The twelfth of 15 criticisms about forgiveness that I so frequently see is that it is impossible to even understand or define forgiveness because there are so many different definitions of it in the published literature.
This problem is not inherent in forgiveness itself, but instead is a problem with those who write about forgiveness without deeply understanding what it is. As the ancient Greeks, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, remind us, there is an objective essence (or an unchanging set of characteristics) which typifies each moral virtue. Forgiveness is what it is across historical time and across cultures and, yes, there can be individual and cultural variations in how this essence is expressed. Just because there is a ritual, for example, in Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa, in which a community gathers at night around a large bonfire as people forgive one another, does not mean that what forgiveness is there differs in essence from what forgiveness is in a one-on-one forgiveness therapy session in the United States. Those who think about and then write about forgiveness, according to Aristotle, can use their rational faculties to understand, even if imperfectly, what forgiveness is and is not. To forgive is to be good to those who are not good to the forgiver and this goodness includes the motivation to be good to the offending person, the cognitions of goodness toward the person, positive affect, and, when possible, positive behaviors toward that person.
Perseverance as the Missing Piece to Family, School, and Community Forgiveness
Having studied the psychology of forgiveness since 1985 and having helped plant forgiveness education in schools since 2002, I have come to realize that there is another moral virtue that needs to exist alongside forgiving if forgiveness is to mature in minds, hearts, and groups. That virtue is perseverance, or the willed decision and action to keep going despite challenges and to not get distracted by other issues. In the ethical treatise, Virtues and Vices (attributed to Aristotle, but possibly written by one of his followers), the virtue of perseverance or endurance is said to exist alongside the virtue of courage and daring. I would add that perseverance will be a moral virtue as long as it is connected to both wisdom and justice (as well as courage) because it is good only if the goal to which people are dedicating a good part of their lives is fair and reasonable. Persevering in bank robbery, for example, is vice not virtuous.
Perseverance is rarely discussed in modern society as we play with our gadgets and move from one forum to another. This kind of quick movement is part of what the 17th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, in his masterful work, Pensées, refers to as diversion. He challenged readers by saying that most people cannot endure even one hour alone in their own room without seeking new diversions. If this was the case over four centuries ago, how much more might diversion be weakening our ability to engage in the moral virtue of perseverance now?
In an earlier blog, I related an interaction with Mr. Brian McParland of St. Vincent de Paul Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the fall semester of 2002. Upon approving forgiveness education in his school, he told me that I would last only 3 years at this task because that is all the time anyone ever seems to give to new classroom initiatives. In other words, people do not persevere. I have seen the same in local groups that start forgiveness education programs with adults only to have them fade over time. Yet, as Aristotle reminds us, and challenges us, it takes time to grow deeply in the moral virtues. We do not become proficient in any moral virtue by giving it a try for a little while any more than we become physically fit by hitting the gym for a month and then going back to the couch and the potato chips. It takes time and effort to become forgivingly fit. It takes time to grow in the moral virtue of perseverance.
So, it seems to me that the first step in growing intra-personally in forgiveness, in aiding families and schools and local community organizations to grow in forgiveness is to openly and boldly and persistently discuss perseverance and the serious challenge all people face as they say, “Let’s hit the forgiveness gym!” Without perseverance, we lose our forgiving fitness very soon.
How much perseverance do we need to change the world? It seems to me that we need to introduce students to forgiveness, without forcing them to forgive, from age 4 to age 18. It seems to me that we need two generations, about 40 years, of forgiveness in communities to change those communities and to change community-to-community conflicts, even brutal conflicts that seem at present to have no end in sight. Forty years? Forty years when there will be new distractions, new shiny diversions? Yes, and it is the teamwork of forgiveness and perseverance, and leaders who will take over for other leaders, that will win in the peace movement. This combination of forgiveness and perseverance never has been tried anywhere in the world at any time in human history. It is time.
With perseverance, we might just be able to bring forgiveness for good to a deeply wounded world. Long live perseverance! Long live forgiveness!
Liberia Seeks Peace Through Forgiveness
Bishop Brown has been working with IFI co-founder Dr. Robert Enright to implement elementary and secondary school Forgiveness Education initiatives (including for all 500 students at the Mother Tegeste Stewart Apostolic Pentecostal School in Brewerville), after-school forgiveness education clubs, and Sunday School forgiveness lessons. Since 2017, Group Forgiveness interventions also have been incorporated into the LFEP thanks to Bishop Brown’s significant role in governmental affairs.
