Tagged: “forgive”

Is Forgiveness Overrated? A NY Times Reporter Seems to Think So

This month’s blog comes directly from our post at Psychology Today (July 5, 2024), which was in response to a critical article on forgiveness in the New York Times newspaper.  Click on this link to read the post on the Psychology Today website, or scroll down to read the entire text of the article below!

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Is Forgiveness Overrated? A NY Reporter Seems to Think So

When forgiveness is seen as inappropriate, philosophy is needed to avoid error.

KEY POINTS

  • Forgiveness is accused of being “overrated” in a recent New York Times article.
  • We use a philosophical lens to examine this indictment against forgiveness when a person is treated unjustly.
  • Reasons are given for why the accusations against forgiveness are false.
  • In the final analysis, forgiveness is innocent of all charges against it.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, something is overrated when it is considered to be better than it really is.” The dictionary gives an example of a person who sees an award-winning movie and decides that it is not so great. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to be overrated is to be valued too highly. Two synonyms for overrated at thesaurus.com are exaggerated” and overpriced.” Recently, the New York Times (Caron, 2024) published an article with the intriguing title, Sometimes, Forgiveness Is Overrated.” The purpose of this post is to philosophically examine the content of that essay in the New York Times to see if the accusation of overrated” is accurate or…..well….overrated.

Let us examine four points in the essay.

Point 1. What is the difference between forgiveness being overrated and the advice to forgive being so?

Nowhere in the essay is a clear distinction made between forgiveness as overrated and the advice given as overrated. The author states that an encouraging new movement is underway in which writers are “erasing the pressure” to forgive. Let us take an analogy of playing the sport of basketball. If an overbearing coach pressures middle school children to practice and practice to the point of wearing themselves out, is this the fault of basketball itself or the coachs intemperate advice?

It seems that basketball itself is innocent of all charges because the sport remains what it is regardless of how seriously or nonchalantly the adult leaders take it. This lack of distinction is a crucial point within forgiveness. Is it the fault of forgiveness itself if some people put pressure on others to forgive? It seems that the answer is no because the people so pressuring and forgiveness itself are very different from one another.

Point 2. What is the difference between what forgiveness is in its essence and the degree to which a person can practice it?

In the essay, a mental health professional is confronted by my definition of forgiveness, which, in its very simple form, is to be good to those who are not good to the forgiver. Forgiveness, in its essence, as pointed out in the essay, includes compassion, generosity, and even love toward the offending persons.

Soon after this definition is introduced, we read this from the mental health professional: Imagine saying that to a trauma survivor.” The statement obviously is a pejorative against the definition. Yet, the philosophical error is this: Neither the writer of the piece nor the mental health commentator is making the vital distinction between what forgiveness is in its essence and what a person can offer at the moment.

Consider the basketball analogy again. The essence of free-throw shooting is to put the ball in the basket. On its highest level, basketball would involve sinking 10 free throws on 10 tries because that is what the sport involves.

Yet, we have to make a distinction between basketball on its highest level and how it is actually performed by middle school students just learning the game. A middle school adolescent might be able to make four out of 10 shots, and that is fine in terms of ones current actions in basketball.

It would be disingenuous to present to the young person that this is all there is to basketball, the sinking of four out of 10. To be truthful to the adolescent, we can say that the point is to make the shot (all shots) and then be realistic that very few people who play the game reach such perfection. We are showing the student the difference between the essence of the game and the realistic existence (the actual performance) in the game.

It is the same with forgiveness. We do a disservice to those who want to practice forgiveness if we lower the bar of what the essence is, saying that all you have to do is reduce a little anger and, presto, you have forgiven.

Point 3. There is the claim that forgiveness could even be harmful.”

The point in the essay is that people need time to heal and to feel their emotions. It is as if forgiveness short-circuits a time for anger and mourning. This just is not the case. A part of the forgiveness process that has been in place for about a quarter of a century (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000) is that the first step in that forgiveness process is to allow a time of catharsis, a time of grieving, a time of confusion and the expression of negative emotions. To cut out that process of examining anger and then to label forgiveness as potentially harmful is to miss an important point that forgiveness is not reductionistic. It does not ignore this initial aspect of exploring emotions and taking the time to do so.

