Consider one person’s meaning in a dramatic case of grave suffering. Eva Mozes Kor was one of the Jewish twins on whom Josef Mengele did his evil experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. In the film Forgiving Dr. Mengele, Mrs. Kor tells her story of survival and ultimate forgiveness of this notorious doctor, also known as the “Angel of Death.”
In describing her imprisonment as a child at Auschwitz, she said, “It is a place that I lived between life and death.” Soon after her imprisonment in the concentration camp, young Eva was injected with a lethal drug, so powerful that Mengele pronounced, after examining her, that she had only 2 weeks to live. “I refused to die,” was her response.
Her meaning in what she was suffering in the immediate short run was to prove Mengele wrong and thus to do anything that she possibly could to survive. Her second meaning in her suffering was to survive for the sake of her twin sister, Miriam. She knew that if she, Eva, died, Mengele immediately would kill Miriam with an injection to the heart and then do a comparative autopsy on the two sisters. “I spoiled the experiment,” was her understated conclusion. A third meaning in her suffering, a longer but still short-term goal, was to endure it so that she could be reunited with Miriam. A long-term goal from her suffering ultimately was to forgive this man who had no concern whatsoever for her life or the lives of those he condemned to the gas chamber. She willed her own survival against great odds, and she made it.
In this case, fiendish power met a fierce will to survive. Upon forgiving Mengele, she saw great meaning in what she had suffered. She has addressed many student groups, showing them a better way than carrying resentment through life. She opened a holocaust museum in a small town in the United States. And she realizes that her suffering and subsequent forgiveness both have a meaning in challenging others to consider forgiving people for whatever injustices they are enduring.
Her ultimate message is that forgiveness is stronger than Nazi power. And it has helped her to thrive.
» Excerpt from Chapter 5 of the book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, R. Enright. Norton publishers.
Read more about Eva Mozes Kor and her forgiveness work with Dr. Robert Enright:
- Let’s Heal the World Through Forgiveness
- Nothing Good Ever Comes from Anger
- In Memoriam: Eva Mozes Kor
First you need to change your view of who you are as a person if you have been stuck in unforgiveness and are discouraged. The power perspective will tell you that you are less than you should be if your loved ones reject you. Do not listen to the voice of power. It is all too easy to condemn yourself when others first condemn you. Try to counter that power perspective starting now. Who are you as a person? You are someone who has inherent worth even when you struggle in life. You are someone who is special, unique, and irreplaceable even if you have unhealthy anger in your heart. You are not a failure at forgiveness.
Remember that forgiveness is a process that takes time and patience and determination. Try not to be harsh on yourself if you are struggling with this process. How you are doing in this process today is not an indication of where you will be in this process 1 month from now. Who are you?
Excerpt from R. Enright (2015). 8 Keys to Forgiveness. New York: Norton
Editor’s Note: Exactly 10-years ago this week, in this very same website section, Dr. Robert Enright urged his blog followers to consider adopting a New Year’s resolution to “have a strong will as a forgiver.” Given the unprecedented hyperawareness of forgiveness and forgiveness interventions that has developed since then, his 2012 essay “A Reflection on Resolutions” merits an encore. Here is part of what he wrote:
“This New Year’s Day, my challenge to you is: resolve to have a strong will as a forgiver. . . By that I mean your inner determination and behavioral manifestation of staying the course, finishing the race. . . We talk in society about free will and good will, but rarely about the strong will that helps us stay the course.
“To forgive requires a free will to say yes to the path of mercy and love, a good will to embrace mercy in the face of unfair treatment, and a strong will so that you do not stop persevering in forgiveness. To persevere in forgiveness is one of the most important things you can do for your family, your community, and for yourself.
“Without the strong will, you could easily be like the rowboat, once tethered to the dock, now loosened from the moorings as it slowly drifts out to sea. As the cares of the world envelope you, the opportunity to cling to the forgiving life may slowly fade until you are unaware that the motivation to keep forgiving is gone.
“Having a strong will means that you will remember what you resolved; you will follow through with the resolution. You have the opportunity to make a merciful difference in a world that seems not to have a strong enough collective will to keep forgiveness alive in the heart. The choice is yours. The benefits may surprise you.”
Dr. Robert Enright, Ph.D., who pioneered the social scientific study of forgiveness, is co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. He is also a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a licensed psychologist. The various titles and labels that have been bestowed on him during his 37-year career devoted to forgiveness include:
- Dr. Forgiveness. . .
- Dr. Bob. . .
- The forgiveness trailblazer. . .
- The father of forgiveness research. . .
- The man who pioneered the social scientific study of forgiveness. . .
- Creator of a Pathway to Forgiveness. . . (the Enright Process Model of Forgiveness)
- The guru of what many are calling a new science of forgiveness. . .
- Aristotelian Professorship in Forgiveness Science. . .
Because forgiving others is a moral virtue, we cannot reduce the act of forgiveness to a psychological technique. For example, we cannot engage one time in “the empty chair technique” and have a deeply hurt forgiver sit in the chair of the one who acted unjustly and then gain full insight into that person’s wounds with a resultant overflowing compassion toward that person. To clarify, there is nothing wrong with this technique, but we cannot think of it as complete. As an analogy, if you will take out a gym membership to get into physical shape, your goal is not reached as you go on the treadmill one time or do 20 bicep curls only once. To become physically fit, you need repetition, for a long time.
It is the same with becoming forgivingly fit. Your task is not accomplished by engaging in one set of actions, in one psychological technique. Growing in any of the moral virtues takes time, perseverance, and a strong will to keep at it. As Aristotle reminds us, we need three things to grow in the moral virtues: practice, practice, practice.