“I suggested that approach, in all humility, because dialogue will not be fruitful if those engaging in the dialogue are still very angry about past grievances,” Dr. Enright explained. “Forgiveness is a scientifically-supported way of eliminating that anger.”
- Can Group Forgiveness In Liberia Lead to Peace?
- A New Strategy for Peace in the World. . . The Enright Forgiveness Inventory
- First Ebola, Now Coronavirus: Liberia Suffers Again
A Reflection on the International Educational Conference on Agape Love and Forgiveness, Madison, Wisconsin, July 19-20, 2022
Main Point 1: Despite cross-cultural differences, forgiveness has a common meaning across historical time and across cultures.
Main Point 2: To my knowledge, there never has been a conference on agape and forgiveness before this one.
Main Point 3: It is time for modern culture to reawaken the ancient moral virtues of agape and forgiveness for the good of individuals, families, and communities.
After over a year of detailed preparation by Jacqueline Song and the dedicated team, the agape love and forgiveness conference is now history. That history is preserved in the videos which have captured each talk presented at the conference (the videos are available here: Agape Love and Forgiveness Conference Videos).
I have at least three take-away points as I reflect on this conference:
- The cultural diversity was strong, with presentations by people from Israel, Northern Ireland, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United States. Despite the wide cultural differences, one thing was clear: The meaning of both agape and forgiveness do not change as we get on an airplane and visit cultures that are far away from one another. Instead, the core meaning of agape remains in that as a person loves in this way, it is for the other person(s) and the expression of this love can be challenging for the one who willingly offers it. The core meaning of forgiveness remains as a person, unjustly treated by others, a) makes the free will decision to be good to those who acted unfairly, b) sees the inherent worth in those others, c) feels some compassion for them, d) willingly bears the pain on those others’ behalf, and e) offers goodness of some kind toward them. Yes, those who forgive may not reach all five of these characteristics, but they remain the goal, that to which we want to strive if excellence in forgiveness is our end point. Yes, there are important cultural nuances as one Islamic educator introduced forgiveness to the students with quotations from the Qu’ran and as an educator from a Christian school opened the New Testament to the students. The rich diversity had a glue that bound all together—-the objective reality of what these two moral virtues mean across historical time and across cultures. Objective meaning met cultural nuance at the conference.
- Unless I missed something in my travels with forgiveness over the past 37 years, I do not think there ever was an international conference that focused specifically on the moral virtues of agape and forgiveness. If this is true, why is it the case? What has happened within humanity so that these two key moral virtues, so prominent for example in Medieval times, would be characteristically ignored in educational contexts with children and academic contexts in university settings? I think the transition from accepting objective truth about moral virtues (for example, justice is what it is no matter where we are in the world even when there are cultural nuances) has given way to an assumption that relativism is the new truth and so we all can choose the virtues we like and define them as we wish. Do you see the contradiction in such a statement? In the abandonment of objective reality that there is a truth, the new thinking is that relativism (in which there is no truth) is the new objective truth. It is time to reintroduce communities to the moral virtues, which we all share as part of our humanity. We need to know what these virtues are by definition and how we can give them away to others for their good, for our good, and for the good of communities.
- When I look across the globe at communities that have experienced conflict, that now carry the weight of the effects of decades and even centuries of conflict, I have come to the conclusion that a reawakening of the moral virtues of agape and forgiveness is vital if we are to heal from the effects of war and continued conflict with all of its mistrust and stereotyping of the human condition. Agape and forgiveness challenge us to see the personhood in everyone with whom we interact, even those who are cruel to us. This does not mean that we cave in to injustices because the moral virtue of justice requires fairness from all. The healing of hearts, families, communities, and nations will be better accomplished if people now can shake off the dust from agape and forgiveness, that have been so ignored in modernism, and find a new way with the old virtues. It seems to me that agape and forgiveness, as a team, is a powerful combination for the healing of trauma for individuals and relationships. I fear a continuation of the same old conflicts in hearts and in interactions if we do not go back and rediscover the life-giving virtues of agape love and forgiveness and bring them forward now in schools, families, houses of worship, and workplaces.
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.