Point 4. Forgiveness is the choice of the one offended.

There is scientific evidence that forgiveness offers both psychological and physical benefits to the forgiver, which the essay admirably references. This does not imply that people must listen to the advice of the scientists. Forgiveness is always the choice of the one treated unfairly. The timeline of forgiving is the choice of the one injured.

Philosophers refer to certain moral virtues as supererogatory. This means that such virtues are not required in societies. Forgiveness is one of these supererogatory virtues (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2024). It does not have to be offered at all by those who choose not to forgive.

Thus, when one author is cited as stating that there is a “blanket forgiveness industry” insisting that everybody should forgive everything, this is a misunderstanding of the supererogatory nature of forgiveness. The accusation needs to be directed against those who misunderstand the philosophical quality of forgiveness. It is not the fault of forgiveness itself.

In Conclusion

As we examine the four issues above, it becomes rather obvious that it is not forgiveness itself that is overrated but instead is peoples misunderstanding of what forgiveness is and how to go about it for oneself or when thinking that forgiveness may be good for others. The essence of forgiveness is different from what people are usually able to achieve, especially if they have not practiced forgiveness very often. This is fine and should not be a judgement on the one forgiving. People need to be gentle in their advice toward others, as importantly implied in the NY Times essay. Forgiveness as supererogatory is the choice of the forgiver which contradicts a “blanket forgiveness industry” insisting on it. The value of the essay is to raise red flags. The philosophical lesson in this rebuttal is to be sure we raise the right red flags so that we do not falsely accuse forgiveness of being overrated.

References

Caron, C. (2024, June 27). Sometimes, forgiveness is overrated. New York Times.

Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive. APA Books.

Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2024). Forgiveness therapy. APA Books.

 

It seems to me that the forgiveness process could be harmful.  Here is what I mean: When I focus on the one who hurt me, I get angry with him.  I would rather just forget about the unjust event and forget about the person.  What do you think?

In my experience, when people are deeply hurt by others, no matter how far they run from the offending person, that person remains in the victim’s heart.  This can continue for many years.  The idea of forgetting about the person can occur in the mind, with denial and subconscious suppression of that person, but that person remains in the heart, in the area of feelings, including resentment.  In other words, no matter how hard one tries to erase the person, there he is inside the victim.  It is in forgiving that you unlock that door to the heart and let the person out, at least all the bad and even hateful feelings toward him.  In forgiving, you rewrite the script of who this person is.  Instead of seeing him exclusively as bad, you take a wider view and eventually see the inherent worth in him as a person.  This wider view can set you free from the stubborn resentment that just won’t quit.

Thank you for your recent response to me about my sister’s denial of her childhood experiences of abuse against her.  In your answer, you mentioned this: “Forgiving those who caused the abuse can significantly reduce the anger so that it is more manageable.”  Can you provide me with some research on this?

Yes, you can read some of our forgiveness intervention research on this website by going to the sub-menu on the right side of the page entitled Research. When you click on Research, you will be brought to some of our peer-reviewed published research discussing the reduction in resentment following forgiveness interventions with adults, adolescents, and children.

My sister was abused as a child, but she seems to have denied all memories of this.  I can clearly recall some of this abuse and so it is real.  Even so, she keeps all of this hidden from herself in her subconscious mind.  How can a person release the truth of past trauma?

Your sister might think that there is no true help or cure when unconscious memories are brought to consciousness.  If she sees that there is a safety net for her, which is forgiveness, then she may be able to loosen up on this defense of repression or suppression.  Sometimes people are fearful of their own anger because they think it will overwhelm them with no cure.  Forgiving those who caused the abuse can significantly reduce the anger so that it is more manageable.

How can I confront with forgiveness the systemic injustices carried out by institutions rather than by a singular individual?

Institutions are made up of persons and it is the persons in the institutions who make decisions, even unjust decisions.  So, when you forgive institutions, you are forgiving the people who have made these decisions within the institution.  This can get rather abstract because you likely do not know the people who have made these decisions.  Just because it is more abstract than forgiving a friend, forgiveness is possible.  As an analogy, if a person is robbed by a masked individual, the one who is robbed can forgive the one who robs even though this person is unknown to the victim.  It is similar to institutions.  You can forgive the persons without knowing them.