Tagged: “Why Forgive?”

I heard that you recently published a study with your colleagues in which you helped men in prison learn to forgive.  What did you find and why did you focus on prisoners who, it seems to me, need to ask us for forgiveness because of what they did?

Rehabilitation in correctional institutions tends to focus on changing the behavior which led to the sentencing in the first place.  Yet, our research found that about 90% of 103 men whom we surveyed had considerable injustices against them when they were children or adolescents.  One gentleman was thrown out of his home by his mother when he was 10 years old.  He slept under cars at night as his bed.  So often, this kind of cruelty against children can lead to a welling up of hatred and this can lead to crime, arrest, and imprisonment.  Forgiveness Therapy allowed the men to forgive those who abused them which led to a statistically significant decrease in clinical levels of anger, anxiety, and depression to normal or near normal levels.  They also developed more empathy toward people in general.  Those in the control group, without Forgiveness Therapy, did not show this kind of improvement in their mental health, but when they then were given Forgiveness Therapy, they, too, showed similar improvement compared with the original experimental group.  Here is the reference to that research:

Yu, L., Gambaro, M., Song, J., Teslik, M., Song, M., Komoski, M.C., Wollner, B., & Enright, R.D. (2021). Forgiveness therapy in a maximum-security correctional institution: A randomized clinical trial. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.

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Can’t I forgive simply because it is good in and of itself?  Do I really need some kind of external reason, such as helping my family or assisting the one who was unfair?  The more abstract reason, that goes well beyond physical consequences, seems to me to be an important reason for forgiving.

Yes, I agree with you.  We do not have to have, as you say, the motivation of forgiving to be the bringing about of a physical consequence such as improved family relationships or the rehabilitation of another’s behavior.  Forgiveness as a moral virtue is good in and of itself and your engaging in this moral virtue as its own end is good.  We need to keep in mind that forgiving unconditionally, for its own sake, can and often does lead to positive physical consequences (feeling better and/or a restored relationship).  As you correctly point out, one does not have to have some kind of guarantee that such physical consequences will occur before we forgive.

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My motivation to forgive is to assist the one who acted unjustly, to get her attention, to give her a chance to change.  She is not changing.  Therefore, it seems to me that I should withhold forgiving as a last-chance for her to repent and live a better life.  Isn’t this the way to go, to wait on forgiving until the other changes for the sake of that other person?

It seems to me that you are thinking in “either-or” ways rather than “both-and” ways.  This is what I mean: Yes, it is good to try to assist the other in changing unjust behavior.  You can do this assisting even after you forgive.  You can forgive from the heart, and even proclaim your forgiving to the other, and then ask for change.  Let the person know it is important that she sees her behavior as unjust and then do what she can to change that behavior.  If you wait to forgive until she changes, you may never forgive.  Now you are trapped by her choices, trapped with resentment that could last for years.

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I want to forgive to restore an important relationship.  Yet, I am afraid to begin the forgiveness process because the other may not want the relationship anymore.  Under this circumstance, is it reasonable for me to reject forgiving?

Actually, it is very reasonable for you to continue moving forward with the forgiveness process.  As you are aware, forgiveness does not provide a guarantee that the other will accept your overture of forgiving.  Yet, if you forgive, you are opening the other to this possibility of a new start in the relationship. Even if the other rejects your forgiving, you have done your best, you may experience emotional healing, and so you can move on well regardless of what the other decides to do.

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If I want to start the forgiveness journey in order to forget, am I starting it for the wrong reason?

There are many reasons people have for forgiving and one’s own well-being is one of those reasons. It is typical for a person to be motivated to forgive so that some emotional relief is realized from the pain of the injustice. So, your motivation certainly is not dishonorable and shows that you want and need self-care for what happened to you.

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