; school administrators and teachers; and university faculty, research associates, and students.
+ See the full list of 2020 Forgiveness Presentations +
3) Responding to frequent requests from national and international news reporters, I was able to complete media interviews, podcasts and video productions in Spain, Germany, Italy, Israel, Canada and a variety of U.S. locations. One of those podcasts—hosted and broadcast by Dr. Alexandra Miller, a popular family relations psychologist—was downloaded by individuals in 225 US cities and 22 foreign countries in just the first three weeks after it was recorded.
+ See the entire list of 2020 Media Engagements +
4) In addition to all that activity, I managed to continue our promotion of the immeasurable benefits of forgiveness and Forgiveness Therapy by:
- Authoring 12 new forgiveness-related blogs for Psychology Today;
- Originating 12 additional blogs for “Our Forgiveness Blog” on the IFI website; and,
- Providing written responses on our website for 208 “Ask Dr. Forgiveness” questions.
Yes, 2020 was a ground-breaking, record-setting year for the science of forgiveness, for the International Forgiveness Institute and for me personally. At the same time, the pandemic has helped us realize that life is too short to be unhappy. Living in the moment matters. Being there for the people you love matters. And it gives us the chance to add to our Unfolding Love Story.
There is one sure way to get rid of your unhappiness: Make this year the one when you learn to forgive. If you live a forgiving life, I guarantee it will be a happier and healthier life.
Since writing my first Forgiveness Blog nearly 8 years ago, I have penned 509 essays on more than 40 forgiveness-related topics that we’ve published here. One of the topics I’ve written about extensively is LEGACY—a subject I sum up this way on page 225 of my self-help book 8 Keys to Forgiveness:
Long after you are gone, your love could be alive and well and living on this earth in the minds, hearts, and beings of others. You can begin to leave a legacy of love by how you live this very day. In all likelihood, you will meet others today. If your heart is filled with love rather than with bitterness, it will be much easier to pass that love to others.
Do you see why it is so important to forgive? You are given the joyous opportunity to shed bitterness and put love in its place for the one who hurt you and then more widely to many, many others, as you are freed to love more deeply and more widely. The meaning and purpose of your life are intimately tied to this decision to leave a legacy of love.
As another way of expressing the importance of legacy, I now share with you this timeless poem about The Train on which we all travel:
At birth we boarded The Train and met our parents, and we believed they would always travel by our side. As time went by, other significant people boarded the train. . . our siblings, friends, children, strangers and perhaps the love of our life.
At some distant point, some random station, our parents will step down from the train, leaving us on this journey alone. Others will step down over time and leave a permanent vacuum. Some, however, will go so unnoticed that we don’t realize they vacated their seats.
This train ride will be full of joy, sorrow, fantasy, expectations, hellos, goodbyes, and farewells.
Success on this excursion consists of having a good relationship with all passengers… requiring that we give the best of ourselves and leave a memory behind.
The mystery to everyone is this: We do not know at which station we ourselves will step down. So, we must live each day in the best way…love, forgive, and offer continuously the best of who we are. It is important for us to do this because when the times comes for us to step down–and leave our seat empty–we should leave behind beautiful memories for those who will continue to travel on the train of life.
We wish you a joyful journey for the coming years on your train of life. Reap success, give lots of love, be happy. More importantly, thank God for the odyssey!
As we close out the final days of 2020 with continuing uncertainty, I challenge you to give love away as your legacy of 2021 and I thank you for being one of the passengers on my train!
Read more of Dr. Enright’s legacy blogs:
- Your Unfolding Love Story for 2020 – Jan. 1, 2020
- How will you lead your life from this point forward? – Aug. 20, 2019
- Your Forgiveness Legacy – Dec. 29, 2015
- Reflection on Legacy – Your Legacy – July 25, 2013