Hope, Patience and Courage in the Practice of Forgiveness

Chapter 1

Hope, Patience and Courage in the Practice of Forgiveness

The Return of Wisdom

In a technological society, which lives by innovation, wisdom is replaced by knowledge — and yesterday’s knowledge is useless.  –Page Smith (1)

Intellectual trends often fore-shadow broad-based social trends.  This development from the academic to the popular is captured in the saying “the philosophy of the last century is the common sense of today.”  For instance, psychoanalytic beliefs are now displayed abundantly in the advertising media, where all our insecurities and easy emotions are exploited systematically.   This is no accident of history, for it was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward L. Bernays, who became the first “scientific” public relations consultant:  “As Henry F. Pringle put it, the uncle may have discovered sex, but it was the nephew who made it pay.” (2)  Advertisers have become the laboratory technicians of psychological manipulation in society.

But over the past decade, a sea change has occurred within the social sciences and helping professions that promises to improve social relations at all levels:  intimate, social, political, and global. In the academic and professional communities, the materialist philosophies of individualism and collectivism are no longer prerequisite ideologies for ideas and programs to gain serious consideration.  It is now generally recognized that the modern world-view (developed through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism) has pitted the individual versus the collective in ways that have over-shadowed both the value of the unique person and the claims of the common good.

Our person-hood is more than our self-interested material individuality:  it includes social and spiritual motives as well.  The common good is more than the collective aggregate of material self-interests:  it includes interests and values that we share in common.  A credible alternative tradition to the modern world-view has emerged that combines a communitarian perspective and a solution-oriented approach to human problems.  Wisdom is returning to the social sciences and helping professions.

Robert Bellah established the intellectual ground-work for this shift with his books Habits of the Heart and The Good Society.  He and his associates made the case that the traditions of individualism in U.S. society have ascended to the point of crippling the civic and religious traditions, resulting in a serious deterioration of public life.  People who believe in responsibility and participatory democracy have lost the language to support their beliefs.  In these two books, the authors examine the institutions of the economy, government, education, the family, religion, and psychotherapy.

Habits of the Heart, published in 1985, described the “expressive individualism” (a remnant of Romanticism) of most psychotherapy.  Psychotherapy is not addressed in the more recent book, The Good Society (1991).  Since 1985, many changes have occurred in the fields of social psychology, social work, and conflict mediation.  The individualistic paradigm of psychoanalysis is being replaced by a relational paradigm more akin to the dialogic approaches of Freud’s contemporaries, Martin Buber and Viktor Frankl.  Significant works reflecting this change include William Doherty’s Soul Searching: Why Psychotherapy Must Promote Moral Responsibility (1995) and Harry Specht’s Unfaithful Angels:  How Social Work Has Abandoned Its Mission (1994).

This book fleshes out a relational paradigm by examining the issue of forgiveness in human affairs.  Forgiveness is perhaps the richest topic for exploring the dimensions of human relations.  Forgiveness challenges our higher aspirations and the humanity of our conduct in conditions of adversity.  Forgiveness engages the virtues of hope, patience and courage in our dealings with each other:  hope that the future can be better than the past, patience to see it through and the courage to act one’s part.

Hope, patience and courage are central to the practice of forgiveness, and serve to reinforce each other.  Courage, without hope and patience, is reckless desperation; patience, without hope and courage, is resigned stoicism; hope, without patience and courage, is naive, wishful thinking.  Hope protects us from the temptation of despair, patience protects us from the temptation of hate, and courage protects us from the temptation of cowardice.  Courage deals with fear, patience deals with anger, and hope deals with sadness, transforming these negative emotions into positive resources for change.  We will see how these virtues come into play in some of the best stories about forgiveness.

In this chapter I offer an initial definition of forgiveness, followed by a discussion of the need for forgiveness in particular.  Then I examine forgiveness in the light of a relational paradigm, using this as a basis to survey common attitudes towards forgiveness.  From this context, we will then delve into the history of forgiveness in the next four chapters, looking at pivotal stories and their meanings.

