“To err is human, to forgive divine.” So goes the proverb – and how true it is. So often simple forgiveness seems beyond us. Professor Robert Enright, founder of “forgiveness science”, teaches people how to forgive – sometimes in unforgiving places like Northern Ireland, Liberia and Israel and Palestine. Time magazine has called him “the forgiveness trailblazer”. He spoke to MercatorNet about his revolutionary work.

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What’s new about forgiveness?

Because forgiveness is a moral virtue, as are justice, kindness, and love, there is nothing new about it. It is the same yesterday, and today, and tomorrow. 

When we forgive, it is in the context of being treated unjustly by others.  We forgive when we are good to those who have not been good to us.  We try to offer kindness, respect, generosity, and even love to the other.  As we do so, we do not excuse the behavior; we may or may not reconcile, depending on whether or not the other is dangerous; we do not abandon fairness. 

When we forgive, we do not forget, lest the injustice happen again, but we do remember in new ways, without a sense of acrimony or hatred.  I have found this to be true across historical time and across cultures.

What are some of your new projects with forgiveness?

We are opening up Forgiveness Therapy in prisons because we are finding that many of those imprisoned have suffered grave hurts from others prior to the arrest and imprisonment.  As people in prison learn to forgive those who hurt them, perhaps even years ago, their rage reduces, which then takes away one central motivation to hurt others. 

We further are helping people who are homeless, who have suffered because of others’ cruelty, to learn to forgive which may reduce their depression and fatigue and aid them in changing their current life pattern.  As another initiative, we started a bumper sticker campaign at our International Forgiveness Institute, Inc, “Drive for Others’ Lives”, to make the driving experience more humane, more gentle, more honoring of other drivers on the road. 

We have persevered in developing forgiveness education curricula for students as young as 4-years-old, up to the end of the high school years (age 18).  These forgiveness guides have been requested by educators in over 30 countries across the world.

Christians have always been exhorted to forgive their enemies. Is this really a discovery for many people?

Yes, this exhortation has led to the preservation of the importance of forgiveness across millennia.  Yet, the great importance of person-to-person forgiveness has not been given nearly enough attention. 

As just one example, when we started to study forgiveness in 1985 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there was not even one journal article ever published in which the researchers collected data on people forgiving other people.  Forgiveness had been ignored in the published scientific literature.  I see the same in families.  Forgiveness is not held up as vital for spouses and between parents and children.  This needs more focused attention.

Do lack of forgiveness and anger mess up people’s lives?

Our scientific studies show that as people are treated unfairly by others, then their anger can intensify.  If that anger deepens and abides for months or even years, then this kind of resentment can lead to psychological disruption, including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. 

When people willingly choose to forgive those who have hurt them, then they reduce statistically significantly in anxiety and depression and increase in self-esteem.  These studies are discussed in the book which I authored with Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, Forgiveness Therapy, published by the American Psychological Association in 2015.  

Are many people nursing grudges and find themselves unable to forgive?

While I am not aware of the extent of this kind of pain, I do know, from focusing on forgiveness now for over three decades, that all of us are treated unjustly by others at some time in our lives.  When that injustice is grave, it is important that people have a way out of this and forgiveness offers one such solution, one that may be more effective than anything else I know for reducing that resentment.

Is forgiveness the key to solving some aspects of mental illness, such as depression?

Yes, and let me give just one example.  Suzanne Freedman, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, and I did a study with 12 incest survivors.  The article was published in 1996. 

Six of the women were assigned to the experimental group in which they started a forgiveness program toward the one who abused them.  They met one-on-one with Suzanne, once a week for about an hour, for up to 14 months.  At the end of this time, the six women all went from being clinically depressed to not being depressed. 

Those in the control group, with no forgiveness intervention during the first 14 months, were still depressed.  These control participants then started the forgiveness intervention and after the 14 months, they, too, went from clinical depression to non-depressed.  Further, the first group at this time (14 months after they stopped treatment) were still non-depressed.

Is self-forgiveness a part of your therapy? So many of us find it hard to unmoor ourselves from our low and despicable actions.

Self-forgiveness is controversial in that some writers say we can only seek forgiveness from God.  This, of course, is the case if the goal is the forgiveness of sins.  Yet, when we forgive others, we do not forgive their sins.  As stated previously, we struggle to be good to those who are not good to us.  We offer love, as best we can, to the other. 

If we, then, can offer love to the self, then self-forgiveness is legitimate if we have broken our own standards and are angry at the self.  The central difference between forgiving other people and forgiving the self is this: When we have offended ourselves, we often also offend others.  Thus, as we forgive ourselves for breaking our own standards, it is important to seek forgiveness from those we have offended by those actions.

Is this a missing link in other types of psychology? Did Freud or Jung or Adler have much to say about forgiveness?

