If I make a decision to forgive, is that sufficient to actually forgive?
We did a study in which we asked some of the participants to go only to our Decision Phase of forgiveness. We asked other participants to advance through our entire Process Model of Forgiveness, which includes the Work and Discovery Phases. Those who stopped at the Decision Phase did not achieve the same psychological benefits as those who went through the entire forgiveness program. This was expected because to decide to forgive is not the same as exercising the moral virtue of forgiveness in its entirety. Here is the reference to that research:
Al-Mabuk, R., Enright, R. D., & Cardis, P. (1995). Forgiveness education with parentally love-deprived college students. Journal of Moral Education, 24, 427-444.
As I forgive, I am finding that my anger comes and goes. I find this frustrating as I expected a straight line from anger to no anger. Can you provide some perspective for me?
The philosopher from ancient Greece, Aristotle, reminds us that we are all imperfect when it comes to the expression of any of the moral virtues. Therefore, please try to be gentle with yourself and to humbly accept that you will not have a perfect straight line from anger to no anger. You certainly are not alone in this as the vast majority of us can experience a resurgence of anger. At that point, it is good to go back a few steps in the forgiveness process and begin again to see the inherent worth in the one who hurt you, try to cultivate some empathy, bear the pain of this anger, and when you are ready consider a gift to the other (such as a smile or a kind word about the person to others).
I work hard on forgiveness, but sometimes I get to a week in which I do not want to even think about it or what happened to me. During these times, what can I do to not feel guilty or uncomfortable about setting forgiveness aside?
Let us take an analogy here. Suppose you have a physical fitness regimen. Do you work out every week for an entire year or do you take some time off to refresh, to heal, to re-group? Physical trainers tell us to take some time off. It is good for us. Think of becoming forgivingly fit in the same way. Hard work is good, but we need some time off to refresh and re-group so that we come back to that work with renewed enthusiasm.
A Promise Kept
Have you ever made a promise to love, honor, and obey outside the covenant of marriage? In a certain way, I have.
That promise, which I made in 2002, has now been fulfilled as we turn the clock to 2022. We at the International Forgiveness Institute had just decided to start forgiveness education programs at the century’s turn. The point was this: If learning to forgive can aid people’s recovery from deep injustices against them, then wouldn’t it be a good idea to help young children learn to forgive so that, once the storms of life hit them as adults, then they would have a tool, forgiveness, to avert confusion, resentment, and even possible abiding anger and anxiety? It seemed to be worth a try and so we looked around the globe with this question: Where is there a society that now is post-conflict, which has suffered, and which might benefit from forgiveness education?
Our team at the International Forgiveness Institute, after much thought and discussion, centered on Belfast, Northern Ireland for four reasons: 1) There had been The Troubles across Northern Ireland, in which Irish Catholics and British Protestants were in an escalated conflict since 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry; 2) there was a signed peace accord in 1998, which reduced the conflict, but still there was a post-conflict sense of tension; 3) the two groups were English-speaking and so we would not have to start with interpreters; and 4) Ireland and Northern Ireland are two of the closest ports-of-call from the Eastern United States.
So, off my two sons and I went in July of 2002, landing first on the West Coast of the Emerald Isle and then to Belfast, where we met the esteemed Anne Gallagher, who formed Seeds of Hope to do her best to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Anne was amazing in introducing us to primary school personnel and we had the great honor to start forgiveness education in both St. Vincent de Paul Primary School and Ligoniel Primary School, both on the Ligoniel Road in Belfast.
“Forgiveness isn’t something that’s talked about with reconciliation, but it’s needed to bring closure to the pain and suffering experienced in Northern Ireland. You can’t contemplate hope unless you address despair. To heal the wounds of Northern Ireland I believe you have to see humanity in the face of the enemy. Forgiveness is a journey.”
Anne Gallagher (1953-2013)
Upon my first visit to the principal of St. Vincent de Paul School, Mr. Brian McParland, he heard our proposal for forgiveness education and agreed that this is a vital vision for Northern Ireland. He assented to having this programme pioneered in his school. Yet, he quickly added this: “You will not last more than 3 years here in Belfast.” I was surprised to hear that and asked, “Brian, why do you say that?” He looked at me and said, “No one lasts more than 3 years in Belfast. After that time, people grow weary, the thrill of travel wears off and they quit.” I took a deep breath and answered, “Brian, I will give you 20 years.” He looked at me with kindness, but said nothing.
Well, as I consult Siri on the Apple Watch, I see that the calendar is about to turn to the year 2022. Hold on for a minute. . . I have to do a little bit of quick math. Ahh, yes. . . it has been exactly 20 years now since my promise to Mr. McParland. Our International Forgiveness Institute has successfully implemented forgiveness education now in many schools of Belfast and surrounding communities.
As we end the 20th year, some of us at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are doing a research program with 18 classrooms of primary 7 students (grade 5 in the United States), across Northern Ireland, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. This will culminate in an international conference in Madison, Wisconsin, led by Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute, in which these teachers will participate.
As I look around, I see that Mr. Brian McParland now is retired from his educational duties. Mrs. Claire Hilman, the principal at Ligoniel Primary in 2002, also is retired. Dear Anne Gallagher now has passed to eternal life. No other educators who joined us two decades ago are still there. As I look around, I see that I have kept my promise now only to God and me. And that is sufficient for the promise-keeping. I hope that at least some in Northern Ireland are the better for it.
A promise kept may bear fruit of which none of us is aware and this is why we press on with the vision for forgiveness education, started two decades ago.
I have a problem with my partner. He does not see that he has hurt me, despite my best efforts. I now am wondering if reconciliation is even possible. What I mean is that he keeps hurting me and doesn’t even see it.
This is a difficult situation because you now have a lack of trust that he can change. I recommend that you first forgive him and from that softened-heart position, approach him at an opportune time and have this kind of a conversation with him: First, you could let him know that you suspect that he is practicing the psychological defense of denial, in that he possibly is afraid to see the truth of his hurtful actions. Second, if he begins to see that he indeed is using the defense of denial, you then can let him know the extent of your hurt, for example, on a 1-to-10 scale with 10 being an enormous amount of hurt. Third, if he sees this hurt and sees it as caused by his actions, the next step is to work with him on a plan to deliberately change the behavior that is causing the hurt. Please keep in mind that even if all three strategies work, it still will take some time for you to build up trust because this tends to develop slowly after a pattern of injustices that cause hurt. Your continuing to forgive may increase your patience with the trust process.