Initial Definition of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a traditional topic with a long history. Although there have been various definitions, most of them are fairly similar.  This book develops a practical definition, one that leads to standards of conduct.  As an initial definition:  forgiveness is a positive response to wrong-doing.  Wrong-doing refers to an action which harms or humiliates another person, whether deliberately or accidentally.  A positive response is one that is neither vengeful nor passive.

Although forgiveness is not anything we might want it to be, at the same time it is often more things than we immediately recognize.  It is my working assumption in this book that any lasting resolution to conflict involves an element of forgiveness, however small or covert. The opposite way to say this is that grudges erode peace sooner or later, directly or indirectly.  Part of this assumption is that human forgiveness is not complete and should be understood and detected in degrees.  Without recognizing this we would miss a lot of the small ways we forgive each other every day. Ordinary courtesies (such as “pardon me”), genuinely meant, form a fabric of civility that establishes the basis for greater acts of forgiveness.  Consider, for example, the following “Tale of the Holocaust”:

Near the city of Danzig lived a well-to-do Hasidic rabbi, scion of prominent Hasidic dynasties.  Dressed in a tailored black suit, wearing a top hat, and carrying a silver walking cane, the rabbi would take his daily morning stroll, accompanied by his tall, handsome son-in-law. During his morning walk it was the rabbi’s custom to greet every man, woman, and child whom he met on his way with a warm smile and a cordial “Good morning.”  Over the years the rabbi became acquainted with many of his fellow townspeople this way and would always greet them by their proper title and name.

Near the outskirts of town, in the fields, he would exchange greetings with Herr Müller, a Polish Volksdeutsche (ethnic German).  “Good morning, Herr Müller!” the rabbi would hasten to greet the man who worked in the fields.  “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” would come the response with a good-natured smile.

Then the war began.  The rabbi’s strolls stopped abruptly.  Herr Müller donned an S.S. uniform and disappeared from the fields.  The fate of the rabbi was like that of much of the rest of Polish Jewry.  He lost his family in the death camp of Treblinka and, after great suffering, was deported to Auschwitz.

One day, during a selection at Auschwitz, the rabbi stood in line with hundreds of other Jews waiting the moment when their fates would be decided, for life or death.  Dressed in a striped camp uniform, head and beard shaven and eyes feverish from starvation and disease, the rabbi looked like a walking skeleton.  “Right!  Left, left, left!”  The voice in the distance drew nearer.  Suddenly the rabbi had a great urge to see the face of the man with the snow-white gloves, small baton, and steely voice who played God and decided who should live and who should die.  He lifted his eyes and heard his own voice speaking:

“Good morning, Herr Müller!”

“Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” responded a human voice beneath the S.S. cap adorned with skull and bones.  “What are you doing here?”  A faint smile appeared on the rabbi’s lips.  The baton moved to the right — to life.  The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.

The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, “This is the power of a good-morning greeting.  A man must always greet his fellow man.” (3)

The Need for Forgiveness

With the beginning of the 21st Century, there is certainly no lack for things to forgive.

The killing of innocent people in the World Trade Center bombings and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will certainly leave a residue of unforgiveness in our world.

In order to understand the need for forgiveness, we must look beyond the materialistic idea that conflict is no more than different interests competing for limited resources.  From the materialistic perspective, conflict resolution involves no more than negotiating the material differences to a quantifiable compromise. The view of conflict as competing interests is a market-place image: one bargains and dickers over the price of something, manipulating perceptions of supply and demand, until an exchange is agreed upon.

In contrast to this materialistic image, the case can be made that the most damaging conflicts arise not from need, but from greed.  Need often elicits cooperation; greed requires conflict and conquest.  When Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling joked that the difference between the State of California and the Titanic is that the Titanic went down with the lights on , the cruelty of his greed was revealed, a cruelty that damaged the lives of the innocent people of the most populated State of our Union.  With that bad joke, Skilling proved himself to be a betrayer of the American Dream, the promise that through honest hard work we can make our way to a better life without having our livelihoods raided by clever money-grubbers.