We can even engage in our forgiveness practice when we do not have a particular person in mind to forgive today. Here is an example: As we forgive, we struggle to see the inherent worth in others. So, as we interact with people today, even those with whom we are getting along, we can say to ourselves, “This person probably has a history of being wounded in some way by others in the past. This person has built-in worth that cannot be taken away.” As you pass by strangers in a store or on the street, you can say the same about them. The key here is to train one’s mind to see the inherent worth in others so that you can then apply this learning toward those who hurt you, as you decide to forgive.
Here is another idea for growing in forgiveness fitness: Make a list of as many people as you can remember who have hurt you, from your childhood to now. List who the person is, what occurred that was unjust, and your degree of hurt on a 1-to-10 scale. Then order all of these people from the least hurtful (but still a challenge for you now) to the most hurtful. Start with the one person who hurt you the least and go through the forgiveness process with that person. When you think you have accomplished forgiving this one person, and it might take weeks, then go to the next person on the list. Continue until you reach the person who wounded you the most. You then may be ready to forgive this person because you have engaged in practice, practice, practice in forgiving and so your forgiveness fitness likely has increased.
Becoming forgivingly fit takes time, perseverance, and a strong will. As in becoming physically fit, you will notice a difference inside of you that includes well-being and even a sense of wholeness. What do you think: shall we hit the forgiveness gym now?
Sometimes It Takes 36 Years to Get Your Point Across: The Case for Forgiveness Therapy in Correctional Institutions
In 1985 I began to explore the social scientific study of forgiveness. At the time there were no published empirical studies on person-to-person forgiveness. For my very first attempt at a grant (36 years ago), I wanted to see if we could help men in a correctional institution to heal from past trauma due to severe injustices against them prior to their crime and imprisonment. The approach was to offer forgiveness therapy for those who experienced severe abuse when they were children, as a way of reducing the resentment that can be displaced, sometimes violently, onto unsuspecting others.
For that first grant attempt over three decades ago, I was interviewed by a world famous experimental psychologist who was part of this granting agency. This world famous person listened to my idea and then proclaimed, “This is an absolutely excellent idea. I am going to rate your protocol as #1 in this competition.” About a month later, much to my surprise, I received a rejection letter from the granting agency. I made a phone call to the world-famous experimental psychologist and asked about the contradiction between his saying how excellent the work is and then I received a rejection notice.
He angrily and intensively said to me, “Dr. Enright, you embarrassed me! I went into the meeting with very high-powered people, praised your work, and the entire committee was outraged. They said to me, ‘Give Enright money to help prisoners forgive?? No. In fact, those prisoners should be seeking forgiveness from all of us for the crimes they committed! Rejected!'”
I then went in different directions (other than corrections) with the randomized clinical trials of Forgiveness Therapy (now considered an acceptable form of psychotherapy by the American Psychological Association) until 5 years ago when professionals in corrections began to contact me saying that our Forgiveness Therapy approach might work well with incarcerated people and they asked me if I thought that was a good idea. Well……yes, I said.
We continued to be rejected as we submitted at least three more grant requests, all of which were rejected. So, we decided to move ahead with no funding.
Our point of Forgiveness Therapy in correctional institutions is this: Forgiveness Therapy first screens those in corrections to see if they have suffered abuse while growing up. Our scientific examination of this, now published in the Tier-1 journal, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, shows that approximately 90% of the men in the maximum security correctional institution have had very serious injustices against them in childhood, such as ongoing sexual abuse and abandonment. In other words, the unjust treatment toward them as children has left them with a deep resentment that can then be displaced onto others in society. If we can find a way of reducing and even eliminating that resentment, then the person may be more amenable to traditional rehabilitation. Forgiving the abusers is the way to do this.
To forgive is to strive to be good to those who are not good to the forgiver. The one who forgives is practicing the moral virtue of forgiveness without excusing the behavior, or forgetting what happened (so it does not happen again), necessarily reconciling with the abuser, or abandoning the quest for justice.
For a year-and-a-half, a corrections psychologist within a maximum-security correctional institution engaged in a randomized experimental and control group clinical trial in which the professional worked with two groups of men, who were screened for abuse against them during childhood and currently have clinical levels of anger, anxiety, and depression and low empathy toward other people in general. The research program took 6 full months for two experimental groups.
The results show strong statistical effects for the Forgiveness Therapy in that those in the experimental group, after they forgave their abusers from childhood, went to normal or near normal levels of anger, anxiety, and depression and their empathy for people in general rose significantly relative to the control group that had traditional rehabilitation strategies. These results were maintained 6 months after the treatment ended for the first experimental group. These results are unprecedented in the published literature within a maximum security correctional institution. It is extremely difficult to improve empathy in this context. We found the strongest psychological effects for any rehabilitation approach ever published. Here is a reference to that Tier-1 publication:
Yu, L., Gambaro, M., Song, J., Teslik, M., Song, M., Komoski, M.C., Wollner, B., & Enright, R.D. (2021). Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.
We now are receiving inquires about this approach from scholars in Brazil, Israel, and Pakistan.
So, I have gone from being a total embarrassment to a granting agency 36 years ago to someone whom correction officials and researchers want to contact because of a vital idea. Viewpoints can change over a 36 year period. Sometimes we just have to be patient with true ideas that are life-giving until some in the world are ready to receive those ideas.
Read more about Dr. Enright’s prison work:
- Forgiveness Therapy in a Maximum-Security Correctional Institution: A Randomized Clinical Trial
- The Visit to a Maximum Security Prison
- Forgiveness Therapy for the Imprisoned in Israel
- Reflections from Prison: “Forgiveness Saved My Life”