I find it fascinating that in the entire history of psychology, none of the giants of the field, except for one, mentioned the word “forgiveness.”  Adler emphasized the  holistic nature of humanity, which included spirituality, and so forgiveness could be part of this, but he did not discuss forgiveness in particular.  Freud’s basic theme did focus on conflict, especially the blocking of what he called the pleasure principle.   As with Adler, this could have led to a discussion of people forgiving one another, but this was not developed in his thinking. 

Carl Jung placed importance on what he called the religious function and so it was important to him that people be introduced to what he called the archetype of the God-image.  This, of course, could lead people to the idea of forgiveness, but forgiveness per se was not explicit in his theory. 

The only “giant” who actually used the word was Jean Piaget in his 1932 book, The Moral Judgement of the Child, in which he gives three pages to a discussion of forgiveness (pages 323-325).  For Piaget, forgiveness emerges with what he calls “ideal reciprocity” or as he states, “Do as you would be done by,” which our group reasoned in a 1994 article in the journal, Human Development, was incomplete. 

And that sums up the entire history of forgiveness within psychology up to the point of the first empirically-based article on forgiveness published by our group in 1989 in the Journal of Adolescence.  In other words, it took close to a century for forgiveness to emerge in the social scientific research literature.

The 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche derided forgiveness as the act of a weak person who lacks self-respect. A lot of people would agree with him. How do you respond?

Not every philosophical pronouncement is filled with truth.  Nietzsche had a critical misunderstanding of forgiveness, which he easily could have avoided had he been paying closer attention in his ancient philosophy class when Aristotle was discussed. 

Aristotle makes the important case that we never are to practice any moral virtue in isolation from other virtues.  Take courage as an example.  If a non-swimmer jumps into a raging river to courageously rescue a drowning dog, his lack of wisdom and temperance could lead to his being drowned.  It is the same with forgiveness and justice. 

As we forgive, we do not give up the quest for justice.  In other words, if someone deliberately damages your car, you can forgive, if you choose, and present the body-shop repair bill to the offending person.  Not only do forgiveness and justice grow up side-by-side but also courage accompanies these two. 

It takes great courage to stand in the pain that others have given you and not toss that pain back to them.  Forgiveness, justice, and courage, these three, need one another.  I think Nietzsche failed to see this.

Can you teach someone how to forgive? It must be difficult – what motivates them?

Yes, people can be taught to forgive.  We have a 20-step program called the Process Model of Forgiveness.  I work people through this process in three of my books for the general public (Forgiveness Is a Choice; The Forgiving Life; and 8 Keys to Forgiveness). 

I find eight motivations to forgive: (1) to feel better; (2) to repair relationships; (3) to grow in character; (4) to assist the moral growth of the offending person; (5) to help family members see the importance of forgiveness; (6) to help make a better world as resentment and division do not dominate; (7) to live out one’s philosophy of life or faith tradition which may encourage forgiveness; and (8) to exercise forgiveness as an end in and of itself because it is good. 

There is nothing dishonorable about starting with the first motivation, to feel better.  This often leads to deeper motivations to forgive.

Is forgiveness relevant to politics? In America’s ill-tempered political climate, forgiveness seems to be a forgotten virtue by most.

Forgiveness is relevant to politics and yet, if people are not deeply schooled in what forgiveness is, then they might take the Nietzschian position that to forgive is a sure sign of weakness.  If politics is seen as a sign of power and strength, then forgiveness may receive no invitation at the political table, which is a serious mistake.  People can forgive those who disagree with them and this can open up dialogue. 

What is happening in politics now without forgiveness?  Isn’t it the Nietzschian will to power?  Where is that getting us?  This issue of forgiveness being virtually ignored, except by the few, is very typical of the vast majority of communities in the world.  Forgiveness is too often ignored at the peril of individuals, families, and communities. 

Can you imagine, for example, how much richer and more loving families would be if they would consciously and deliberately see their family as a forgiving community?

There do seem to be some crimes too horrendous for forgiveness – rape, murder, genocide… Does forgiveness mean pressing a reset button to forget all about the crimes which have hurt us? 

There are many people who exercise their choice not to forgive when atrocities occur.  This does not make them bad people.  We have to resist the tendency of expecting all to forgive if we would forgive in a certain situation.  In a similar way, we have to resist the tendency of expecting no one to forgive at all if we would not forgive in a certain situation.  We need to let people be who they are at the present time. 

I have known a person, Eva Mozes Kor, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz in Poland and she forgave the Nazis.  I know a person, Marietta Jaeger, who forgave the murderer of her daughter, Suzy.  They did not simply push a “reset button” but instead engaged in a struggle to bring forth the heroic moral virtue of forgiveness when their hearts were broken. 

Even though not all would forgive people for such crimes, Eva and Marietta are shining lights of forgiveness, showing the world what is possible.  Perhaps it is time to turn our families, our workplaces, our schools, and our houses of worship into deliberate forgiving communities.  The world would be far better off than dismissing this life-giving virtue. 

Robert Enright is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Board Member of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc.