Forgiveness: why we need to have mercy on the merciless

And how anyone can learn this virtue.
Robert Enright | Jul 8 2015 | comment  



 

David Goldman/The Associated Press

 

The world is overshadowed by atrocities which cry out for justice – and forgiveness: the brutality of ISIS, the abductions of Boko Haram; the Boston Marathon bombing; terrorist attacks in New York, London, Madrid, Sydney, Paris; the Charleston massacre…

We asked Robert Enright, a psychologist and founding board member of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc, as well as author of a new book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, how some people manage to forgive even crimes like this, and whether it’s an art that can be learned.

 

MercatorNet: I was amazed to read that relatives of those shot dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston met the killer with words of forgiveness. How is it that some people forgive while others remain full of hate?

Robert Enright: Forgiveness is about having love in the heart for those who have not been loving to you. It seems so absurd to those who have not had the opportunity to think much about forgiving. This kind of perspective and approach to people, seeing their worth and loving them unconditionally, even when they behave badly, needs vigilant encouragement, practice, and then more practice if it is to develop well.

In other words, to forgive well means to make this moral virtue of mercy toward the unjust, and even toward those who are cruel, a part of one’s life.

Hate, too, is learned, too easily in some cases. The hateful so often are being cooperative, mimicking the thoughts and words of their own families or communities: the other side is evil; do not trust anyone who does x or y or z; they are less than human and have little worth as persons. To bring these kinds of thoughts inside takes time and once inside, the person has quite a battle to get them out because it requires an entirely different view of persons, the kind of view offered by forgiveness.

Isn’t forgiveness just a good coping mechanism? New York Times columnist Roxane Gay commented, “Black people forgive because we need to survive.” 

Forgiveness is so much more than a coping mechanism. Yes, it certainly is that because forgiveness controls the anger within so that we are not controlled by that anger. So, yes it helps us to survive when deeply hurt and even when the unimaginable happens, as in Charleston.

Yet, first and foremost, what forgiveness is in its essence is a gift to the ones who are hurtful. It is perhaps the most paradoxical of all the moral virtues (justice, patience, and kindness are moral virtues, as examples). To have mercy on those who will not have mercy on us seems at first glance to be anything but a coping mechanism. It seems as if the forgiver has given in, surrendered to injustice, but no.

To offer a gift of love to those who are unfair strengthens the inner world of the forgiver, who now comes to realize that his or her love is stronger than any injustice that will ever be experienced. Coping mechanisms alone do not startle and positively transform families, communities. and societies; love does. I extensively discuss this theme of forgiveness as love in my book, The Forgiving Life.

You’ve spent most of your career developing forgiveness therapy. How is it different from other methods of healing psychological trauma?

Forgiveness therapy does not put the focus on the client, but instead on the offender. The client is asked to focus on that other and to gently try, as best as one can without pressure, to see the other as possessing inherent (built-in) worth, not because of what was done, but in spite of this.

As the client sees the other as a person, and not as evil incarnate, the client begins to develop softer emotions, such as compassion, toward that person. Forgiveness therapy does not focus predominantly on gaining insight into oneself and what happened. Insight into what happened (a common therapeutic approach) is not sufficient when there is trauma; the more the client understands the unfairness, the more angry he or she might become. Forgiveness reduces and can eliminate that anger.

How can you learn to forgive? It seems almost impossible.

Let us start with an analogy. It is impossible for the physically-unfit person to run the marathon today because he or she has to train for it. Yet, with perseverance, what is impossible today becomes possible in the future with steady workouts. And one need not reach the pinnacle of the goal to be successful. If the unfit person now can run three miles, that is quite an accomplishment relative to the past.

The same holds for forgiveness. People need to start slowly, perhaps with someone who annoyed, but did not devastate the forgiver. The more one practices trying to see the inherent worth in others, the more compassion will slowly grow in the heart and the more adept he or she is likely to be as a forgiver of people who have committed serious offenses.

The “how to” of forgiveness, including even how to forgive yourself, is spelled out in my just-released book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness.

I am a firm believer in forgiveness education for children as young as age 4. The goal is not to cajole young children to forgive, but instead to introduce them to the world of forgiveness through picture books in which story characters have conflicts and then forgive. As children see this happening in stories, they better understand that forgiveness exists in the world, setting them up to make their own decisions about forgiveness as they grow older. Open a child's mind to forgiveness and you may be opening his or her heart to the love that is in this world. Forgiveness education is discussed in the book, The Forgiving Life.

What kind of people have benefited from forgiveness therapy? What are the benefits?

Dr. Fitzgibbons, as described in our book, Forgiveness Therapy, has worked with patients who struggle with a variety of psychiatric disorders such as major depression and drug addictions, as examples.

The research I have done with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison includes incest survivors, college students hurt by emotionally-distant parents, women who have been emotionally abused in marriage, fibromyalgia patients, cardiac patients, and others. The research consistently shows that those who forgive (relative to people in control groups who do not receive forgiveness therapy) reduce significantly in anger, anxiety, and depression, and increase in self-esteem and hope. Hope is a key issue for strong emotional health.

But isn’t there a Christian bias built into the idea of forgiveness? Does it work in other faith traditions?

Is there a bias in that only Christians can practice the moral virtues of justice, patience, and kindness? If not, why then would not forgiveness be open to all people? We all have the capacity to act virtuously. We may not all reach the same depth of practice, but we all can offer goodness to others in a variety of ways.

Forgiveness, in other words, is open to all people in the world if they choose to exercise this particular virtue when hurt by others. Our research includes people of many faith traditions, as well as those with no faith. When those who choose the forgiveness path finish the work, their well-being tends to improve as seen in the research findings.

How about in the secular societies in which we live? Is it harder for a non-religious person to forgive?

It is hard for any of us to forgive if we are not introduced to it, especially at a young age, if we are not encouraged to practice it, and, importantly, if we confuse forgiveness with excusing (not a moral virtue), or forgetting (not a virtue), or even reconciling (a negotiation strategy of two or more people working their way back to mutual trust), which also is not a moral virtue.

And what about justice? Isn’t forgiveness allowing people to get away with – literally – murder? Isn’t it excusing injustice?

Aristotle taught us, over 2,000 years ago, to never, ever practice one virtue in isolation of all others. A courageous non-swimmer, who does not practice wisdom along with being brave, might jump into a lake to save a drowning dog, only to lose his own life. Forgiveness and justice need to grow up together so that the other person does not take advantage of the forgiver’s offer of mercy. Forgive and seek justice; it is not “either/or.”

Whom would you propose as a model for forgiveness for contemporary America? 

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood forgiveness as seen in his soaring book, Strength to Love. He wrote that book when his family was being threatened and his home firebombed. Yet, he had the courage to say this: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Robert Enright is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a founding board member of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. His new book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, will be published by W.W. Norton on September 28. 



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