I used to be a fan of forgiveness, but lately I have changed my mind. The forgiveness process has so much shaming in it: Forgive or you are a bad person; you have anger and because anger is unacceptable, then you are incompetent; others can forgive, but not you. Do you see the shaming here?
Yes, I do see the shaming, but in no case does the forgiveness process involve any of the statements in your question. No one passes judgement on one who is deciding whether or not to forgive. This is why I deliberately entitled my first self-help book as Forgiveness Is a Choice. I did not entitle it, Forgiveness Is a Demand or Else! Further, anger is a natural part of our response when treated unjustly. There is healthy and unhealthy anger. The healthy kind occurs shortly after an offense against people and shows them that they deserve to be treated better. The unhealthy kind is not a condemnation, but instead a sign that the person should begin to pay attention to that kind of anger that deepens and abides because it can lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. If you go to the doctor for a sore knee, should you be condemned? If you have a broken heart in need of mending, should you be condemned? No. Regarding pressure to forgive, each of us has a unique journey of forgiveness depending on who hurt us, when, and how deeply. We should not compare ourselves to others, thinking that forgiveness is some kind of race in which we all must cross the finish line at the same time. Do you now see that the forgiveness process is not a shaming process?
For additional information, see What is Forgiveness?
Our research shows that the decision to go ahead with forgiving is one of the hardest parts of this process. I think this is the case because change in general is difficult. For example, if we decide to get into physical shape, going to the gym for the first time, seeing all of that equipment, and deciding on the type of gym membership can be stressful. Moving to a new town and apartment for a new job is change that can be stressful. I think the decision to forgive is similar. We have questions: What, exactly, is forgiveness? Will it work for me? Will the process be painful? These initial worries can be alleviated by courageously going forward, even slowly. As people enter the process of forgiveness and they see even small benefits at first, then this increases confidence in the process and hope for a positive outcome.
For additional information, see Why Forgive?
I am very angry with my boyfriend. Is it better to confront him while I am burning with anger or wait until I cool down?
I think it is best to wait. You may say things while deeply angry that you regret later. He may have to forgive you for how you approached him. Waiting, thinking about forgiveness as a possibility, even trying forgiveness first may be best in this circumstance. The reduced anger may help you think through what happened and what you, realistically, would like to see changed in his behavior and in the relationship.
For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Robert Enright, the man Time magazine called “the forgiveness trailblazer,” just returned from a European forgiveness-teaching tour that included sessions in Edinburgh, Scotland; Belfast, Northern Ireland; and Rome, Italy. Here is an update on his activities in the first of those locations:
Edinburgh, Scotland – Earlier this year, Dr. Robert Enright and colleagues began a two-phase forgiveness research project with homeless individuals in Edinburgh. Many of those individuals receive services from the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation of women dedicated to the poor, that has taken a strong interest in the forgiveness project and that has become a full-partner with the IFI in the Edinburgh research initiative.
The Missionaries of Charity was founded more than 60 years ago by the late Mother Teresa, now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work with those she characterized as “the poorest of the poor.”
Initially established in Calcutta, the organization quickly expanded into countries outside India and at the time of her death in 1997, Mother Teresa had created over 750 homes in more than 135 countries, providing food pantries, orphanages, homes for AIDS patients and people with leprosy, as well as shelters for battered women, people addicted to drugs, and the poor.
The religious order has now grown to more than 6,000 Missionaries of Charity Sisters, 400 Missionaries of Charity Brothers, 40 Missionaries of Charity Fathers (priests), and 100,000 Lay (non-religious) Missionaries of Charity volunteers. Their services are provided, without charge, to people regardless of their religion or social status.
As part of the Edinburgh campaign, Dr. Enright and others are collaborating with Missionaries of Charity volunteers who are in the process of conducting interviews and administering a variety of anger, injustice, worth, and dignity scales to men and women who do not have stable home situations in Edinburgh.
“So far, we are seeing two distinct patterns emerge from those interviews and self-assessments,” Dr. Enright says. “One of those behavior patterns is pretty much what we expected but the second one presents a significant challenge related to how we address it through an appropriate forgiveness intervention.”
Most or the homeless interviewed in Edinburgh are deeply hurting because of past injustices/trauma and about one-third of them readily admit to being treated unjustly and they admit their pain, according to Dr. Enright. “These are the ones, we think, who may significantly benefit from having a forgiveness program,” he adds.
The second group, again about one-third of those interviewed, are characterized by Dr. Enright as deeply hurting because of past injustices–a pain that is so traumatic that they are not quite yet ready for forgiveness programs because they are in deep denial about what happened and about their depth of pain.
“I think this denial of the pain, the inability to yet see it and face it, keeps them imprisoned in their homeless pattern,” Dr. Enright observes. “They need much love and encouragement to break through their own barriers so that they can confront the injustice, forgive, heal, and then become resilient.”
Dr. Enright and colleagues are in discussions with the Missionaries of Charity volunteers about the structure and the Edinburgh-specific refinements for the forgiveness intervention that will be deployed in phase two of the project. Those guidelines could establish a precedence for a world-wide set of forgiveness interventions for the poor with direct instruction for both adults and children.
Members of the Missionaries of Charity order designate their affiliation using the initials, “M.C.” A member of the congregation must adhere to the vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and a fourth vow, to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” They are identified by wearing the traditional white religious habits with blue trim. In the U.S., a full 20% of American nuns are members of the Missionaries of Charity.
In Scotland, homelessness is called “rough sleeping.” For those rough sleeping, the risk of assault and theft are high. The weather can do real damage to their health and the stress of survival living takes a huge toll on their mental and physical health. The estimated lifeexpectancy of a rough sleeper is 43, pretty much half that of the general population.
The Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group (HARSAG) was set up in 2017 to recommend to Scottish Government Ministers the actions and solutions needed to eradicate rough sleeping and transform the use of temporary accommodation in Scotland. The group’s final report, issued in June 2018, says that “homelessness must be seen as a public health priority” and makes more than 70 recommendations on ending homelessness in Scotland including those on welfare reform, ensuring adequate affordable housing, homeless assessment and intervention (much like the IFI is doing in Edinburgh), tackling child poverty, and others. ◊
- Read the HARSAG Final Report “Ending Homelessness in Scotland.”
- Watch a 4:53 video of Mother Teresa’s Biography and Life Story.
- Learn more about the Missionaries of Charity.
In your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you say that we should approach the process of forgiving with a sense of “willingness” rather than “willfulness.” I thought that forgiving is an active process and “willfulness” seems to capture that sense of being active more than “willingness” does. Would you please clarify for me?
When I use the term “willfulness” I mean this: We have to be careful not to force the process of forgiving. We, for example, cannot demand that we now feel compassion toward someone who treated us in a cruel way. We have to be open (willingness) to this gradual change of heart toward those who have hurt us. I do not mean to imply either that forgiving is passive or outside of our free will. Instead, I am suggesting that as we actively engage our free will, the process of forgiving still takes time. We are not in absolute control of the timing or the difficulty involved in forgiving another person.
For additional information, see Forgiveness is a Choice.