Forgiveness is a healing choice

May we begin with a reflection on a prayer? It is this: "God of forgiveness, do not forgive those who created this place. God of mercy, have no mercy on those who killed Jewish children." The context of Elie Wiesel's prayer was a ceremony commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, where he was imprisoned and experienced fully the evil of Nazi hatred. Having visited a concentration camp in Germany, a heart-rending experience, I could absorb, at best, a thimble-full of the emotion that must have washed over Mr. Wiesel that day as he spoke his prayer toward the heavens occasioned by Holocaust horrors. Who could blame him, I thought, as I trod the grounds where the innocents were tortured and massacred.
Having studied the psychology of forgiveness for the past 22 years, I must admit to a certain ignorance at the mystery surrounding the way people respond to unthinkable tragedy. As I write this, the murderous acts of Charles Roberts in the one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006 are burned into my mind. He admitted feelings of hatred because his own daughter died years ago. Because of this hatred, that had nothing to do with the Amish, he murdered and wounded innocent girls in the supposed safety of their classroom. Tragedy -- Mr Roberts' -- begot tragedy.
In the days following the horror, the news media seemed stunned by the Amish community's forgiving acts. Henry Fisher, a 62-year-old retired farmer, tried to explain the forgiveness to the world through the media. "We just do not hate," he said. "There is no sense in getting angry," he said. The Amish community gathered for prayer, not only for themselves but also for Mr. Roberts and his family. They attended his funeral and set up a fund for his widow, and the world looked on and wondered.
Wouldn't it be so easy to judge and contrast the reactions of Mr Wiesel and the Amish community following tragedy? For those ambivalent about forgiveness the judgment might go something like this: There is just no way possible for the Amish to have forgiven so quickly. They are in denial or perhaps they are putting up a false front. Time will show them to be just like the rest of us, enjoying at least a pinch of vindictiveness. Mr Wiesel, in contrast, is a courageous realist. He knows himself, he understands tragedy, and through this path only is there justice and eventual community restoration.
For those who embrace forgiveness, the judgment might take the following form: Poor Mr. Wiesel. He has been victimized twice by the Nazis, once in their acts of horror and now by letting their hatred be implanted as deep resentment into his own being. The Amish are approaching grave injustice correctly, with a patient and forthright forgiveness that must be present if community and individual restoration is to ever occur, and the quicker the better.
On which of these two sides do you fall, dear reader? That question, I now must confess, was a trick question, which we professors are at times noted for, especially in our exams. It is a trick question precisely because I forced you into an either-or decision: either you side with Mr Wiesel or you side with the Amish. Why must we think in either-or ways when it comes to forgiveness? From what rule book are we deriving that rule? You see, forgiveness just does not work that way. It embraces a gentle and healing both-and spirit. Please allow me to explain.
Forgiveness belongs to the one offended and it is always his or her free choice whether or not to offer the merciful gift of forgiveness. In the face of injustice, a person offers forgiveness by giving up resentment and offering goodness to the one who acted unjustly. A forgiver is free to offer this gift whenever he or she wishes. You see, someone who is filled with fury today might forgive tomorrow. Mr Wiesel's pronouncement with cameras rolling and emotions high may or may not have been his final statement on the matter. The human soul is not still any more than the ocean's waves are. I have seen people want to wring the neck of a murderer, only to stand in front of the judge begging for mercy for that murderer months later. I cannot explain the mystery of this transformation, but I can report the fact that it occurs.
Mr Wiesel was crying for justice and the Amish were praying for mercy. Both are moral heroes. If we ask for mercy, must we put it within its own hermetically sealed container, lest it be tainted by justice? Or instead, is it possible to co-mingle justice and mercy, asking for both? Can people forgive execution-style murderers of children and then ask for better protection of those who must start anew in a new school? Can one cry, "Never again" to state-sanctioned hatred and offer mercy once one begins to feel and be safe? Surely justice and mercy, fairness and forgiveness, can lie down together. Some may wish to emphasize justice for a season and it is their choice. Others in that season may wish to centre on forgiveness and it is equally their choice. Do you see how forgiveness flies free, without the constraints of having to follow a rigid guideline for all under all circumstances?
