Our Forgiveness Blog
The point is to show that if we are to forgive well, we have to set aside our pride, our sense of self-righteousness, and realize that the one(s) who hurt us share a common humanity with us. We all have inherent or built-in worth. When we are humble, following Aristotle’s analysis of all moral virtues, we do not move toward the extremes of seeing ourselves as moral worms or as better than others because we are engaging in the practice of such an exalted virtue as humility.
Recently, I made a new friend, Kari Konkola, who holds a doctoral degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He specializes in the history of religion. As I discussed my interest in forgiveness, he responded that it would be hard to forgive if excessive pride is getting in the way. With a dominance of pride, self-righteous anger can push away the motivation to forgive.
Dr. Konkola further instructed me that humility, as a complement to forgiveness, was a central moral virtue in the Medieval period. The point during these Middle Ages was to realize that each of us is no better than others precisely because we all fall short of moral perfection. He went on to say that there has been a trend since the Medieval period in which humility as a valued moral virtue is in decline. He sees humility as the ignored moral virtue in the modern West.
So, with this challenge in mind, that humility is in decline, I decided to do a little psychological experiment. I wrote an essay centered on humility on the Psychology Today website, where I have been blogging since September, 2017. I posted the essay entitled, “Humility: What Can It Do for You” on April 27, 2020. That was over three weeks ago and the number of views for this essay as of this writing on May 20 is 477. In contrast, I posted an essay on the nine purposes of forgiveness less than a week ago and already the number of views is 2,027. It is typical to see between 5,000 and 10,000 views for some of these essays focused on forgiveness, and yet the one on humility is languishing, as Dr. Konkola may have predicted.
Humility seems to be the set-aside moral virtue. If so, then how can people forgive deeply if humility does not accompany the forgiving? How will people even gravitate toward forgiving if pride blocks all consideration of forgiving?
What has happened in the West that has led to either a disinterest in humility or even an aversion to it? Who had it right, those in the Medieval period or the modern West? I’m not sure of the precise answers here, but I am convinced that we somehow have managed to de-value an important moral virtue, one that might need to team with forgiveness if forgiving others is to be achieved well.
As I write this, the world is shut down. People are at home. I just talked by email with a student in Iran. He referred to what is happening as “chaos.” I have communicated with a professor in Israel and much of that country is now having the people work from home. I was going to present a series of lectures in Southeast Asia, but the people are prohibited from gathering in an auditorium. The doors to my own office building at the university in the United States now are locked.
The coronavirus has altered everyday life……all across the globe.
So many are wondering: How did this happen? When will this end? Will there be a mutated resurgence of this virus, as happened with the flu pandemic of 1918-1919? Will people continue to die? Will the economy die?
Prior to this pandemic, people were gathering, going about their lives, thinking that all they have to do to get the next cheeseburger is drive or walk to the nearest fast-food chain and there it will be. Now I hear that gun sales are skyrocketing and it is difficult to buy ammunition because people are awaiting food shortages and so others may break into their homes looking for sustenance.
The world is fragile, more fragile than we had thought. In reflecting on this, I think the collective ideas in so many areas of the world were centered on a logical fallacy that I will call modern-protection-through-science. Here is what I mean: As we look back on some of the pandemics throughout history, we see them occurring in the pre-scientific, pre-technological age. For example, consider:
- The Plague of Justinian which occurred between 541 and 542 AD. The claim is that about 100 million people died in China, parts of Africa, and Europe.
- The Leprosy pandemic of the 11th century spread throughout Europe.
- The Black Plague emerged between 1346 and 1351. An estimated 50 – 200 million people perished, wiping out about 60% of the European population.
- The First Cholera Pandemic of 1817 started in Russia, killing 100 million people, and spread to Great Britain, Spain, India, Africa, Asia, and the United States.
We now know through science that leprosy is a bacterial infection treated with antibiotics. Cholera, we know through science, is treated with rehydration and electrolytes. We are protected for the most part because of scientific knowledge. Yet, I wonder……have people become so reliant on science that they overdo it, thinking that pandemics are tragedies of the past and could never, ever visit us now?
It is this kind of thinking that I am calling the modern-protection-through-science logical fallacy. We go about our business as if the world is a rock-steady, protected place and we are the ones in control. If anything, this new pandemic, which continues to intensify as I write this, may be sufficient to teach us that, indeed, this planet is fragile, perhaps more fragile than we had thought. “Chaos” as the student from Iran put it in the email to me, is now present and throughout the world.
I further wonder if this modern-protection-through-science fallacy has led to yet another fallacy which is this: the-all-people-are-fine fallacy. If we break an arm, science and technology have a way of mending it. Yet, what about the broken heart? Does science have a cure-all for that? Have we been walking around not seeing the inner wounds in others? Have we ignored these wounds, thinking that all is fine and even if someone is not doing so well emotionally, well then, at least we have the science of medicines to assist. Perhaps, as is the case with Mother Earth, we might begin to see that people are fragile. People can break; people might be walking around with big wounds in them and they need more than science to aid them. Maybe they need real human contact, love, forgiving and being forgiven to be healed and to then aid others in their healing.
The COVID-19 pandemic, if anything, might be our teacher: The world is more fragile than we thought. People are more fragile than we thought. Our scientific age does not offer protection, at least in the short-term, from mutated viruses. Our scientific age does not offer protection from betrayals, insensitivities and insults, and bullying from others..…that can break our heart. Yet, our knowing this just might motivate many of us to see with new eyes, as the late Lewis Smedes used to put it, and to see how precious each person is.
