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.
I hear so often that to forgive is for your own healing and is not for the one who hurt you. This kind of statement happens so often that it is time to address the issue: Is this true? To answer this question, we have to know what forgiving actually is. To forgive is to exercise a moral virtue (Enright, 2012; Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). What is a moral virtue? According to Aristotle, as explained by Simon (1986), all moral virtues, whether it is justice, patience, kindness, or even forgiveness, focus on what is good for others and for the community. When we are engaging in justice, we are good to the other who, for example, built a dining room table for us at the cost of $500. Being good in this case is to pay for the work done. Patience is goodness toward others at whom one is irritated, such as toward a grocery store clerk who is simply doing one’s best with a long line of customers. What then is forgiveness? It is being good to those who are not good to you by deliberately reducing resentment toward that person and by offering, to the extent possible, kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the other. You are not offering these directly toward the self, but to the other.
Here, then, is where the confusion comes in: A paradox of forgiving is that as we extend ourselves in kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the offending other person, it is we, ourselves, as forgivers who often experience emotional healing as the consequence of offering forgiveness to others. Thus, the answer is this to the question, “Is forgiveness for the self or for the other?”: Forgiving is definitely for the other and one major consequence—not the act itself, but a consequence—-is that the forgiver benefits.
As another related issue, one can forgive out of a motive of freeing oneself of resentment, but to do so entails a focus on the other with the morally virtuous qualities for the other of kindness, respect, generosity, and love.
The statement, “Forgiveness is for you, not the other”, is to confuse essence (what forgiving is at its core) with the consequence and essence with one’s motivation. The essence of forgiving is a positive response, as best one can at present, for the other. The consequence in many cases is the actual self-healing. One’s motive can be the hope of self-healing from burning anger. Of course, one need not have as the motive or intended consequence self-healing. One’s motive may be entirely for the other as a person of worth. Even so, self-healing can occur even when the motive is other-centered.
When we make the distinctions among: a) what forgiving is; b) some of the consequences for the self of forgiving; and c) one’s motives for beginning the process of forgiving, we see that the moral virtue of forgiving itself (in its essence) is for the other.
- Enright, R.D. (2012). The Forgiving Life. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Simon, Y. (1986). The Definition of Moral Virtue. New York: Fordham University Press.
It seems to me that when we forgive a lot, then we are actually growing in our humanity. Is there such a thing as growing in our humanity and is forgiveness a pathway to this?
According to Plato and Aristotle, as we grow in the virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom, then we are growing in our essence of what it means to be human. So, yes, I do think that we can grow in our humanity. Further, I do think that forgiveness helps us grow in our humanity because it melts our resentment, making justice even more fair, allowing for more courage rather than fear, balancing our emotions so we can be more temperate, and when we are free of resentment, then we have the opportunity to have more wisdom or to know the proper way of responding to different situations, even challenging situations.
Does forgiveness come from within us? Is it innate or just a learned characteristic? I wonder what Christianity has to say about this?
I doubt that we are born with forgiveness in our heart because of the Christian idea of original sin. According to Aristotle, we have the **capacity** or the **potential** to develop in the moral virtues, but it takes effort to grow in these virtues. Christianity, I think, would agree with this idea of potential because, according to the Hebrew scriptures, we are all made in the image and likeness of God.
It seems to me that for forgiveness to succeed, it is necessary for low self-esteem and toxic anger to disappear. What do you think?
For forgiveness to significantly raise a person’s self-esteem and to lower toxic anger, the person needs to commit, with a strong will, to the practice of forgiveness. This takes, as Aristotle says, practice, practice, and more practice. Our Process Model of Forgiveness is an empirically-verified way of helping people to reduce in negative emotions. Yet, when we forgive, we do not necessarily leave all negative psychological issues behind. For example, we still may have some residual anger, but that anger now no longer controls us. Instead, we are in control of the anger.