Last year at around this time the nation was in a state of total disbelief about five girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania murdered by a mentally disturbed man with a gun.
It was not so much the violent act that stunned the nation – for such acts of violence are too frequent to grab the headlines for long – the disbelief was caused by the act of the families of the murdered children bringing food to the family of the gunman and saying that they shared the family’s grief and forgave their son.
This dramatic example of lived compassion shocked the nation.
How could they do that! How can the unforgivable be forgiven?
Forgiving, forgiving great wrongs and small transgressions, striving to forgive, this is my subject today.
A while back I encountered a newspaper story about Forgiveness, called A Moment of Grace, I want to share it with you…
A Moment of Grace
"In an age whose crabbed sense of justice finds expression in dismal phrases like "zero tolerance" and "three strikes and you're out," the events in a Long Island courtroom on Monday came as an undeserved gift, something startling and luminous.
It happened when Ryan Cushing, a 19-year-old charged with assault for tossing a turkey through a car windshield last fall, approached the driver he nearly killed, Victoria Ruvolo. Ms. Ruvolo, 44, suffered severe injuries and needed many hours of surgery to rebuild her shattered facial bones.
When Mr. Cushing left the courtroom after pleading guilty, he came face to face with his victim for the first time. He said he was sorry and begged her to forgive him.
She did. She cradled his head as he sobbed. She stroked his face and patted his back. "It's O.K.; it's O.K.," she said. "I just want you to make your life the best it can be."
Mr. Cushing was one of six teenagers out for a night of joy riding and crime, which often happens when childish aggression and stupidity merge with the ability to drive and steal credit cards. The five others have pleaded guilty to various acts like forgery and larceny, but Mr. Cushing, who threw the turkey, could have faced 25 years in prison. At Ms. Ruvolo's insistence, prosecutors granted him a plea bargain instead: six months in jail and five years' probation.
The prosecutor, Thomas Spota, had been ready to seek harsh punishment for a crime he rightly denounced as heedless and brutal. "This is not an act of mere stupidity," Mr. Spota said. "They're not 9- or 7-year-old children."
That is true. But Ms. Ruvolo's resolute compassion, coming seemingly out of nowhere, disarmed Mr. Spota and led to a far more satisfying result.
Many have assumed that Ms. Ruvolo's motivation is religious. But while we can estimate the size of her heart, we can't peer into it. Her impulse may have been entirely secular.
Court testimony by crime victims is often pitched as a sort of retributive therapy, a way for angry, injured people to force criminals to confront their shame. But while some convicts grovel, others smirk. Many are impassive. It's hard to imagine that those hurt by crime reliably find healing in the courtroom. Given the opportunity for retribution, Ms. Ruvolo gave and got something better: the dissipation of anger and the restoration of hope, in a gesture as cleansing as the tears washing down her damaged face, and the face of the foolish, miserable boy whose life she single-handedly restored."
Forgiveness can be a transformative experience.
The Idea of the power of “Forgiveness” has been around a long time.
In the ancient Hindu text, the Mahabharata, while addressing Dhritarashtra, Vidura said: "There is one only defect in forgiving persons, and not another; that defect is that people take a forgiving person to be weak. That defect, however, should not be taken into consideration, for forgiveness is a great power. Forgiveness is a virtue of the weak, and an ornament of the strong. Forgiveness subdues (all) in this world; what is there that forgiveness cannot achieve? What can a wicked person do unto him who carries the saber of forgiveness in his hand? Fire falling on the grassless ground is extinguished of itself. An unforgiving individual defiles himself with many enormities. Righteousness is the one highest good; and forgiveness is the one supreme peace; knowledge is one supreme contentment; and benevolence, one sole happiness."
Forgiveness is big in many religious traditions, often accompanied by what is considered the other side of the coin for the transgressor, atonement or penitence.
Today I will focus on ideas about Forgiveness:
- What it is?
- Why forgive?
- How it is beneficial;
- The obstacles and challenges concerning giving Forgiveness; and I will present
- A methodology for Forgiveness
American society allows for people to manifest a substantial amount of anger. Not forgiving is socially acceptable. Talk shows are full of people exhibiting pathological levels of anger who are treated as though their rages were completely normal and acceptable.
Our collective response to the 911 atrocities morphed from compassion for the victims and a call for international justice, to seeking revenge, and finally to pre-emptive war. Forgiveness simply was not in the equation.
And how do we act when we see others demonstrate forgiveness? Often with the same puzzlement and disparagement demonstrated by many when Hillary Clinton chose to forgive her husband and stay in her marriage.
Forgiveness requires us to revisit our feelings and assumptions. As a culture, this isn’t one of our strong points.