Forgiveness can take time. It is not easy and can seem threatening. If I forgive, might I be vulnerable to the other's continued unfairness? Not if I see the unfairness and take steps to correct it. If I forgive, must I trust the offender? No, because forgiveness is different from reconciliation. One can offer the cessation of resentment and the gift of beneficence in forgiveness without entering into a relationship of mutual trust, which would be required for reconciliation. If I forgive, shouldn't the other apologize first? No, because forgiveness can be lovingly unconditional. Is it not the case that some acts are simply unforgivable? While it is true that some people will not forgive others for certain acts, there are others who will. It is part of the historical record.
Forgiveness seems to travel a certain path toward healing, but people walk that path at different rates and stop at different way-stations as they proceed. One effective and scientifically-validated pathway to forgiveness is spelled out in my book, Forgiveness Is a Choice (published by the American Psychological Association in 2001) . The gist of that pathway is this. Following injustice, people tend to get angry (but do not always have and show anger). Following a period in which anger can turn to resentment, some people come to realize that they are becoming imprisoned by the anger. They are restless, losing energy, unhappy. At that point, many people make a conscious decision to forgive, realizing that when they do forgive, they are not condoning, excusing, forgetting, or necessarily even reconciling with the other. Even though some start from a position of self-interest (I am unhappy with my anger), this invariably shifts over time to other-interest (I wish to give the one who offended me the gift of forgiveness).
Next, people begin to think differently about the perpetrator. The forgiver struggles to see the injuring person as someone bigger than the unjust act. The forgiver strives to see the inherent worth, the unconditional value of the other, not because of what happened, but in spite of it. Then comes a softening of the heart, which can take considerable time, in which empathy and compassion for the offender begin to grow. We witnessed that in the Amish response to Mr. Roberts and his family. The forgiver then engages in the courageous act of bearing the pain of what happened, so that the anger and related emotions do not spill over into the lives of others. Mr Roberts did not seem to bear the pain of his own daughter's death and so his pain came pouring out onto the innocents on that tragic day in October. There are other parts of the pathway, but I will leave those details in the book for now.
My colleagues and I have scientifically tested this pathway to forgiveness for people who have suffered grave unfairness, including incest, spousal betrayal, a partner's decision to abort without the other's consent, and child abuse, among many other situations. In our scientific studies, those who learn to forgive usually become emotionally healthier, characterized by lowered depression and anxiety, and improved hope toward the future. Forgiveness heals.
As the world watched and pondered the Amish outpouring of forgiving love, I said to myself: I see. They have been studying and practicing forgiveness for many, many years prior to this tragedy. They prepared themselves by building forgiveness muscle. They were ready for this because they understand the fallen nature of humanity. They understand the soaring nature of forgiveness.
As the world continues to muse over the acts of forgiveness, we need to marshal our resources for the next tragedy. What will you do in preparation for the next person who is wounded by an offender unconnected to you, but takes out the pain on you? Do you understand forgiveness? Do you know the path to walk to get there?
In our professional experience, most people give forgiveness no thought at all until deep unfairness comes to visit. It is then that they labour to find the forgiving path. Knowing that, we started, five years ago, a series of forgiveness education programs in Belfast, Northern Ireland and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin's central city. Both communities have known violence and unfairness. We want the children to learn about forgiveness at a very young age and to become more sophisticated in the practice of the virtue of forgiveness as they advance in their schooling. We want for them the forgiveness muscle that may help them to seek and to find a better justice. Forgiveness has a way of making the quest for justice more wholesome and more whole.
OK, readers, if you so choose and are ready for the workout, let's hit the gym and begin to develop our forgiveness muscle.
Robert D. Enright, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of more than 80 publications and has been a leader in the scientific study of forgiveness and its effects since 1985.


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