Indeed, the significant conflicts in life are not simply matters of asking too much or offering too little.  They concern offenses that have been committed where one party has been injured or humiliated by someone who has deliberately or accidentally offended.  These are conflicts where resolution requires some form or degree of forgiveness.

Conflicts are spreading globally.  Technology continually extends and intensifies the nature of conflict in numerous ways.  Examples include aggressive accounting practices, the increasing sophistication of weapon systems, suicide bombings, the proliferation of guns and explosives in the world populace, the instantaneous scandal-mongering of the electronic media, the litigious quality of our society where personal conflicts escalate into mountains of court testimony, the medical machinery that interferes with our relationship to death and each other.  As they say, don’t get me started.

The rise of civilization established some degree of division between the roles of civilian and soldier so that the increased means of destruction were not necessarily used against the innocent and helpless civilian population.  But technological war in the ballistic and nuclear age knows no such distinctions, nor does the modern soldier of fortune have any civilized scruples.   We now witness a proliferation of terrorist activities such as slander, abduction, rape, torture and “elimination” (as though any life can be reduced to “waste”) as part of the routine operation of mercenaries, death squads, militias, shock jocks, and other sadistic types.   How widespread these crimes have become in the warfare of the last decade is shown in a report by the international relief agency Save the Children, which concludes:  “Nine out of ten casualties of war are civilians.  Children are very often the main casualties — and they are indeed much more likely to be casualties of war than are soldiers.” (4)  The distinction between national warfare and domestic warfare has broken down:  inner-cities have become war-zones, with terrified children rendered unable to learn.  Lovers’ fights take on guerrilla tactics such as stalking and making crank calls.

The pace of increasing global conflicts is out-stripping our efforts to resolve these conflicts.  Apathy and exploitation abound; the only trend that dwarfs “compassion fatigue” (5)is unbridled greed and cynicism (6).  To counter these trends it would be helpful to review and revise approaches to conflict-resolution so that our efforts could be more effective and consequently inspire more hope.

Interest in the issues of forgiveness has grown among the helping professions for two reasons.  One reason is that more consideration is being given to the spiritual aspects of helping.  This is especially true since so much emphasis has already been placed on the strictly technical aspects of helping (whatever they may be, such as medical techniques, psychotherapy techniques, conflict resolution techniques, management techniques, and so forth).   Second, as helpers have become involved in more facets of life, they have had to think seriously about their practical role in conflict resolution.   Escalating conflicts generate and compound many of the problems all people have to deal with, be they medical problems, legal problems, political problems, psychological problems, social problems, economic problems, or whatever.  As a consequence, we have been challenged to reevaluate some of the basic assumptions of our professions and society in general.

A central assumption in the modern world-view has been that wisdom can be replaced by increased knowledge and technical skill.  This assumption is being reevaluated in all fields of human endeavor, including the natural sciences as well as the social sciences.   As a consequence, it has become more acceptable to argue that we must go beyond technique and get back to wisdom if we are to prevail over selfishness and cruelty in society.   A practical definition of forgiveness can help us restore the proper relationship between technique and wisdom.  Rather than an end in itself, technique as means should be put in the context of the ends; the values defined by wisdom.  Michael Lerner states graphically what happened in World War II when technique became divorced from wisdom:

Lacking a serious tradition of ethical and spiritual guidance, a neutral and value-free science quickly adopted the goals of mass murder just as it could adapt to any goals that had been assigned to it.  Some scientists resisted, but all too many, schooled in the empirical tradition that had banned spirituality and religion, served the Nazis just as they would later serve Stalin or the West.  It is not human reason that failed, but rather the evisceration of reason produced by the separation of knowledge from values; the teaching of technique rather than wisdom, of how to go along rather than how to critique power, and of respect for authority that ought to be challenged; and the sanctification of cynicism and self-interest without regard to the pain of others. (7)

The effort to restore the balance between wisdom and technique calls for a relational paradigm.