Forgiveness is a virtue of the weak, and an ornament of the strong, for an unforgiving individual defiles himself with many enormities.
Yes, Forgiveness has been around for a long time. It is expressed in stories found in our religious traditions.
The Hebrew Bible and Koran share the story of Joseph and his brothers
Joseph was beaten by his brothers and left for dead. After he rises to power in Egypt, he has a chance for retribution but instead rushes to embrace his brothers before they even have a chance to repent.
There is the Christian story of the prodigal son who is welcomed home and shown unconditional love by his father despite his life of waste and excess.
There is the Buddhist story of the hermit who is savagely beaten by the jealous king and yet unconditionally accepts the king. Despite his treatment he is sincerely interested in the king as a person.
The Buddhist text, the Dhammapada, contains this wisdom:
‘He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
‘He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ — In those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is part of our subjective universe. I believe that there is a real world out there and that we can come to understand the principals and mechanisms by which the real world operates. We learn more all the time.
In addition to this real world of “objective” reality, there is our internal world of subjective experience. This world is equally real. How we experience the world, process the world, how we are able to connect and relate with others, determines our satisfaction, opens us to happiness and sorrow. How does forgiveness fit into all of this?
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness, like love, is a part of our internal experience. It is a part of our social relationships, for we are indeed social creatures.
Forgiveness is both an act and the attitude toward an other that results from the act. It is letting go of anger and hurt caused by the actions of an other. It is not necessarily offering absolution. Sometimes it is acceptance or even resignation about something that you cannot change in an other. Sometimes it is just a new level understanding about someone else.
For me, forgiveness is something done between people, here, now. It is part of our experience happening in the natural world – not in some metaphysical or cosmic realm.
Merriam-Webster lists this definition:
- to give up resentment of or claim to requital for
- to cease to feel resentment against (an offender): to pardon: to grant forgiveness
Note that these definitions of forgiveness are unconditional.
Yes, forgiveness is unconditional.
If I place conditions on my forgiveness, I give those who have harmed me power over me. My resentment will continue until they meet certain conditions. What if they never meet these conditions? Am I stuck in resentment forever?
Forgiveness is an internal process. It is not necessarily dependent on an apology, behavior change, or admission of guilt by the perceived offender.
Forgiveness is an internal process – relationship consequences are secondary.
Like all human relationships, Forgiveness is complex. Therefore, there are different types of forgiving.
- We forgive strangers differently than loved ones.
- We are not consistent in our ability to extend forgiveness – nor do we need to be.
- Forgiveness is a process – not a switch that you turn on and you’re necessarily done with it. Realizing full forgiveness may take some time.
- Ultimately, forgiveness replaces negative, unforgiving stressful emotions, with positive, other-oriented emotions.
Forgiveness is not called for in all situations, for all transgressions, by all people.
Forgiveness is a process. Sometimes forgiveness involves facing not a single incident but a long series of hurts.
Forgiveness is a process. Saying “I forgive you” is not enough. Even though the words have been said, the hurt and anger often return. It may take some time to achieve a full feeling of forgiveness.
Forgiveness begins with the decision to forgive. Over time, emotional changes to the offender may follow.
Or, as Lily Tomlin said, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”
Forgiveness has been scientifically tested.
Dr. Robert Enright from the University of Wisconsin-Madison began forgiveness studies in the 1990’s. Other researchers have expanded the research findings on Forgiveness.
To study forgiveness, researchers, get patients seeking treatment for anger and difficulties in relationships. Study subjects have included the recently divorced, men upset by their partners abortion decision, and couples where infidelity caused anger. Researchers randomly assign subjects to the Forgiveness therapeutic approach and treatment without this component.
The results of these studies are that Forgiveness works. Those receiving therapy that focuses on forgiveness, show improvement in their relationships, and their emotional and physical health.
What is the relationship between Anger and Forgiveness?
In order to forgive, we have to have been hurt.
How do we respond and hold transgressions? Anger. Resentment. Bitterness.
Anger is an emotional reaction to perceived injustice. Anger can be a useful reaction. It can focus our attention. Anger can be a way of letting us know what we care about.
Yet you can have too much of a good thing.
Persistent angry feelings, getting stuck in these feelings is bad for us.
Too much anger can make us sick.
Anger can spill out beyond its origins and be directed at those we love.
Long-term anger is destructive to ourselves and those around us.
Our anger and resentment may be distorted. We may be angry and resentful for the unintentional acts of others.
My anger may be displaced and I may blame others for something that I caused.
We are complicated emotional beings.
We cannot always identify or articulate the source of our anger.
Forgiveness has the power to release us from the bondage of anger and resentment.
One critique of forgiveness is that it lets wrongdoers “off the hook”. What hook? Whose hook?
