The person I am forgiving thinks that upon my forgiveness, our relationship can proceed as if the injustices never happened. How do I get him to realize this is not correct?
He has to see the difference between forgiving and reconciling. He might see your forgiving as giving in to his unacceptable behavior, which forgiving is not. This distinction between forgiving and reconciling may help him to see that he has work to do if the relationship will improve.
Is there more than one definition of forgiveness?
There are many people who have different definitions of forgiveness, but in the vast majority of cases, people assert their definitions without defending them or explaining how they arrived at that definition. We at the International Forgiveness Institute rely on the teaching of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, because he has, in our view, the most comprehensive ideas of what constitutes any moral virtue. He gives complete descriptions of the moral virtues, in other words, without reducing the meaning of the virtues. With that in mind, we define forgiving this way: When treated unfairly by others, a person forgives by willingly working on reducing negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and striving to offer more positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward them. At the same time, the forgiver does not excuse the unjust behavior, automatically reconcile, or abandon the quest for justice.
What is more important, justice or forgiveness?
I do not think you should choose between them. Plato placed justice at the top of the moral virtue hierarchy in this book, The Republic. I think agape love (in service to others even when it is painful to do so) is the highest because it includes being just to others and forgiving others. We need both justice and forgiveness under the umbrella of agape to have the best world and in the case of justice and forgiveness, the best of both worlds of these virtues.
Is respect or love higher in the forgiveness process?
Both are worthy parts of forgiving. You can respect a person from a distance. When you love, you are entering into a deeper commitment to aiding the other person, as best you can, given your particular circumstance with this person at the moment. This “entering-in” makes love deeper, more special, and more challenging.
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!