What Forgiveness is
We are all connected and so one person’s actions are not necessarily independent from others’ actions. Is this true? Some Eastern philosophies say this. Some Western psychologies say this, too. For example, family systems theory surmises that a misbehaving child likely is being influenced by pressures within the family generated by others’ behavior both inside and outside that family. Psychodynamic theories in psychology say that an adult’s actions can have causes going back to how he or she was treated as a child.
Given all of the interrelated ideas above about our being interrelated in our actions, we can then make at least two moves in explaining people’s behavior: 1) no one can truly help certain actions because of others’ influences over us or 2) we all have free will and choose to act rightly or wrongly even if others’ make it hard to be good.
If we take the first turn on our journey of understanding persons, then we weaken such ideas as “right and wrong,” “justice,” and “forgiveness.” After all, how can we say that one person acted wrongly? if we are all so interconnected, then this person is not acting with any kind of genuine volition. In a certain way, his misbehavior can implicate his father, who can implicate his mother, who can implicate……..On it goes until we all share the blame which weakens the case against the original person and his actions under consideration.
If we take the second turn on our journey of understanding persons, then we strengthen such ideas as “right and wrong,” “justice,” and “forgiveness.” After all, the person, even though pressed in on all sides by others, has choices. One need not, for example, hit another person because of frustration. One’s mother has not so abused this person that she was left with one and only one option. Yes, the mother’s misbehavior (whatever it was) may make it difficult for the daughter to control her temper, but control it to a degree she can.
Free will. Independent choices. Break the laws of morality (you will not take the life of an innocent person, for example), and you do wrong. If the wrong is done to me, I can forgive. If the other does not have free will, then an apparent wrong is just that—-apparent. Do I then forgive a person for a wrong? The conclusion is no longer clear. We will have to re-define forgiveness in this case to keep the word. Forgiveness becomes a kind of acceptance of all along with their actions, no matter how wrong they might appear to be. We still retain such words as “compassion” and “understanding,” but the word forgiveness itself begins to fade.
The late (and great) Lewis Smedes in 1984 wrote one of the early books on person-to-person forgiveness, Forgive and Forget. In that book he coined the term “seeing with new eyes” to describe what happens when we forgive. To “see with new eyes” means to begin seeing the person who has been very unjust to us as a person, as someone who is bigger than his injustices, as someone who is worthy to be called a human being, not because of what he did, but in spite of that. To “see with new eyes” means that you train your mind to see the inherent worth of all, including people who hurt you. “Inherent” is built-in, unconditional, requiring nothing for its fulfillment. Worth suggests something or someone of great value, precious, and special. All people have inherent worth because they are special, unique, and irreplaceable, and bad actions on anyone’s part do not subtract one ounce of that inherent worth.
Recently, I had the privilege of talking with a 16-year-old girl (young woman, actually) who had made up her mind. She would tell her father what she had done. She would accept the consequences—-she would be thrown out of the house. Her father was not going to accept the fact that this young woman had erred. She was expecting a baby. “My father is very strict. He will not even think twice about this. He will toss me from our home as soon as I tell him. I have gained a child and lost my father.”
With the suggestion of “seeing with new eyes,” given to us by Dr. Smedes, there is no reason why she should lose her father and the father lose a daughter and a grandchild with one wave of his dismissive hand.
“May I make a recommendation?” I asked. “Before you speak with your father, I strongly recommend that you have a series of conversations with him “about one idea I learned recently.” That one idea is the inherent worth of all people regardless of who they are, where they live, how much money they have, how healthy they are, and even regardless of their behavior. I would start with people of different ethnicities, for example. Discuss with your father how people tend to pre-judge a person just because he or she is part of an ethnic group different from the one who is judging. I would then turn to the issue of poverty and ask your father if a very poor person is less worthy of respect than Donald Trump. I would eventually turn deliberately to political figures whom your father does not like. I would keep working with him, if you can, until he sees that these political figures possess inherent worth, not necessarily because of their political beliefs or what they do in the political arena, but because they are human beings and all people are special, unique, and irreplaceable.
I would then turn to a person in the family—a cousin or an uncle or anyone who annoys your father. I would ask him to work with you to see this person as worthy of respect, possessing inherent worth because he or she is a person, regardless of his or her behavior. Once you think he “gets it,” I would turn to one prominent young woman outside of your family, perhaps an actress, who has hurt her own life and career because of drug use. Have your father reflect on the fact that she possesses inherent worth even though she engaged in unfortunate behavior that hurt her career and reputation. Once he “gets it,” then turn to you, not at first in the context of your pregnancy. Instead, simply focus on you, a precious person who possesses inherent worth regardless of what you do or think or say or feel. Then when he gets this, you might consider at that point telling him about your situation. This could take days or weeks to build up to finally discussing one aspect of who you are, a young, pregnant woman, worthy of everyone’s respect because of who you are.