Science itself will not lead the way to this conclusion of how delicate and worthwhile each person is, but perhaps the pain caused by the most recent pandemic might lead the way to such a conclusion.
As I look out the window of the hotel in downtown London, awaiting a flight soon to the Middle East, I see a bustling populace moving quickly……except for one man who is shuffling along slowly, quite in contrast to the others. As I watch, he stops, faces a passerby, and obviously is asking for funds. He is ignored. He shuffles a few more steps, approaches another, and is met with the same non-response.
His pattern is repeated over and over. I counted at least 15 approaches and 15 rejections. He then disappeared from view. I think he was invisible to many that day, even to those who were within view of him.
How we bristle when rejected by a co-worker who is not showing respect today or by others who do not share our goals. The man, refused by others over and over, probably felt wounded by the rejections.
The dear man in London was continuously rebuffed, and he kept trying……until after awhile he simply stopped asking. This sequence of approach-and-avoidance reminds me of Ralph McTell’s now classic song, Streets of London (originally released in 1969 and re-released in 2017):
Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Kicking up the paper,
With his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
Hand held loosely at his side
Yesterday’s paper telling
In the all-night cafe
At a quarter past eleven,
Same old man sitting there on his own
Looking at the world
Over the rim of his teacup,
Each tea lasts an hour
Then he wanders home alone……
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care.
The word “forgotten” catches my attention. That was the exact word used by imprisoned people serving life sentences with whom we spoke over a month ago. “Once you are here [in a maximum-security prison],” one gentleman explained to me, “you are forgotten.”
The forgotten people……
Yet, our forgiveness studies have taught me this: All people, regardless of circumstance, have inherent or built-in worth. The man, so continually rejected today on the street in London, has as much worth as the royalty in the palace. The one in maximum security prison for life has as much worth as the warden.
And in all likelihood, many of “the forgotten people” have stories to tell us of how they, themselves, were mistreated prior to their current plight. They have stories that include their own particular kind of pain, heartache, feelings that are part of the human condition. We need to hear those stories, to acknowledge their unique pain, their responses to that pain, and offer those suffering injustices from the past a chance to forgive. The forgiveness, for some, might be life changing as our science over the past three decades has shown for others.
We must not let forgiveness be the forgotten virtue.
We must not let the homeless and the imprisoned be the forgotten people.
In March of 2014, we posted a reflection here in which we encouraged you to grow in love as your legacy of 2014.
The challenge was this: Give love away as your legacy of 2014.
We challenged you again in 2015…..and 2016……and we kept going.
Our challenge to you now is this: Give love away as your legacy of 2020.
One way to start is by looking backward at one incident of 2019. Please think of one incident with one person in which you were loved unconditionally, perhaps even surprised by a partner or a parent or a caring colleague.
Think of your reaction when you felt love coming from the other and you felt love in your heart and the other saw it in your eyes. What was said? How were you affirmed for whom you are, not necessarily for something you did? What was the other’s heart like, and yours?
Can you list some specific, concrete ways in which you have chosen love over indifference? Love over annoyance? If so, what are those specifics and how are they loving? We ask because 2020 is just beginning. When it is January 1, 2021, and you look back on the year 2020, what will you see? Now is your chance to put more love in the world.
Tempus fugit. Your good will, free will, and strong will can point to a year of more love…..and the clock is ticking.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a world renown psychiatrist, made the point that the only ones who survived concentration camp were those who somehow could find meaning in what they suffered. Those who saw their suffering as meaningless died.
In other words, finding meaning in this case meant to find life. What fascinates me about Dr. Frankl’s observations is that finding any meaning seems to count in staying alive. Whether a person saw the suffering as a way to toughen the self, or as a way to reach out to other suffering people was not the main point.
I wonder now, in reflecting on Dr. Frankl’s broad view of meaning in suffering, whether he had it entirely correct. Yes, it may be the case that any meaning can keep a person alive. Yet, what kind of meaning in suffering actually helps a person to thrive, not just to live? Perhaps people thrive only when they derive particular meaning from suffering. Of course, we do not know for sure, and any comment here is not definitive because it is open to scientific investigation and philosophical analysis. With that said, I think that when people realize that suffering helps them to love others more deeply, this is the avenue toward thriving.
How does suffering help people to love more deeply? I think there are at least three ways this happens: 1) Suffering makes people more aware of the wounds that others carry; 2) Suffering makes people more determined to help those others bind up their wounds, and 3) Suffering gives the sufferer the courage to put into action these insights and motivations to make a difference in the lives of others.
As people love in this way, there are characteristically two consequences which help them to thrive: 1) Those who deliberately love in the face of suffering grow in character, each becomes a better person; and 2) The recipients of this love-in-action have their well-being enhanced. As those who suffer see the fruit of their loving actions, this increases satisfaction with life, increasing thriving.
When we have been treated unjustly by others, this is an occasion of suffering. Let us cultivate the habit under this circumstance of finding this meaning: I have an opportunity now to love those who have hurt me. The one avenue to loving the unjust is to forgive them. Let us remember this meaning to forgiveness: “In my forgiving, I am someone who can love despite hardship.” As we say this routinely and come to know it is true, we may find that we have been given an opportunity to thrive as persons.