Suppose someone makes a mistake without deliberately trying to be unfair. Can I forgive this person or does there have to be deliberate intention on that person’s part to act with malice?
You can discern an unjust action, according to the Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas, by examining three things: the act itself, the intention, and the circumstance. If a person, for example, disrespects you (the action), decided to disrespect you (the intention), and did so in front of others, which embarrassed you (the circumstance), then it is obvious that this person tried to hurt you and you can forgive this person. Now suppose that someone had no intention of hurting you, such as failing to show up for an important meeting (the action). Suppose further that the circumstance was such that this person became quite ill right before the meeting. Only the action was challenging for you, but the intention was to attend the meeting and the circumstance was sudden illness. This seems to me to be a case of accepting what happened, not a case of forgiveness for most people. Now suppose as another example that a driver was texting on a cell phone (the act), did not at all mean to hit your car (the intention), but indeed did hit your car (the circumstance). Even though there was no intention to harm you, the action itself of inattentive driving can sometimes have a bad outcome, as happened in this case. The action is so serious that even without intent to harm, this is an unjust offense and so your going ahead with forgiving is appropriate. In other words, you can forgive a person who had no intention of harming you.
In your most recent response to me, you said that when my partner asks me to forgive and to just forget all about his behavior, he is asking me to acquiesce or just give in to his nonsense. If forgiveness is not acquiescence, then what, exactly is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a moral virtue in which you willing choose to get rid of resentment toward an unjustly acting person and to offer as best you can goodness toward that person. The goodness can take the form of kindness, respect, generosity, and even moral love.
How to Become a Better Forgiver
We all know that forgiveness is neither simple nor easy. It can be a challenging process. But new tools are being developed that can help you cut through the clutter, sharpen your “forgive-ability” skills, and become a better forgiver. One of those tools was recently released by the
Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), a California organization that sponsors groundbreaking scientific discoveries.
“Eight Essentials When Forgiving“ is a simple practice technique that provides concrete guidelines while breaking down the forgiveness process into easily manageable components. The 8-step exercise is based on the “backed-by-science” work of pioneering forgiveness researcher Dr. Robert Enright, a University of Wisconsin-Madison educational psychology professor and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI).
Specifically, the exercise focuses on Dr. Enright’s basic forgiveness principles in order to help you:
- narrow and understand whom to forgive;
- name and describe your pain;
- understand the difference between forgiving and excusing or reconciling;
- think about the person who has caused you pain in a novel way so you may begin to feel some compassion for them and reduce the ill will you hold toward that person.
The GGSC forgiving exercise also attunes users to residual pain from their experience and encourages them to find meaning and some positivity in it. Step-by-step instructions are included along with scientific evidence that forgiveness works. GGSC also cautions that in certain cases it may help to consult a trained clinician, especially if you are working through a significant traumatic event.
The Greater Good Science Center is part of the University of California, Berkeley. It not only studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being but also “teaches skills that foster a happier life and a more compassionate society–the science of a meaningful life.”
Other practice exercises and forgiveness-related resources available on the GGSC website include:
- Introducing Kids to Forgiveness
- Nine Ways to Help Siblings Get Along Better
- 8 Keys to Forgiveness
- A Different Way to Respond When Kids Do Something Wrong
- Forgiveness Quiz: How Forgiving Are You?
If we all use psychological defenses such as denial and repression, how do we ever come to realize who hurt us when that hurt occurred many years ago when we were children?
As people see that they are carrying deep hurt at present, this can be a motivation for examining who did the hurting in their lives. One exercise that I recommend in the book, The Forgiving Life, is what I call the Forgiveness Landscape. In this exercise, people slowly start to make a list of those who have actually hurt them, starting from early childhood and progressing up to the present time. As people do this exercise, they can begin to see areas of hurt that are long forgotten (but still subconsciously can be affecting a person’s well-being at present). For example, as people reflect on their past life, they might recall being bullied at age 11. This then breaks the repression that might have been present with regard to the bullying. This breaking of the psychological defenses can occur particularly when a person knows that forgiveness is an effective response to the past injustices and to the current hurts still present from those past offenses.
If I still have anger toward someone who was really bad to me, does this mean I have not forgiven?
If you have reduced your anger as you have forgiven and if you now are in control of your anger (rather than your anger controlling you), then yes, I would say that you have forgiven or at least are well along the pathway of forgiveness. Sometimes not all anger is eliminated, especially when we are treated very badly by others. If you feel anger welling up in you again, then please revisit the forgiveness process toward this person.