The essence of forgiveness is to love those who have not loved us. Yet, I cannot at this point feel love for the one who hurt me. Does this mean that I am not forgiving?
From the Aristotelian philosophical perspective, there is a difference between what forgiveness is at its core (in its Essence) and how we as imperfect people actually practice forgiving (what Aristotle calls the Existence of forgiving). We do not have to reach perfection in our Existence of forgiving. In fact, Aristotle comforts us by saying that is it is very difficult to reach the exact Essence of the moral virtues because we are constantly growing in these virtues as we practice them. So, if you do not feel love for the one who hurt you, this does not mean that you are not forgiving as long as you are motivated to reduce your resentment toward the person and to offer goodness of some kind (such as civility) to the other. As you practice forgiving, over and over, you may grow in the moral virtue of agape love (which is love in the service of the other even when it is difficult and painful to do) toward the person.
I read on social media that there are different kinds of forgiveness, like state forgiveness and trait forgiveness. Are there really different kinds of forgiveness?
Some psychologists use exclusive psychological language and concepts to try to understand what forgiveness is. I disagree with this approach because psychology generally does not examine moral virtues to the depth that philosophers do. Thus, I prefer the philosophical approach to first understanding what forgiveness is prior to doing psychological research with forgiveness. From Aristotle’s viewpoint, forgiveness has an objective, absolute, and universal character to it, which means that it is unchanging across time and cultures. This core meaning to forgiveness is what Aristotle calls its Essence. There are large difference in how forgiveness is expressed in different cultures and this is what Aristotle calls the Existence of forgiveness. So, Essence remains constant (across time and cultures) and Existence changes according to traditions, norms, and circumstances without altering its Essence. So, state and trait forgiving for Aristotle are the same, but on a continuum from how you forgive at the moment (state forgiveness) and how you tend to forgive in general (trait). This, then, should not imply that there are different kinds of forgiveness, but instead the same forgiveness at the moment and how we develop to generally offer forgiveness to others.
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?
If someone forgives 18 times, is this person now capable of being a better forgiver than someone who only forgave once?
The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, tells us that practice is a key to growing in any moral virtue, whether it is justice or patience or forgiveness. In my experience, he is correct. So, in all likelihood, the one who has forgiven many people or the same person many times may be a stronger forgiver than the person who is just beginning the first journey of forgiving. By “stronger” I mean that this person may be able to forgive more quickly and with better results (feeling better inside and maybe a better relationship with the one who acted unjustly) than the one who is new to the moral virtue of forgiveness.
You have said that once we forgive people, then we are ready for the next injustice and we might be able to go ahead a little better the second time. Isn’t that statement self-righteous? I say that because some people and some injustices are much harder to forgive than others. Why do you claim that we just get better and better in our forgiving?
Aristotle made the wise point that as we practice any of the moral virtues, this practice helps us get better in how we appropriate the virtues. He never implied, nor do I, that the next incident will lead to quicker forgiveness than the first one and the person easier to forgive just because of the practice. Instead, Aristotle implied this: We will be more familiar with the process of practicing the virtue and so we may be more efficient and accurate in our next attempt. Yes, you are correct, in that the next person who hurts us might do so in a very grave way, making it hard to forgive. Yet, if we bring a lot of experience to this new person and situation, we may get through it more deeply and more quickly than otherwise might have been the case.
To get very concrete about this, suppose that to forgive Person A, you ideally needed two weeks. To forgive Person B, without your having any prior practice in forgiving, you would need six months to forgive because the incident was so unjust. Yet, if you have a lot of practice in forgiving, then your forgiving Person B now might take only three months rather than six. Yes, this is still much longer than what was needed to forgive Person A, but the time needed for this with Person B is shortened precisely because the former practice is aiding your forgiving Person B now.