Is it ever the case that the pain people feel from another’s injustice is so deep that they should just back off and not forgive?
There is a difference between backing off for a while, refreshing, and then trying to forgive again and abandoning forgiveness altogether. Sometimes we need to take that time-out because the effort and pain are too much. If we then abandon forgiveness entirely, my worry is this: What do you then do to reduce that pain? Forgiveness is a scientifically-supported way of reducing that pain and so, if a person so chooses, going ahead once again with the forgiveness process can be healing.
For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness.
You emphasize, in the early part of the forgiveness process, trying to understand the offender. Doesn’t this just open us up to excusing the other? After all, if we understand the other, we might develop sympathy for that person and so conclude: “Oh, this person is ok. I will just let it go and move on.”
Understanding the one who offended is very different from excusing the person’s behavior. We can accept a person as having unconditional worth and then hold fast to the truth that the behavior was wrong, is wrong, and always will be wrong despite my understanding the person as a person. In other words, it is important to separate the person and the unjust actions. We try to welcome the person back into the human community as we forgive; we do not then accept the behavior.
For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story called “The Capital of the World.” In it, he told the story of a father and his teenage son who were estranged from one another. The son’s name was Paco. He had wronged his father. As a result, in his shame, he had run away from home.
In the story, the father searched all over Spain for Paco, but still, he could not find the boy. Finally, in the city of Madrid, in a last desperate attempt to find his son, the father placed an ad in the daily newspaper. The ad read: “PACO, MEET ME AT THE HOTEL MONTANA. NOON TUESDAY. ALL IS FORGIVEN. PAPA.”
The father in Hemingway’s story prayed that the boy would see the ad; and then maybe, just maybe, he would come to the Hotel Montana. On Tuesday, at noon, the father arrived at the hotel. When he did, he could not believe his eyes.
An entire squadron of police officers had been called out in an attempt to keep order among eight hundred young boys. It turned out that each one of them was named Paco. And each one of them had come to meet his respective father and find forgiveness in front of the Hotel Montana.
Eight hundred boys named Paco had read the ad in the newspaper and had hoped it was for them. Eight hundred Pacos had come to receive the forgiveness they so desperately desired.
Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Darlene J. Harris and is reposted from her website And He Restoreth My Soul Project. Harris is a sought-after speaker and author, and the developer/leader of workshops and retreats for women. She writes primarily on the topics of sexual abuse and molestation. Visit her site.
Who is Ernest Hemingway?
Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) is seen as one of the great American 20th century novelists, and is known for works like A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Born in Cicero, Illinois, Hemingway served in World War I as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army where he earned the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery. He served as a correspondent during World War II and covered many of the war’s key moments including the D-Day Landing. In 1953, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Old Man and the Sea and a year later won the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Biography.com website.)
I was hurt by a stranger and so I have no clue about his past. How can I do the thinking work of forgiveness toward this person, given that I know nothing about him?
We talk about taking the personal, the global, and the cosmic perspectives when trying to understand and forgive another person. The personal perspective, which you find difficult to take, asks the forgiver to examine the past of the offending person and to see if this person suffered injustices and emotional wounds from others. Because you cannot know these issues, you can move to the global and cosmic perspectives. I will share only the global perspective for you here. If you find it helpful, then you might want to go more deeply and consider the cosmic perspective, depending on your belief system.
In the global perspective, we ask people to see the common humanity between yourself as forgiver and the one who offended you. Here are some questions centered on the global perspective: Do you share a common humanity with the one who hurt you? Do you both have unique DNA in that, when both of you die, there never will be another human being exactly like you on this planet? Does this make you special, unique, and irreplaceable? Does this make the one who hurt you special, unique, and irreplaceable? Will that person die some day? Will you die some day? You share that as part of your common humanity. Do you need sufficient rest and nutrition to stay healthy? Does the one who hurt you need the same? Do you see your common humanity? In all likelihood, even though you cannot know for sure, that person has been treated unfairly in the past by others. You very well may share the fact that both of you carry wounds in your heart.
For more information, see Forgiveness Defined.
I am not angry with the person who hurt me. Instead, I am sad. Can you differentiate anger and sadness in the forgiveness process?
People have different affective reactions when hurt by others. As you say, sometimes people respond with sadness, some with confusion, and some with anger. I focus on the theme of anger because that is the one emotion that can deepen and cause even greater pain than currently is the case. People who are sad can and should go through the forgiveness process if they so choose. Going though the forgiveness process should lessen the sadness, even if it will not eliminate the sadness entirely in all cases. People who are very angry and who have been so for a long time should especially think about forgiving as a protection for their own well-being, as well as for the possibility of a renewed relationship, if this is a goal. Deep and abiding anger has been shown to relate to a number of mental health challenges as seen in the book, Forgiveness Therapy by R. Enright and R. Fitzgibbons (2015).
For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness.