Psychology Rediscovers the Power of Forgiveness
Robert Enright on a Means of Healing
MADISON, Wisconsin, SEPT. 13, 2005 (Zenit) - Forgiveness was a key message of the Gospel. It has also led to the foundation of a psychological institute.
Dr. Robert Enright, a psychologist, began the International Forgiveness Institute in 1994 as a way to apply years of research on the practice of forgiveness. He is co-author of "Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope" (American Psychological Association Books.
He shared with us his research and experience on the effectiveness of forgiveness for personal healing and world peace.
Q: Why has psychology taken a new interest in forgiveness?
Enright: The origins of therapeutic psychology centered on the amelioration of emotional distress. As we all know, one can find peace through embracing God, the sacraments, and the Church. Those who founded therapeutic psychology did not have this particular worldview and in some cases outright rejected it.
Thus, psychology traditionally went down a path that made no room for grace. While this has not changed, what has changed is the notion that people can and should embrace what is positive and good. Philosophers and theologians not only would be unsurprised by this, but also they would tell us that such ideas are nothing new, but ancient.
To psychologists, this is a revelation. Part of this "new discovery" of the good is forgiveness.
Q: How effective has forgiveness been as a therapy?
Enright: It has been very mixed. Some research groups find excellent scientific results with forgiveness therapy whereas others do not.
As Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons and I argued in our book, "Helping Clients Forgive," one reason for the mixed success is the time and care that the therapist gives to the client.
Forgiving another person for a deep injustice takes time. Managed-care facilities too often insist on "brief" therapy, which just will not give a client enough time to walk the painful and therapeutic path of forgiveness.
One of our research projects, with Suzanne Freedman of the University of Northern Iowa, was with incest survivors. It took most of these courageous women about a year to forgive their perpetrators. It was worth the effort.
When we compared the experimental group, that had forgiveness therapy, with a control group that did not, the former reduced significantly in anxiety and depression. After the control group commenced and completed forgiveness therapy, they too showed significant improvement in their symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Although a year seems like a long time, we should realize that some of the women were struggling with emotional disruption for 20 or 30 years prior to forgiving.
We found similar results with many other populations: men and women in a residential drug rehabilitation facility, terminally ill cancer patients, married couples nearing divorce, incarcerated adolescents, cardiac patients, and others.
Q: What steps are required for a person seeking healing through forgiveness?
Enright: Following the proper path in forgiving is another reason for observed success in forgiveness therapy. Again, Dr. Fitzgibbons and I lay out a scientifically supported pathway to forgiveness in our book. This pathway is further described in my book "Forgiveness Is a Choice," for the general public.
The gist of the pathway is this: First, people need to acknowledge that they have been treated unjustly, humbly acknowledge that they have been emotionally hurt by this, and that they are indeed angry.
Next, if they wish to commence forgiveness therapy, they need to explore what forgiveness is and is not. For instance, when people forgive another, they are not condoning, excusing, or forgetting the wrong against them. They may or may not reconcile.
To forgive is to reduce resentment and increase benevolence and love toward someone who was unjust. This is an individual choice, an act of the will. To reconcile is for two people to come together again in mutual trust. This requires the cooperation of both parties. One can forgive the bully and then watch one's back.
Next, we recommend that people engage in what Dr. Fitzgibbons calls "cognitive forgiveness." These are forgiving thoughts and statements toward the one who was unfair. The person at this point need not approach the offender, but do this cognitive forgiveness within oneself.
Part of cognitive forgiveness is to think of the person as a whole person, without defining him or her by their sinful actions alone. We are all more than our actions. We are vulnerable people. We are children of God.
Following cognitive forgiveness is emotional forgiveness, the opening of oneself to compassion and love toward this child of God who hurt you. This is difficult and can take time. Some people in therapy are not ready for this step and this should be honored.
It is still a mystery to us how such compassion grows in the human heart toward people who were and are deeply unfair. Surely the grace of God is operating here, but we as scientists do not have the language to fully describe this. Science is limited as are all our human attempts to understand mystery.
Beyond emotional forgiveness is the difficult task of "bearing the pain" of what happened. The forgiver cannot turn back the clock and undo the harm, but he or she can, now, make the courageous decision to accept the pain and be a conduit for good toward the offender.
For a Christian, this amounts to identification with Christ's suffering on the cross for our sins. He bore the pain for us. We are to do likewise for others now that we are forgiven.
Q: What have you learned about children and forgiveness?
Enright: Children seem to have open and warm hearts toward forgiveness. Thus, forgiveness education is a real possibility for them.
At the same time, I think that children can be discouraged from forgiving if they are surrounded by those who ridicule, or are indifferent toward, the act of forgiveness. Thus, forgiveness education is vital.
My colleagues Jeanette Knutson and Anthony Holter and I have worked in Catholic and state schools of Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the past three years, offering forgiveness curricula from first through third grades. We train the teachers and they deliver the curriculum to the children.
