As I forgive, I am finding that my anger comes and goes. I find this frustrating as I expected a straight line from anger to no anger. Can you provide some perspective for me?
The philosopher from ancient Greece, Aristotle, reminds us that we are all imperfect when it comes to the expression of any of the moral virtues. Therefore, please try to be gentle with yourself and to humbly accept that you will not have a perfect straight line from anger to no anger. You certainly are not alone in this as the vast majority of us can experience a resurgence of anger. At that point, it is good to go back a few steps in the forgiveness process and begin again to see the inherent worth in the one who hurt you, try to cultivate some empathy, bear the pain of this anger, and when you are ready consider a gift to the other (such as a smile or a kind word about the person to others).
Is it possible for someone to actually improve in forgiveness? If so, what do you suggest as some keys for me to do that?
Forgiveness is not a superficial action (such as saying, “It’s ok” when someone is unfair to you). Instead, it is a moral virtue, as is justice and kindness and love. Aristotle told us thousands of years ago that one challenge in life is to become more perfected in the virtues. In other words, we do grow more proficient in our understanding and expression of the virtues, but only if we practice them. It is a struggle to grow in any virtue, including forgiveness. So, first be aware that you can grow in this virtue. Then be willing to practice it, with the goal of maturing in love, which is what forgiveness is (loving those who are unkind to us). You need a strong will to keep persevering in the struggle to grow in forgiveness. In sum, you need: understanding of what forgiveness is, practice, a strong will, and keeping your eye fixed on the goal of improving in love a little more each day.
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?