Some people see their resentment as a way of keeping the one who hurt them in a kind of emotional prison. As long as they hold on to the anger and bitterness, the person who hurt them stays in the jail cell of rejection and alienation.
Those who are wedded to their hate or who have internalized their status as victim become trapped in these cells of their own making.
Over time they come to realize that it was they, themselves, who were imprisoned by the hatred and not the other person. Our hatred affects us emotionally more than it affects the one who hurt us.
It’s a matter of Forgive or Re-Live.
Lewis Smedes summed this up: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Forgiveness occurs inside ourselves.
Forgiveness is independent of Reconciliation
Reconciliation is restoring damage in a relationship, not inside an individual.
Forgiveness is not dependent on relationship.
It is possible to forgive even when we do not know the offender and the offender may never know that they have been forgiven.
In my opening story, Victoria Ruvolo forgave Ryan Cushing even though she did not know him.
She acted out of compassion for an other.
Forgiveness does not automatically reestablish trust. Trust can’t be restored unless people are trustworthy.
I can forgive someone for hurting me and not give them permission to do it again.
I can forgive someone and hold them accountable for their actions.
Ultimately, even after forgiveness, the offender is still free to offend again. Forgiveness is not about holding offenders accountable. Forgiveness and Accountability are separate issues. One is mercy the other is justice.
Forgiveness gives us freedom to deal with transgressors without internalizing their anger.
Oscar Wilde said, “Always forgive your enemies - nothing annoys them so much.”
Forgiveness is not…
- Condoning the offense
- Excusing the offender
- Pretending that nothing happened
- Letting people get away with it
- “Forgetting” about the offense
- Justifying the offenders actions
- Just Calming Down and ignoring the hurt
Engaging in these thought processes is not Forgiveness.
Forgiveness is also not gaining a morally superior position by smugly forgiving someone and thereby placing them in you debt.
Dr. Everett Worthington sees forgiveness as related to “Unresolved Injustice”.
He describes an “injustice gap” – the difference between the current state of affairs and what we think just resolution would be.
The greater this gap, the larger the hurt, making forgiveness increasingly more difficult.
Forgiveness can directly change personal outcomes, such as appraisals of circumstances and hateful thinking. Forgiveness can also change relationships. Changed relationships can feed back and make personal experience more positive.
There might come a tipping point that changes things dramatically.
After a protracted period of unforgiveness, forgiveness might suddenly transcend the injustice gap, shut off hateful thinking, provide a sudden steadying of emotions, or even switch from negative to positive emotions.
Forgiveness is a Choice
Envision 3 points of a TRIANGLE.
- Forgiveness - is the top point of the Triangle.
- Grudges - the lower left corner.
- Vengeance - the lower right corner.
We find ourselves somewhere inside of this triangle. We may choose to move toward forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a choice. We are not morally obligated to forgive. However, we find that our life improves when we are able to forgive.
Others are not morally obligated to forgive us – even when we ask for forgiveness. We may ask for forgiveness and not get it.
I now want to present a conceptual model that I call:
Radical Forgiveness is Forgiveness that is freely chosen by the injured party. It is not dependent on contrition or apology by the transgressor.
The goal of Radical Forgiveness is to express compassion, benevolence and love. It recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of the wrongdoer. Radical Forgiveness is unconditional. It does not require an apology, an admission of harm, or a change in behavior by the wrongdoer. It is done to benefit the forgiver, not the person who is being forgiven.
Radical Forgiveness is a process. It may proceed in small steps but it starts with the decision to forgive.
Radical Forgiveness is an ethical act.
Radical Forgiveness recognizes the inherent humanity of the transgressor. It sees our own humanity reflected in the humanity of the other. It is a means of extending worth and dignity to the other.
In this way, Radical Forgiveness recognizes the inherent worth in a person – regardless of what they have done. There may be consequences that follow transgressions, but the essential human worth of the transgressor is not forfeit.
I seek forgiveness to maintain my ethical relations with others. I forgive, when I am able, to release my resentment and relate to others without a veil of anger separating us. In the end, I forgive because it improves my experience of life. It improves my ability to relate to others. It upholds my ideal of the inherent worth and dignity of all. Ultimately, I forgive because it is the right thing to do.
Forgiveness is a paradoxical gift. To free ourselves from anger and resentment, we give the person who hurt us the gift of forgiveness.
Radical Forgiveness may involve active engagement with the offender. This means that it is not done in isolation. If you forgive someone and they do not know it, you may have acted to release your own resentment but you have not actively opened up the possibility of reconciliation.
Let them know how they have hurt you. Tell them that their behavior is unacceptable. Let them know that you have forgiven them.