I have recently published a children's picture book on forgiveness, "Rising above the Storm Clouds," for children ages 4-10, that we use in the third-grade curriculum. This year we go into fifth grade, the year after into secondary school.
We have found that children as young as 6 years old can learn about forgiveness and in so doing reduce excessive anger. We are in Belfast to offer the gift of forgiveness to that war-torn city. We hope that the children, over the years, will become theologically, philosophically and psychologically sophisticated forgivers.
The hope is that, armed with this deep understanding of forgiveness, they as adults will forge a more satisfying peace in their community than their forebears.
Both Pope John Paul the Great and now Pope Benedict XVI have instructed us that forgiveness is the major path to peace in this world. Our work in Belfast is simply acting on that wisdom.
Q: What advice would you give to the general public about practicing forgiveness in their daily lives?
Enright: First, forgiveness is of God and so we cannot think of forgiveness as one more psychological technique. To forgive is to enter into the mystery of Christ's cross.
This is a difficult teaching indeed, but worth the struggle to understand. Even if people forgive without a conscious or deliberate attempt to be obedient to God, they may be opening themselves to him.
Second, people who forgive need to know what forgiveness is and is not. To forgive is to offer unconditional love to an offender. It is not an act of weakness. When a person forgives, he or she can and should seek justice. If someone smashes James' car, he can forgive as he presents the body shop bill to the offender.
Third, forgiveness is intimately linked to God's grace and so prayer, receiving the sacraments, and waiting for God's action within the human heart are all a part of forgiving.
For those who place themselves outside these avenues of grace, I usually say that we cannot fully understand the workings of God. It is all still very surprising to me even after 20 years of studying forgiveness. I've seen avowed atheists and devout Christians forgive with good results. So, a main point is to be open to the mystery of forgiveness regardless of one's background.
Q: What advice would you give to people who are having particular difficulties forgiving others, like those who lost loved ones in 9/11?
Enright: Forgiving others is not a one-time act, like flipping a light switch to banish the darkness. For most of us, forgiveness is the journey of carrying our cross for the one who hurt us.
This requires gentleness and patience with oneself and with the time it takes. We learn much as we accept the weight and pain of the cross.
So, for those who cannot forgive, I ask, "Are you ready to explore what forgiveness is and is not?" Such a question does not ask a person to forgive, but instead to examine what forgiveness is.
If a person has examined the dimensions of forgiveness, I ask, "Are you ready to examine forgiveness in its most basic form toward the one who hurt you? Are you willing to try to do no harm toward that person?" Notice that this question does not ask the person to love the offender, but to refrain from the negative, to refrain from harming even in subtle ways.
Next comes the question "Do you wish the person well?" Notice that this shifts the focus to the positive, toward at least a wishing, if not a deliberate acting toward, wellness in the other person.
All of these questions are intended to move the offended person a little closer to love. If a person still refuses to forgive, we must realize that their emphatic "no" today is not necessarily the final word. That person may change tomorrow.
Q: How does the aspect of faith, and imitation of Christ, add to the understanding of forgiveness?
Enright: Christ is love. Forgiveness on our part is an act of love. Whenever people forgive, whether they are aware of it or not, they are entering into Christ's love as exemplified by his cross.
My colleague Jeanette Knutson finally got that insight into my head. Over the years, I have come to realize a great mystery, as brought forth in Pope John Paul the Great's work "Salvifici Dolores," that to forgive is to enter into redemptive suffering for the other person.
We join Christ on his cross for the salvation of the one who offended us. To deliberately say "yes" to this is great joy despite the suffering. To forgive is to give noteworthy meaning to the suffering that one has had to endure because of another's sin.
In fact, following the teaching of Cardinal Kasper in his book, "Sacrament of Unity," we not only imitate Christ as we forgive, we enter into union with him. Again, this is a great mystery analogous to the marriage of Christ and his Church. As we forgive we experience this kind of union with him for the sake of the other person.
So, God in his wisdom has arranged for many ways in which we unite with his Son: through being a part of his body the Church, through the Eucharist, and through unconditional, loving forgiveness toward others.
We need to make this point more often and more clearly to people who want to learn more about forgiveness.
Q: What projects do you have lined up through the forgiveness institute?
Enright: For the next decade or two, we will be working on behalf of hurting children in war-torn and other violent environments through forgiveness education programs in schools, homes, and houses of worship.
Forgiveness has been ignored for the most part in the peace movement, but without forgiveness there can be no lasting peace. Because it takes time to learn about and appreciate forgiveness, we start with children to enhance the probability that they will learn their lessons well.
So, we try to convince philanthropists that forgiveness, especially centered on children, must be a part of any effort at peace. It is a hard sell. As a related project to help children, we have to help the parents.
So often in war-torn areas, people come into marriage with deep hurts and angers that go back generations. We want to have forgiveness programs for the parents so that they can reduce their own anger and not pass it on to their children.
In essence, we will try to introduce the notion of the school, the home, and the house of worship as "forgiving communities," where people encourage one another in their mystery of forgiving. Can we afford to tarry in creating such forgiving communities?
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