I am wondering why people don’t just simply use the word “kindness” rather than the word “forgiveness.” When you forgive, aren’t you just being kind to those who were obnoxious? If so, then shouldn’t we use the word “kindness”?
“Kindness” is not an exact enough word in the context of a person treating you unfairly. I say that because you can be kind without this issue of injustice entering into the situation. For example, you can be kind to a three-year-old who offers you her toy. She did nothing wrong to you. In the case of forgiveness, yes you can be kind, but you also can be loving and it always, without exception, occurs when someone was unfair to you. That is the specific difference between kindness and forgiveness. The latter always is in the context of being treated unfairly whereas kindness can occur when the other has been treating you kindly.
On December 16 this year, I had an interview with Justin Ballis, writer for the London-based magazine, What the Doctors Don’t Tell You, that aims to provide evidence-based holistic solutions to illness. Mr. Ballis was one of the most informed interviewers on the topic of forgiveness whom I have ever encountered. The interview covered an impressively wide range of topics on forgiveness, one of which centered on criticisms leveled against the practice of forgiving those who hurt us. In his researching the skeptical views, Mr. Ballis came across a journal article on “the dark side of forgiveness” by Dr. James K. McNulty:
McNulty, J.K. (2011). The dark side of forgiveness: The tendency to forgive predicts continued psychological and physical aggression in marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 770-783.
This discussion with Mr. Ballis got me thinking: If well-informed journalists are aware of Dr. McNulty’s article, then it is important to have a thoroughgoing critique of that work, which is flawed in many ways. So, with this in mind, here is an excerpt (chapter 14) from my book with Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, Forgiveness Therapy (American Psychological Association, 2015), in which we examine the science behind this work:
McNulty (2011) claimed to have found scientific support for the view that forgiving within marriage perpetuates injustice. Seventy-two first-married couples took part in a survey in which they responded to hypothetical situations regarding forgiveness. For example, one of the partners asks the other to mail a very important package which the other partner then forgets to do. On a 1-to-7 scale, the respondent reports the degree of forgiveness that he or she would offer to the forgetful spouse. We have four criticisms of the study’s conclusions: a) The questionnaire was very short (five items); b) the questions were all hypothetical and not actual situations in the marriage; c) only one of the hypothetical scenarios is actually serious (an alleged affair), and d) the questionnaire simply asks the participant if he/she would forgive without ever defining the term. The forgetful spouse who failed to mail the package did not act with intent to harm. The one choosing to have an affair did. In other words, some respondents may be confusing genuine forgiveness with excusing or “letting go.” This is a serious flaw to the work (failing to distinguish related but quite different terms) that could have been overcome by asking people what they mean when they use the word forgiveness. The findings could reflect this: Those who score high on this scale are doing the most excusing or condoning, which could make them vulnerable to further abuse. In other words, those who excuse may not seek a proper justice solution upon “forgiving.”
So, there is our critique. My conclusion? It is this: If there is a “dark side” to forgiveness, the above study is not the one to show it.
I think right now the mot common misconception is this: When I forgive I try to “move on” from the hurtful situation. As I move on, then the inner pain may lessen. Yet, in my experience with others, no matter how far you try to run from the pain, it runs even faster than you. So, if you try to run from the pain for two weeks, as you stop to rest, there is the pain right beside you asking the question, “What do you want to do now? Shall we reflect even more on me, the pain, now?” Forgiveness is not a moving on from the pain, but instead is a moral virtue of offering good toward the offending other person. The paradox is this: As you engage in goodness toward that other person, it is you who is healed.
In my experience, many people misunderstand what forgiving is, equating it with reconciliation or excusing the other person’s behavior. In such cases, people are hesitant to forgive. So, in such cases, people first need some time to learn about what forgiveness actually is, which tends to quiet fears. Then people are more willing to try forgiving.
I recently heard a speech in which the speaker equated forgiving with seeing the humanity in the one who offended. The one who was victimized sent a letter to the offender stating that the offending person owes the victim nothing. The speaker said that the letter was sent to set the self free. While these aspects of forgiving (seeing the other as more than the offense and writing the letter for one’s own sake) are both laudable and part of forgiveness, they do not, in themselves, constitute what forgiving is in its essence.
Had the speaker said something such as the following to the audience, it would be reasonable because the speaker would be instructing the audience that this is not the sum total of forgiveness: “I have worked at seeing the offending person as much more than his actions against me. I sent a letter to him to set myself free. These are part of forgiveness, perhaps the best I can do for now, but there is much more to what forgiveness is than this.” Otherwise, the messenger is engaging in the logical fallacy of reductionism, or reducing what forgiveness is to less than what it actually is.
Such a clarification is important for this reason: Because forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is about goodness directed deliberately toward the other person for that offending person’s sake. A letter sent for one’s own benefit is quite different from sending it to aid the one who offended. Again, the motive of self-healing is good, but there is more. The benefits toward the self are consequences of forgiving; these benefits for the self are not what forgiveness is in its essence.
Forgiveness is a response of mercy toward the one who offends. It also includes the cultivation of compassion toward that person, the bearing of pain for the other, and the giving of a gift because that is what mercy does. Forgiveness, then, is centered not only on insight about the other person but also on a deliberate gift-giving toward that person. This does not mean that all who forgive reach this fuller level of forgiving, but it does mean that this is the goal.
When people are asked to speak to an audience, this implicitly sets up the expectation that the speaker has a certain wisdom about the topic so that the audience will get as clear an understanding of the topic as possible. When the speaker then engages, without realizing it, in the logical fallacy of reductionism, this does not advance deep knowledge of that topic.
The take-away message of this blog post is this: When you hear a scheduled talk by someone who is considered an authority on the subject of forgiveness, be very careful not to conclude that what the speaker is saying must be the truth and nothing but the truth because the person was asked to speak. Sometimes, there is reductionism or patently false information given on the complex topic of forgiveness. Let the listener beware.