“Seeing with new eyes” is built up one new thought at a time. As of this post, the young woman is on her way home. What will the next chapter in her father’s and her life look like? Forgiveness can give new life.
Why would anyone want to forgive when another has traumatized you? I would like to suggest a different perspective on trauma and forgiveness. It is not forgiveness itself that is creating the sense of fear or disgust or danger or moral evil. Instead, it is the grave emotional wounds which are leading to these thoughts and feelings about forgiveness. When people are wounded they naturally tend to duck for cover. When someone comes along with an outstretched hand and says, “Please come out, into the sunshine, and experience the warmth of healing,” it can be too much. We then blame the one with the outstretched hand or the warmth of the sun or anything else “out there” for our discomfort when all the while the discomfort is what is residing inside the person, not “out there.” And this reaction is all perfectly understandable, given the trauma.
If you experience a blown out a knee while working out, and it is gravely painful, is it not difficult to go to the physician? There you face all the sharp white-lights of the examining room, and the nurses scurrying about, and the statements about surgery and recovery and rehabilitation. It all seems to be too much. Yet, it is not the physician or the nurses or the thought of the scalpel or the rehab that is the ultimate cause of all the discomfort. That ultimate cause is the blown-out knee. Isn’t it the same with forgiveness? You have within you a deep wound, caused by others’ injustice, and now the challenge is to heal.
Forgiveness is one way to heal from the trauma which you did not deserve. Like the blown-out knee, the trauma needs healing. So, I urge you to separate in your mind the wound from forgiveness itself. My first challenge to you, then, is this: Is it forgiveness itself that is the basic problem or is it the wound and then all the thoughts of what you will have to do to participate in the healing of that wound? Forgiveness heals. Forgiveness does not further traumatize. To forgive is to know that you have been treated unjustly and despite the injustice, you make the decision to reduce your resentment toward the offending person and eventually work toward mercy for him or her. That mercy can take the form of kindness, respect, generosity, and even love. Do you want that in you life—kindness, respect, generosity, and love? Forgiveness can help strengthen these in your heart or even begin to have them grow all over again for you. – Excerpt from the book, The Forgiving Life, Chapter 2. Robert
An observant reader asked me recently if our Forgiveness News section might be comprised of many stories in which people are “faking forgiveness” so that they get national and international recognition from the media. After all, the person reasoned, for a few moments their images, words, and actions are in front of thousands or even millions, depending on which media sources carry the story.
While quick pronouncements of forgiveness might lead some to doubt the sincerity of the act, we have three counter-arguments in the debate.
1) We must realize that some people are “forgivingly fit,” in that they practice forgiveness regularly in the smaller injustices of life. Such practice readies them for when the tragic injustices come. In other words, years of practice accumulate and aid the forgiver now in the new, gargantuan challenge to forgive, say, the murderer of a loved one. As we watch the person forgive, we do not see the years of practice underlying the act and so we wonder about the sincerity, which is very real because of the practice.
2) Sometimes, our psychological defenses come to our aid when tragedy strikes. These defenses shield us from the intense anger which could emerge now. Yet, after a while, as the defenses begin to weaken, the anger arises afresh and so the initial pronouncement of forgiveness, when the angers subside, is not the final word on the matter. In other words, there still is forgiveness work to do, and this is not dishonorable. Forgiveness is hard work and requires re-visiting from time to time regarding situations we thought we had long-ago forgiven.
3) For reasons that are unclear to the social scientific community, some people, despite not having practiced forgiveness over and over, do forgive seemingly spontaneously. Their psychological defenses are not masking deep anger. They forgive in a thorough way on the first try. This seems rare, but it does happen.
Phony forgiveness? No, not necessarily. What might appear on the surface as phony could be heroic forgiveness forged in the daily struggle to overcome the effects of injustice.
We came across this expression recently while browsing the web. The author wanted to make a point about the forgiver’s well-being by encouraging forgiveness…..of a situation.
Can a person forgive a situation? No. That is not possible. Why? Forgiveness is a moral virtue (as are justice, patience, and kindness as examples). All moral virtues are toward other people or living beings (we can be compassionate to a wounded dog, for example). Moral virtues do not point toward storms or earthquakes. Why is that? The purpose of moral virtues is to serve, to make better, to uplift in goodness. We do not serve thunderstorms or try to make earthquakes morally better. We do not uplift a dying tree in moral goodness either.
This does not mean that we do not try to restore a tree or to prevent damage from earthquakes. It does mean that our response to **situations** is of a different kind than our response to other **persons. **