From your recent posts here, it seems that there are many misunderstandings about what forgiving is. Why do you think there are so many misunderstandings out there?
I agree that there are many misunderstandings of forgiveness in the general public, in mental health professionals who are trying to help people to heal, and in scholars who publish articles on forgiveness. I think this is the case because most people, including mental health professionals and scholars, have never examined the term forgiveness from a philosophical perspective. This often results in a failure of understanding what Aristotle called “the specific difference” between forgiveness and other related ideas such as “just moving on” or reconciling or even just engaging in a few psychological techniques such as writing a letter that is not sent to the offending person. Forgiveness as a moral virtue takes time and practice. It includes thinking in new ways about the offending person, waiting for softer emotions to emerge, and deciding whether or not to reconcile. So often people miss some or even all of these important points, thus distorting what forgiving actually is.
Is there more than one definition of forgiveness?
There are many people who have different definitions of forgiveness, but in the vast majority of cases, people assert their definitions without defending them or explaining how they arrived at that definition. We at the International Forgiveness Institute rely on the teaching of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, because he has, in our view, the most comprehensive ideas of what constitutes any moral virtue. He gives complete descriptions of the moral virtues, in other words, without reducing the meaning of the virtues. With that in mind, we define forgiving this way: When treated unfairly by others, a person forgives by willingly working on reducing negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and striving to offer more positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward them. At the same time, the forgiver does not excuse the unjust behavior, automatically reconcile, or abandon the quest for justice.
Perseverance versus Novelty in Establishing Forgiveness Programs
What is one of the biggest impediments to forgiveness interventions in schools, homes, and organizations?
Having implemented research-based and service programs of forgiveness since about 1990, I can say that one of the most significant challenges is the quest for novelty, for that new, cutting edge activity that fills people with a short-term rush of enthusiasm. When novelty becomes an end in and of itself, it is then that it becomes an impediment to the slow and steady build up of the moral virtue of forgiveness in hearts, homes, and communities. This is the case because the newly popular can extinguish that which has been there for years.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal emphasized that one of the major distractions to growing as persons is what he called diversion. In his book, Pensees, Pascal spends a lot of time discussing this issue of diversion, or being so busy with whatever is preoccupying the person at present that there is no time to contemplate what is important in life.
Consider this quotation from #171 in the Pensees: “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”
So, even if a family or an organization or even a community discovers the beauty of forgiveness and implements it, then the challenge is this: How do we keep forgiveness present to us instead of latching on to the newest fad, the newest game, the newest social cause that will fade when the next newest-whatever emerges in about a year or two?
This idea of persevering in forgiveness is vital according to Aristotle, who reminds us that it takes much time and effort to grow in any of the moral virtues. We start with questions about what it even means to forgive. As we work out our misconceptions (it is not excusing or automatically reconciling with someone who is harmful), we then begin to practice forgiveness, applying it to those challenging situations in which we are treated unjustly. This can occur in schools as well. Yet, once the new mathematics textbook appears, or the new anti-bullying approach, or the new field trip guidelines, forgiveness as a part of schooling can quietly fade away, as a rowboat does, from the dock, as the moorings are slowing and imperceptibly loosened from the wooden piling. Forgiveness can slowly drift out to sea without anyone even noticing.
The first step in persevering with forgiveness once it is planted in a group is to realize that it could very easily fade away. This kind of consciousness must not be lost. As a second strategy, we all need to take a lesson from Pascal and know that diversion is not necessarily our friend, especially when it comes to growing courageously in the moral virtues and then persevering in practicing them.
Long live forgiveness, even in the face of the temptation of adding more and more diversion into our lives.
How do I “acknowledge the other person’s humanity” when this person acts more like an animal than a person. Sorry for such a negative statement, but this is how this person behaves.
Please keep in mind the distinction between what Aristotle described as each person’s “potentiality” compared with the person’s “actuality” in behaving in accord with the moral virtues. The one you described as acting “like an animal” is not actualizing the potential for high level human behavior. Yet, this person still has the “potentiality” to achieve this, with proper virtues education and encouragement by wise people. As you see this potential, you are acknowledging the humanity in the other person.
Agape Love: “A Sense of Joy in the Giving”
The first phase of a multi-million-dollar, multi-year forgiveness research project in three culturally distinct regions of the world is providing clarity to an ancient concept that researchers say could bring psychological health to individuals as well as peace and unity to families, communities, and countries.
“Agape love is an under-researched concept that has significant implications for harmonious relationships and good mental health,” according to forgiveness pioneer Dr. Robert Enright, an educational psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI). “The goal of this project is to define what agape love is and is not, and to develop accurate measures of agape so we can assess the degree to which a person understands and practices it.”
That 3-year research project is focused on incorporating agape love fundamentals with Dr. Enright’s Forgiveness Education Curriculum materials for grade school students. Working with 60 teachers and up to 1,200 elementary students in Northern Ireland, Israel (both Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking schools), and Taiwan, the research is being funded by the John Templeton Foundation which has been supporting research on forgiveness for more than 20 years.
Agape love is a concept found in at least eight world religions and dates back to the work of three Greek philosophers:
- Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC), who was among the first moral philosophers to espouse the theory of virtue ethics;
- Plato (428 BC – 347 BC), a student of Socrates who is the namesake of Platonic love; and,
- Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), a student of Plato, who is called “the father of psychology.”
The influence of those three philosophers continued well into the 19th century, helped shape much of Western moral philosophy, and gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics in the late 1950s. This “Aristotelian philosophical view of virtue ethics” was used by Dr. Enright’s initial research team (composed of UW-Madison and IFI researchers) to develop its definition of agape love:
“Agape love is a moral virtue in which a person willingly and unconditionally offers goodness, at a cost to the giver, to another or others in need.”
To further explain, the team added:
“There is a giving of the self to the other(s) that is: a) understood, b) motivated c) willed, and d) acted upon toward other people in such a way that the actions cost the one expressing that love. Because so much is given in agape, it follows that something is taken away from the one who engages in this form of love and such taking away might be needed energy, needed material possessions, needed comfort, and/or even needed safety. Yet, there is a paradox to agape: In the giving, there is psychological gain for the giver, including a sense of joy in the giving.”
That definition was the key element in the research team’s initial report called “The Philosophy and Social Science of Agape Love.” It was published this month in the latest issue of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, a quarterly publication of the American Psychological Association (APA).
In addition to examining the true meaning of agape love, the research report explores the characteristics of a moral virtue and delineates both the commonalities and significant differences between agape and other forms of love. It also provides an in-depth critique of existing social scientific love scales in preparation for a phase-two activity that will result in the development of a specific psychological agape love scale that is statistically reliable and valid and that has cross-cultural validity.
“Agape love is worth studying because, as a moral virtue, it challenges people to strive for betterment in their humanity,” the report concludes. “Agape requires heroic commitment to the betterment of others. As such, agape may aid humanity in reaching its highest level when people begin to deliberately, consciously, and willingly cultivate this moral virtue.”
The content of the agape and forgiveness curriculum across the three world zones will be described by the teachers themselves during the International Educational Conference on Agape Love and Forgiveness being held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on July 19-20, 2022. Additional information about agape love and the conference is available at the Agape Love and Forgiveness website.