I have been reading some of the social scientific literature on forgiveness and I am a bit confused. I see a lot of different definitions of forgiveness out there. Is forgiveness more than one thing?
To forgive another is a moral virtue of being good to those who are not good to you. I am going to give you a little philosophy here based on Aristotle. He made the distinction between what he called the Essence of any moral virtue and the Existence of that virtue. Essence asks this question: What is the objective meaning of forgiveness that is consistent across cultures and across historical time? Existence asks this question: How does the fundamental sense of forgiveness (that is fixed across cultures and historical time) have nuances for each person and within different cultures? So, there is a fixed definition of what forgiveness is (its Essence) and yet it can behaviorally vary according to each person’s ability to forgive and according to different cultural norms for expressing forgiveness (its Existence). The differences in the definition of forgiveness (its Essence) within the social scientific literature is caused by different researchers having different views of forgiveness (including misunderstandings of what forgiveness is) and not something inherent within forgiveness itself.
It seems to me that a safer approach when treated unfairly is to engage in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and not forgiveness. Forgiveness invites an unwanted guest back into the heart. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in contrast, helps me to think in new ways so that I do not condemn myself for letting the injustice happen and it helps me keep my distance from the one who hurt me.
Research does show that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as a psychotherapeutic technique can be helpful in changing one’s attitude toward difficult situations, but it may not be as effective as Forgiveness Therapy in getting rid of the elephant in the room which is deep, excessive anger that just won’t quit. Forgiveness Therapy has been shown to be very effective against the effects of trauma suffered because of others’ injustice. Forgiveness Therapy can take time and is a struggle because you are growing in the important virtue of having mercy on those who did not have mercy on you. Yet, the effort is worth it because the toxic anger can be reduced and eliminated. Some residual anger can remain, but it does not control the one who forgives.
Even if I ask for fairness from the one who hurt me, it seems that what I ask of the other may be too soft, too advantageous for the other and not for me. After all, if I start having softness in my heart toward the other, aren’t I then likely to be, to use an expression, “soft on crime”?
As you forgive and seek justice, you are not excusing what the other person did. In fact, as you scrutinize what happened to hurt you, then you may be seeing even more clearly what exactly the person did to you. This can be a motivation on your part to ask for an accurate justice from the other person, not a distorted version of that.
Sorry for being so blunt, but it seems to me that forgiving is an act of slavery to the ones who behave badly. It gives the unintended message that I am too soft in my response to the one who hurt me. What do you think?
I think you are equating forgiving and automatically reconciling without asking anything of the one who hurt you. As you forgive, you can and should ask for fairness.
I have a co-worker who never stands up for himself nor does he even politely confront those who are giving him a hard time. Instead, he gets angry (away from those with whom he is in conflict). Sometimes that anger comes out toward me. He can occasionally bang his fist into the top of his desk. Do you think his actions are sufficient to relieve his anger or does this even help at all?
Your co-worker seems to be using the psychological defense of displacement, which means to take out the anger on something or someone else rather than on the original person who acted unfairly. In the short-run your co-worker might experience some relief from this catharsis, but in the long-run, as I am sure you know, his hitting the top of the desk will not solve the injustice. If your co-worker can do some forgiving and exercise this along with courage and a quest for justice, then he might be able to go to those at whom he is angry and talk it out in the hope of a fair resolution.