Let us first make a distinction between forgiveness itself and people who forgive. Some people will not forgive others for certain horrendous situations. This is their choice and they should not be criticized for their decision. In contrast, forgiveness itself, as a moral virtue, is always appropriate (for those who choose it) because it centers on goodness and goodness itself is always appropriate. Here is an essay on wrote on this subject at the Psychology Today website:
You just said that forgiveness centers on “those who are not good to you.” COVID definitely is not good to us and so it seems to follow that we can forgive the virus. What do you think?
Actually, no. I still maintain that we cannot forgive a virus because the rest of the sentence I wrote is this: “To forgive on its highest level is to struggle to offer goodness…..” You do not offer goodness to a virus. Do you show, for example, generosity or kindness to a virus? The answer is no and so you do not forgive a virus.
There seem to be two questions here: 1) Should I consider giving a gift to someone with whom I choose not to have any further contact; and, 2) How can I give such a gift? Here is my answer to the “should” question: Forgiveness is about giving, even to those with whom you are angry and estranged. This is part of the paradox of forgiving: As you reach out in goodness to those who were not good to you, then you experience psychological healing. Therefore, it is morally appropriate and psychologically prudent to consider giving a gift, if you choose to forgive. The second question, regarding how it is even possible to give a gift to someone whom you will not see again is this: You can contribute to a charity in the person’s name. You can pray for the person if you have a religious belief. You even can say a kind word about the person to someone else.
So frequently I hear this: “Forgiveness is for you, the one who was injured.”
I think this actually can be a distortion of what forgiveness is. We need to make a distinction between:
- the end point or goal of forgiveness, and
- a consequence of forgiving.
These are different. The goal is that to which forgiveness actually points. Given that forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is concerned about goodness toward others. Justice as a moral virtue is not primarily for the self but for all with whom you come into contact directly or indirectly. Patience is directed toward those who are moving slower than you would like. Yes, one can be fair or just to the self and patient toward the self, but these are not the primary goals of either virtue. They are outwardly directed to others. It is the same with forgiveness because, like justice and patience, it too is a moral virtue. The end point of forgiving is to reach out in goodness directly toward the one or ones who have been unfair to you.
Yes, there is such a thing as self-forgiveness, but notice that the wording is intended to expressly direct the attention toward the self. In the case of forgiving as it typically is used, the word “self” is not included.
A consequence of forgiving, shown frequently by our research, is that as a person extends goodness toward offending others, then the one who forgives experiences considerable emotional relief. Excessive anger, anxiety, and depression all can go down in the one who genuinely forgives.
These emotional-health consequences, while very positive and desirable, are not the ultimate goal of engaging in the moral virtue of forgiving. If it were, then this would be the goal for all of the moral virtues and such practice likely would degenerate into self-serving activities and therefore not be virtuous at all.
Is forgiving for the forgiver? No, this is not its goal. Is a consequence of forgiving emotional relief for the forgiver? Yes. And this distinction between goal and consequence makes all the difference in understanding what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish within the self.
The entrance of the idea of forgiveness into the social sciences is quite recent. The first publication within psychology that centered specifically on people forgiving other people was published in the late 20th century (Enright, Santos, and Al-Mabuk, 1989). That article examined children’s, adolescents’, and adults’ thoughts about what forgiving is. In other words, the study took one slice of forgiveness, in this case people’s thoughts, and examined those thoughts from a scientific perspective. Such an investigation, of course, does not then imply that forgiving is all about thoughts and thoughts alone just because that was the focus of the scientific investigation.
People forgiving other people is an ancient idea, first explicated thousands of years ago in the story within the Jewish tradition of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers who sold him into slavery. The portrait of forgiveness in that ancient report includes Joseph’s entire being, not just his thinking, as he shows anger, a sense at first of revenge, which slowly transforms into tenderness toward his half-brothers in the form of weeping, hugs, generosity, and an outpouring of love. His entire being was involved in the forgiving.
Philosophers, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, have developed what is known as the virtue-ethics tradition to explain morality. To be virtuous is, like Joseph, to produce a moral response with one’s entire being: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motivations toward goodness, and relationships that reflect that goodness.
Psychologists, in contrast, and especially if they do not rely on this wisdom-of-the-ages, tend to compartmentalize forgiveness. For example, they may borrow from personality psychology and conclude that there is a trait of forgiving and a state of forgiving and these are somehow different. A trait forgiver, it is assumed, already has a personality geared to forgiving. In other words, expertise in forgiving is not forged by practice, practice, and more practice as we all have this opportunity toward developing expertise in forgiving.
Other psychologists, when they do not take the virtue-ethics position, tend to think of forgiving as mostly emotional as the forgiver substitutes more pleasant feelings for the existing resentment toward an offending person. Substitution of feelings, as seen in the Joseph story, is only one part, and not even the most important part of forgiveness. Offering love in a broad sense is the most important part.
The bottom line is this: Taking only a psychological perspective on the concept of forgiving tends toward reductionism, breaking up of forgiveness into smaller and more exclusive parts than should be the case. This tends to distort the concept of forgiveness. If a distorted view of forgiveness is presented to clients in therapy, are we helping those clients reach their highest potential as forgivers?
Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989). The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.