In recent months, the theme of suffering and finding meaning in that suffering has emerged more and more because of current events in the world, including the conflicts in Ukraine, in Israel and Gaza, and in Nigeria as examples. To reflect on the importance of finding meaning in suffering, we are reposting an essay first published here at the International Forgiveness Institute on October 15, 2013:
Let us start with the prophetic words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as he mourns the passing of Lady Macbeth in Act 5, Scene 5:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
There is no meaning in life and therefore there is no meaning in suffering. To live and to suffer are meaningless. Yet, experience tells us that this kind of thinking is a dangerous illusion. Did Martin Luther King, Jr. have no meaning when he wrote his Letter from the Birmingham jail? Did Maximilian Kolbe see no meaning in life when he asked the Nazis to let him take the place of a condemned man who had a family? Whether one’s beliefs are in God or in random variations generated by mutations, we are either made for or have evolved toward finding meaning in our life. The skeptic would say that my point is a happy illusion: Yes, we need to believe this, but we do so just to stay alive; it is adaptive to think fairytale thoughts.
Yet, what else in nature can you identify that is so very important and at the same time is an illusion? I can think of nothing. If finding and having meaning is tied to our well-being, then there must be something to it. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz (which Maximilian Kolbe chose not to survive for a higher good of protecting another person), observed this: Only those who survived Auschwitz found meaning in the profound suffering endured there. Those who found meaninglessness died. Finding meaning in this case was tied to positive, concrete outcomes. There was a need (to find meaning) that was fulfilled (surviving and even thriving). Can you think of any other real need that is not tied to something real that can fulfill it? If not, then it seems reasonable to say that we have real needs with real fulfillments and finding meaning and achieving the state of thriving are concretely, really linked together without illusion.
When we are treated deeply unjustly by others, we suffer. If we have come, through wisdom, to know the meaning of life, then we will find meaning in our suffering. If we find meaning in both life and suffering, we have the foundation to forgive well and to survive well the cruelty against us.
Sound and fury, signifying nothing? Please be careful in so concluding.
Is forgiveness always appropriate when there is a deep unfairness? First, let’s examine the response a little more. When we ask this question, are we inquiring about a specific person or about the virtue of forgiveness itself? Here is where there is a crucial difference.
Since forgiveness is a moral virtue, we should ask our question of all virtues if our attention is on the virtue itself. As we broaden our view to focus on all moral virtues, we can consider the question’s opposite: For example, when is a quest for justice, one of the moral virtues, not appropriate? Put another way, can you picture a situation in which you might be arrested for intentionally acting in a just way? Would people condemn themselves for acting fairly? If not, then it appears to be the case that justice is always fitting in every situation. Is there ever a time when patience is inappropriate? How about showing kindness? I can hear someone say something like, “Well, I won’t be kind if someone is hitting me over the head with a frying pan.” I agree that your leaving the abuse is good because it is a protection for you. As a second possible response, you certainly are entitled to attempt removing the frying pan from the person’s grasp. You can act in either situation with kindness. Kindness is appropriate even in this instance. If kindness is used with other virtues (justice, courage, temperance) to help save the individual from doing the head-banging, then that is acceptable in the sense of being morally good.
My argument is that since all virtues are centered on the morally beneficial aspects of human interaction, then acting morally is always appropriate, and practicing forgiveness is one of these moral virtues.
The second aspect of the question (Is forgiveness always appropriate?) asks about the psychological suitability of practicing the virtue for any given individual. Does forgiveness make sense for any particular person all the time? This time, the answer is no, it is not always appropriate for the following reasons: a) the offended person may be too shocked by what happened to be ready to offer forgiveness at this time; b) the offended person may need to learn more about forgiveness to exercise forgiveness properly rather than some false form of it; and c) forgiveness is a supererogatory virtue that is not demanded of any one person at a particular time because it is not a virtue that society demands. It is the person’s decision to extend forgiveness or not on any particular occasion.
Is forgiveness always appropriate?
Yes, if we are talking about the quality of this term, specifically its quality of being a moral virtue.
Must, then, all people turn immediately to forgiveness when treated unjustly?
No, if we are discussing the psychological makeup of a certain individual, including both this person’s degree of hurt and understanding of forgiveness, as well as the specifics of the injustice, such as its gravity, duration, and time since it happened. Some people need time to be angry, to sort out what forgiveness is, and then move forward with it when the person is ready.
Forgiveness Education Identified by the CDC as a way to “Promote Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Learning”
As described in the abstract in Freedman’s (2018) study, forgiveness education was implemented with 10 at-risk adolescents
attending an alternative high school in a Midwestern city. Twenty-one participants were randomly assigned to either the experimental group (forgiveness education class) or the control group (personal communications class). Classes met daily for 31 sessions for approximately 23 hours of education. Enright’s process model of forgiveness was used as the focus of the intervention. After the education, the experimental group gained more than the control group in forgiveness and hope, and decreased significantly more than the control group in anxiety and depression. Verbal reports from the experimental participants following the education also illustrate the positive impact forgiveness had on the students.
On December 14, 2023, Dr. Enright’s interview with Kristina Mastrocola for Woman’s World magazine appeared on their website. The article is entitled, Experts Share How to Forgive Someone and Give *Yourself* the Gift of Healing.
On December 6, 2023, Dr. Enright interviewed with Kate Archer Kent, who hosts “The Morning Show” on Wisconsin Public Radio. The 43-minute episode is entitled, How forgiveness can heal individuals and communities.