Joanna North provides this definition of forgiveness:
When unjustly hurt by another, we forgive when we overcome the resentment toward the offender, not by denying our right to the resentment, but instead by trying to offer the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence, and love; as we give these, we as forgivers realize that the offender does not necessarily have a right to such gifts.
Forgiveness is a selfish gift that we give. The recipient does not necessarily deserve it. They may not have earned it. We do it as a way of transforming our relationship to the transgressor. To release the resentment and anger that controls our relationship towards this person.
Some time back, my friend James Coley told me about a meditation practice that he occasionally employs. Combining the Ethical Culture idea that everyone has worth with the Buddhist concept of extending compassion to everyone. James focuses on George Bush as part of a meditative practice of generating compassionate thoughts, even to those who you may not initially see as deserving.
I admire James’ practice. Everyone has worth and everyone deserves compassion. Moving from anger toward forgiveness is a transformative experience.
EXERCISE IN MORAL IMAGINATION
Take a moment, right now, try to identify some of the feelings of anger and resentment that you may hold. Now imagine who you would be if you let go of these feelings? Who you would be if you could let go of these feelings? How would you be transformed by forgiving?
Sara Paddison wrote,
“Sincere forgiveness isn't colored with expectations that the other person apologize or change. Don't worry whether or not they finally understand you. Love them and release them. Life feeds back truth to people in its own way and time.”
Consider moving toward forgiveness when you can and even thinking about it when you can’t.
It could transform your relationships and your life.
Charlie Vail on Oct 24 2007 -- Randy:
One of my favorite quotes on forgiveness (by Reinhold Niebuhr) is as follows:
"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any imme-diate context of history; therefore we must he saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
More than this I recommend a small book by Simon Wiesenthal, "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness."
Wiesenthal's story, though only about a third of the book, is a most compelling story from his time as an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp. The remainder of the book includes the many comments that Wisenthal collected from various and sundry people, including the Dalai Lama and Albert Speer. My favorite quote was written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." He writes:
"Forgiving is not something we do for another person, as the Nazi asked Wiesenthal to do for him. Forgiving happens inside us. It represents a letting go of the sense of gievance, and perhaps most importantly a letting go of the role of victim. For a Jew to forgive the Nazis would mean, God forbid, saying to them "What you did was understandable, I can understand what led you to do it and I don't hate you for it." It would [instead] mean saying "What you did was thoroughly despicable and puts you outside the category of decent human beings. But I refuse to give you the power to define me as a victim. I refuse to let your blind hatred define and shape the content of my Jewishness. I don't hate you; I reject you." And then the Nazi would remain chained to his past and to his conscience, but the Jew would be free."
Andra Miller on Oct 31 2007 -- My friend's husband suddenly told her after many years of "happy" marriage that he had to leave, it was over. She was furious and would not forgive him. I knew, of course, there had to be another woman, which might have saved some of her pride. I think is is harder to be rejected than to be replaced. Anyway, she would not be dissuaded from her unforgiveness -- eventually it proved true that there was another woman. Still, I felt that she believed it was her grim duty -- her responsibility -- to hold on to her resentment. She could not let him get away with that. I tried to convince her that she should let go and forgive, even though betrayal is the hardest thing to forgive. I knew it was destroying her and had absolutely no effect on her estranged husband. But she, dear woman, was adamant. And died shortly thereafter. I cannot say harboring unforgiveness was what caused her death, but I suspect so.
In working for abolition of the death penalty, I've learned that victim's relatives lead happier lives when they've forgiven the perpetrator and his or her relatives for the murder.
And in my own life, I've found that forgiving myself for my own missteps is the most important step in forgiving my friends and relatives for their "transgressions." Often, it is not the most important step but the only important step.
So remember the importance of forgiving your own self.
Randy Best on Nov 07 2007 -- Charlie - I really liked your Simon Wiesenthal quote and his insight that forgiveness can be empowering when we refuse to take on the role of victim. I am so glad that you are commenting on ESWoW - I remember our association several years ago at the Humanist Institute and am so happy that you are contributing to ESWoW.
Randy Best on Nov 07 2007 -- Andra - I was saddened by your story about your friend. The end of her marriage shows how we can be unaware of the secret life that others have - even those who we are most intimate with. Your insight that your friends anger and resentment may have contributed to her death rings true to me.
Scott Pleune on Mar 27 2008 -- Understanding is much better than forgiveness. To me, in order to forgive, we must at first find blame. Understanding withholds judgment. It seems to me that Amish 'victim' families never really blamed the family of the gunman. The Amish families made the effort to understand, while withholding judgment, in relation to the gunman's family. This speaks highly of the adage, "seek first to understand, then to be understood." I would add that taking the time and effort to find true understanding, can help avoid the difficulties of blame, and the need for forgiveness. Best wishes and efforts, Scott(y)