Our Forgiveness Blog
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
Recent estimates in 2016 place the number of people without homes in the United States on any given night at 553,700 and worldwide at over 100 million based on the 2005 global survey done by the United Nations Human Rights (Homeless World Cup Foundation, 2019). Recent estimates from the International Center for Prison Studies (London, England) place the number of people who are imprisoned in the United States at approximately 2.2 million and worldwide at approximately 10.35 million (Walmsley, 2015), with recidivism rates in the United States being 57% after one year (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010) and 77% after five years (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005).
Such statistics show that traditional forms of rehabilitation are not working.
We recommend that researchers and mental health professionals begin to place more emphasis on adverse childhood experiences for people who are without homes or are imprisoned. Current mental health issues, possibly caused by these, might be more deeply ameliorated through Forgiveness Therapy.
Forgiveness Therapy focuses the client’s attention, not on current symptoms or behaviors, but instead asks the client to begin viewing offending other people with a much wider perspective than defining those offenders primarily by their hurtful behavior. The attempt to be good to those who are not good to the client has the paradoxical consequence of reducing anger, anxiety, and depression in the client.
Through Forgiveness Therapy applied to people without homes and those imprisoned, clinicians will have a new, empirically-verified approach for reducing the resentment that might keep people in a homeless situation and in a cycle of recidivism.
The vital next step is to begin randomized experimental and control group clinical trials of Forgiveness Therapy for people who are without homes and for those who are imprisoned when they: a) have adverse childhood experiences; b) currently are unforgiving of those who perpetrated the trauma; and c) currently are clinically compromised with excessive anger, anxiety, and/or depression.
This is an excerpt from an article recently accepted for publication:
Trauma and Healing in the Under‐Served Populations of Homelessness and Corrections: Forgiveness Therapy as an Added Component to Intervention by Mary Jacqueline Song, Lifan Yu, & Robert D. Enright (in press). Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy.
- Recidivism of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005: Pattern from 2005 to 2010 updated. Bureau of Justice Statistics (2005/2010).
- Global homelessness statistics. Homeless World Cup Foundation. (2019).
- World Prison Population List (Eleventh Edition). Walmsley, R. (2015).
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: The Importance of Admitting and Expressing One’s Painful Emotions in Everyday Life and When Forgiving
A Guest Blog by
Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.
A recent article in the New York Times discusses the importance of helping teens become comfortable with “uncomfortable emotions,” specifically the importance of helping them accept these feelings as well as express them in this time of great uncertainty and sadness. Written by psychologist Lisa Damour, the article notes that our typical style of helping teens cope with negative emotions is to either downplay such emotions, be cheerleaders to help teens stay positive, and/or encourage them to focus on being as productive as possible. Unfortunately, these methods are not always helpful and can teach teens to bury, ignore, or numb their uncomfortable feelings.
When I read Damour’s article, I couldn’t help but think of how similar the ideas of “admitting to and bearing the unpleasant feelings” are to the first phase in Dr. Robert Enright’s 20-unit Process Model of forgiveness, The Uncovering Phase. This phase focuses on uncovering negative feelings and thoughts related to one’s hurt and then dealing with the resulting feelings, such as anger, in a healthy way.
As with psychological health, there are misconceptions of forgiveness and what is involved when forgiving. One of the greatest misconceptions has to do with the role of anger and other negative emotions in the forgiveness process. Most people incorrectly assume that anger has no role when forgiving. (Freedman & Chang, 2010). This is not true, as recognizing, admitting to and expressing anger is one of the most important processes in the model (Enright, 2001). We cannot forgive until we admit to our anger and deal with it in a healthy way. Anger and sadness are normal and natural emotions when times are tough and after being deeply, personally and unfairly injured by another.
However, it is sometimes easier to deny, suppress, or ignore our pain and uncomfortable emotions, than actually deal with them. Dealing with our anger and other uncomfortable emotions means recognizing and admitting to them. Doing this takes courage and strength, especially in a society that often encourages sweeping these feelings under the rug. Admitting to these feelings allows us to express and move beyond them, rather than get stuck in them or hold them in until we explode, which can happen if we don’t deal with our anger and other uncomfortable feelings (Enright, 2001).
Teaching and helping teens to pay attention to their feelings and express them in a healthy way means giving them permission to feel sad, anxious, and insecure, when appropriate. We are currently experiencing a very difficult and scary period and validating teens for all their emotions, both positive and negative, is an important step in the development of good psychological health, just as it is an important step in the forgiveness process.
When people experience interpersonal hurts, validating them for their anger and other painful feelings allows them to ultimately move beyond them to consider the decision to forgive. Damour discusses how one’s emotional strength and resilience becomes greater as a result of dealing with difficult experiences and feelings. Coping with emotional pain in a healthy way, after experiencing a deep hurt, also helps individuals face future interpersonal injuries with more strength, as they are building their forgiveness muscle each time they forgive (Enright 2001).
Normalizing, as well as validating painful and uncomfortable feelings by teens and especially by those who have experienced deep hurt, will help them admit to and express these emotions. Doing so will increase their psychological health and confidence in dealing with future painful emotions and experiences. It will also help individuals who are working on the process of forgiveness to make progress in their journey.
According to Damour, helping teenagers understand that psychological health includes both positive and negative feelings will give them a freedom that they may not have experienced before in their emotional development. Forgiveness also leads to a feeling of freedom, as one works through and moves beyond their anger and other negative emotions.
Helping teens and those who have been hurt recognize and express their painful feelings, will not only show them that they can bear those uncomfortable feelings, but will give them a sense of hope for the future whether they are facing the darkest of times or the darkest of emotions.
Damour, L. (2020). Helping Teens Make Room for Uncomfortable Emotions, New York, Times, May 17.
Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Freedman, S. & Chang, W. C. (2010). An analysis of a sample of the general population’s understanding of forgiveness: Implications for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32 (1): 5–34.
About Dr. Suzanne Freedman: A professor of human development at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal with Incest Survivors.
Dr. Freedman’s areas of expertise include the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, forgiveness education and intervention, moral development, incest and sexual abuse, eating disorders, and early adolescent development. She has presented at numerous national and international conferences on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and forgiveness education. At the University of Northern Iowa, she teaches a variety of development courses including the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness. Dr. Freedman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
More Forgiveness Commentary from Dr. Freedman:
- Kids Say the Darndest Things — About Forgiveness
- The Impact of Using Children’s Literature to Teach 5th Graders About Forgiveness
- Forgiveness: The Path to Restoring Your Emotional and Physical Health After Sexual Abuse
- The “F Word” for Sexual Abuse Survivors: Is Forgiveness Possible?
- Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal With Incest Survivors