Forgiveness and Helplessness
Psychologists tell us that the thoughts and feelings of helplessness can devastate a person. When we think we are trapped with no way out, then we start to feel hopeless, which can lead to anxiety and depression.
The thought that there is no way out is the big lie.
Yes, you may not be able to do much about the current behavioral situation.
The actions in which you engage may be limited. This does not at all mean that your inner world is trapped with no way out. You can overcome the inner sense of helplessness by forgiving those who have contributed to your limited actions.
You are free inside to forgive, to reduce resentment, and even to cure this disease of resentment, which can be much worse than reduced behavioral options.
You are much freer than you think. When all around you are mean and unrealistic and hurtful, your inner world can be filled with a forgiveness that gives you joy and confidence and hope.
Am I being unrealistic? Put me to the test. Try to forgive and see how your inner world transforms.
And then never be trapped in that inner world ever again.
Is This the One Weakness in Forgiveness as a Moral Virtue?
Suppose that Angela has been friends with Barretta who has neglected the friendship now for over a year. Barretta’s flaw is of a passive nature, not being present in the friendship. The neglect has hurt Angela.
Angela sees that Barretta is not a good friend and decides to end the friendship despite her active attempts to reconcile. At the same time, she forgives her. Her forgiveness leaves open a kind of sisterly-love for Barretta that now makes it more difficult to leave the friendship.
In this case, is forgiveness a process that is standing in the way of the truth: that Barretta will not make even a reasonably minimal friend for her? Her feelings of sisterly-affection, which are kept alive by forgiving, are making her re-think her decision to leave a friendship that holds no future if Barretta’s behavior remains as it is.
In this case, is forgiveness a weakness in that Angela retains affection that continues to hurt her? The short answer is no, forgiveness itself is not weakness, but the failure to make distinctions in this case could be the weakness. Here are some important distinctions for Angela to make:
1. There is a difference between forgiving-love and sisterly-love toward Barretta. Agape is a love in service to others as we see and appreciate their inherent worth. Philia (brotherly- or sisterly-love) is the kind of love that is mutual between two or more people. In the case of Angela and Barretta, the love is no longer mutual. If Angela makes this distinction, then she will see that philia no longer is operating between them.
2. There is a difference between feeling warm toward someone and the pair acting on it in friendship. While Angela might feel a warmth for Barretta, kept alive by forgiveness, she cannot let her feelings dictate her actions. She must stand in the truth and do so with a strong will. A strong will works in conjunction with the soft feelings of forgiveness.
3. There is a difference between practicing forgiveness as a lone moral virtue and practicing it alongside justice. When forgiveness and justice are teammates, Angela is more likely to conclude that even though she has warm feelings for Barretta, there are certain troubling behaviors she shows that work against a true reconciliation (because Barretta remains without remorse, with no signs of repentance, and no signs of making things right).
4. While it is true that her vigilance in forgiving may keep alive agape love in her heart (with accompanying warm feelings toward Barretta), those feelings, while perhaps uncomfortable, are not nearly as uncomfortable or damaging as resentment. Forgiveness will not lead to a pain-free solution in this case. It will lead to standing in the truth of who Barretta is (a person of worth) and whom she is incapable of being to her (in the role of friend). It will lead to feelings that may be uncomfortable (the warmth of agape without appropriating this in a friendship with Barretta) but manageable. Angela needs to distinguish between the discomfort of a retained agape love and the considerably more uncomfortable feelings of resentment.
When these distinctions are made, forgiveness is not a weakness even in this example.
Can I forgive without trusting a person?
Yes, you can forgive without trusting a person. Oftentimes, we forgive people, but then do not trust them in certain areas where they have weaknesses. A compulsive gambler can be forgiven and yet you watch your wallet, as an example. It also can be the case in which you forgive a person whose character is weakened to such a degree that you cannot trust him or her in many areas. In such a case, you might forgive, but then not reconcile if he or she refuses to change and is a danger to you.
“The Forgiveness Trap”: A Critique
In an essay for The Nation dated July 25, 2015, Dr. Marcel de Roos has an essay with the intriguing title, Forgiveness Trap. What does that mean and is there such a trap? Let us examine the evidence in seven points:
- Dr. De Roos states in the first paragraph: “. . . . .in therapy more often than not the concept of forgiveness is something that rather hinders progress than enhances it.” Our science, published in peer-reviewed journals, suggests just the opposite. People who willingly choose to forgive and take the time to practice it improve in emotional health
to a statistically-significantly greater degree than people in control groups. Depression, anger, and anxiety go down and self-esteem and hope increase. Some of these studies can be found on the Research Page of this website.
- In the second paragraph, he states: “….strong beliefs like ‘honour your father and mother’ can do much harm and can delay or obstruct the therapeutic process in a serious way.” Forgiveness, properly understood, does not demand that a person enter into the exact same role as he or she had under severe abuse. An abused spouse, for example, can forgive, but then stay away if further abuse is likely. An adolescent who is severely abused by a parent, with no end to this in sight, often is taken out of the home for the adolescent’s own safety and emotional health. One can forgive without assuming the same role as before when the abuse is severe and on-going with no anticipated change by the offending person.
- In the fifth paragraph we read: “Forgiveness in general can be important to mend broken relationships, but Martha has no reason to wish for a normal contact with her father.” Forgiveness, yes, can mend relationships, but this is not its only consequence. Mending one’s own broken heart is another consequence awaiting those who willingly choose to forgive and follow a proper protocol of forgiveness therapy.
- In the sixth paragraph we read: “In order to be able to forgive, the perpetrator should take responsibility……” If an offending person refuses to take responsibility and if the client thinks this is necessary, then we have a trap of unforgiveness: The client is not free to forgive whenever he or she wishes. In other words, the client is trapped in having to refrain from forgiveness, even if he or she wishes to do so. This could deprive the client of valuable emotional healing as pointed out above in our point 1. de Roos here is confusing forgiving and reconciling. In doing so, he is creating an unwitting trap of unforgiveness in clients.
- We read farther into the essay: “Forgiveness is a choice. In Martha’s case forgiveness was not possible and she is a clear example of how you can continue with your life without it.” I agree. Just because some people can get along without forgiveness does not invalidate forgiveness as a viable and good therapeutic strategy.
- And still farther: “….the most important thing is to feel your emotions like anger, hurt and revenge. You have to ‘wade’ through these and more painful feelings in order to find emotional balance.” Yet, how long and to what level of intensity is it necessary for a client to live with revenge? Revenge is a dangerous emotion if left unchecked. It can harm the self and others. Further, good forgiveness therapy starts with the acknowledgement of negative emotions such as anger and mourning. Forgiveness therapy does not invalidate these emotions, but instead acknowledges them and offers a path for the release of them.
- And finally, this: “People who hear from their therapist that they must forgive ought to think twice….” I could not agree more. This theme of insisting should not give forgiveness itself a black eye. Forgiveness itself, at its essence, gives people the free will to choose or reject forgiveness. It does not demand.
Forgiveness is tough-minded and tender-hearted. It will never insist on hasty reconciliation nor that the forgiver become a doormat. To think otherwise is to put the essence of forgiveness, and a client’s options, in a trap.