A Relational Paradigm

Freudian psychology played a central role in the development of the modern world-view.  Psychology is also the field from which we derive our most common ideas about forgiveness.  These days even religious authorities often turn to psychology for their understanding of forgiveness.  For these reasons, we should reevaluate common psychological assumptions in order to get a better understanding of forgiveness.

The most significant alternatives to Freud’s individualism in his time were the perspectives of the German psychologists Martin Buber and Viktor Frankl.  Buber’s philosophy emphasized the nature of dialogue in the I-Thou relationship, showing how humanity is fundamentally other-seeking.  Frankl’s psychiatric practice emphasized humanity’s search for meaning as a defining characteristic of motivation and behavior.  Together, their approaches have been described as “dialogic”, this word being a combination of Buber’s “dialogue” and Frankl’s “logotherapy” (that is, “meaning-based” therapy). (8)

Some of the basic assumptions of dialogic therapy are:

1)  Therapy that is healthy aims to increase the abilities of people to relate to each other; it is neither the individual nor the collective that commands our attention, but the relationships.  In this sense therapy should be interpersonal mediation.

2)  People gain true happiness as a by-product of striving for what is good.  To seek happiness without working for what is good will result in losing both.

3)  People learn about themselves through understanding others.  Others orient us to what is important and real about ourselves.  Unless it is other-oriented, the pursuit of self-actualization serves as a disguise for a self-serving attitude.

Similarly, the communitarian movement values social solutions to social  problems, using community-building to reduce the stress and social  isolation of modern competitive individualism.  A basic principle of the movement is that it is essential to find practical means to balance rights and responsibilities for the common good.  This requires us to revitalize our ability to address the ethical issues and economic injustices of American society.  As long as we continue to single-mindedly fight for individual rights, our common life will continue to deteriorate. (9)  When we consider Viktor Frankl’s proposal that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be balanced by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast, we can think of Frankl as one of the founders of communitarian philosophy.

A Relational Context for Forgiveness

The way Viktor Frankl compared his solution-oriented therapy to Freud’s problem-oriented therapy reveals some basic elements of a relational approach to forgiveness:

“[In comparison with psychoanalysis, logotherapy] is a method less retrospective and less introspective.  Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the assignments and meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in the future.  At the same time, logotherapy defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms that play such a great role in the development of neuroses.  Thus the typical self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced. (10)

Even though Frankl is talking here about conflicts within a person (neurosis) rather than conflicts between people, the same principle seems to apply:  the role of the relationship mediator is to defocus all of the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms that play such a great role in the development of conflicts by shifting the investment of the disputants from the tragedies of the past to the promises of the future (committing oneself to hope in place of despair).  This principle provides a guideline for avoiding depression by fostering the hope which is the certitude that we can find something to do now which will make for a better future for all concerned.  In the face of tragedy, we must make room for sadness and mourning without allowing despair and depression to block or weaken hope.

As we explore the history of forgiveness, we will find that hope is a central value to all the relevant traditions.  Hope is what motivates people to move beyond self-centered positions.

Attitudes Toward Forgiveness

In order to develop and refine a viable definition of forgiveness, it helps to define some attitudes towards forgiveness that are not viable. We will start with the extreme attitudes, and then move to attitudes that are closer to the mark.

The extreme attitudes virtually define forgiveness out of existence. The cynical attitude that all altruistic acts are only hypocritical masks for self-promotion (the holier-than-thou revenge of the weak) results in a view of forgiveness as a dishonest form of retaliation.  The naive attitude that forgiveness is easy if we would only realize our “true selves” results in a view of forgiveness that is indistinguishable from the gospel of positive thinking.

A viable approach to forgiveness will be neither naive nor cynical:  we won’t understand forgiveness if we assume that it is either easy or impossible.  If I conclude that an offense committed against me cannot be forgiven, I harden my heart, exaggerating the offense at the expense of the offender, prolonging the humiliation as I “rub his nose in it.”  On the other hand, if I assume a serious offense is easily forgiven, I minimize the offense at the expense of the victim, and avoid the offender by letting him “off the hook.”  A hard heart or a weak heart won’t do — the one acts out of anger and the other out of fear.  A forgiving attitude will have patience and courage — it will actively avoid humiliating or excusing the offender.

A bit of foolishness may help by way of illustration of what I mean by “cynical” and “naive” in this context.  Two caricatures can help highlight flaws of thinking about forgiveness.  Nobody fits the following descriptions exactly, but these caricatures do portray common strands of thought.  Let us call these caricatures “psychoanalytic cynicism” and “new-age naiveté”.

Psychoanalysis has been described as confession without absolution (in other words, repentance without mercy).  The patient is expected to spill his guts while the analyst, instead of offering atonement as a priest would, maintains a detached attitude for fear of “counter-transference.”  The definition of mental health became the ability to confess our sexual and violent urges and accept that there is no redemption from them.

“New-age naiveté” has the opposite character, presuming forgiveness without the responsibility of repentance on the part of the wrong-doer.   Those who attempt to correct another person are labeled judgmental and told to “just let go” and “forgive yourself.”  But when it comes to what it takes to “let go” the best advice we get is some how-to formula such as “5 easy steps to letting go and forgiving yourself.”  The difficult responsibilities of concrete situations are avoided by the mindless application of a general formula.

So the effort to avoid being cynical or naive involves us in age-old debates over human nature and reality. The psychoanalytic view emphasizes the control of the body over the mind and dismisses objections as intellectualizations.  The new-age view emphasizes the control of the mind over the body and dismisses objections as self-fulfilling prophecies.  But, as Blaise Pascal wrote (11),  we are “neither angel nor beast” — our nature includes elements of both.  If we reduce our experience to either the mental or the material, then we won’t understand the nature of our reality.  In the same way, we cannot reduce reality to either the actual or the possible without missing the opportunities to realize the potential, the potential that is the real possibilities of the actual as it exists.

Applying this analysis to the experience and reality of forgiveness requires us to consider both the mental and material aspects: forgiveness is both a mental attitude and a material deed.  We can offer forgiveness all we want, but until the offer is accepted by the wrong-doer, forgiveness remains a wish, and not a reality.

For the potential forgiver, the reciprocity of forgiveness and repentance gives a perspective that is both humbling and empowering.  The offended cannot unilaterally forgive, because the completion of the act depends on the response of the offender.  On the other hand, the responsibility of the offender is made clear so that the call for forgiveness is not completely dependent on the good will of the offended.  If forgiveness were simply a unilateral act of the wronged person, then it would require that person to remain open to further wrongs by an unrepentant offender.  “Unconditional love,” in this context, is no love at all – it is masochism pure and simple.

More viable attitudes towards forgiveness consider it neither impossible nor easy.  Various interesting and serious books have been written in recent years that fit within these parameters, including books by theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and popular inspirationalists.   But within these parameters there are still divergent views.

There are two approaches that can be identified in these writings:  the prescriptive and the descriptive.  The prescriptive approach tends to be harder, more rigid and narrow as to what can be called true forgiveness (12).  The descriptive approach tends to be softer, looser and broader, holding that forgiveness is whatever anyone says it is (13).   There is a tendency for the prescriptive view to result in criteria for forgiveness that put the burden of the initiative on the wrong-doer:  forgiveness should not be offered until it is asked for.  The descriptive view tends to place the burden of the initiative on the person wronged:  it is the offer of forgiveness that motivates the wrong-doer to want to be forgiven.  The softer view emphasizes more the good will of the forgiver and how this influences the wrong-doer; the harder view scrutinizes more the repentance of the wrong-doer as the condition for making forgiveness possible.

In real life, we know that forgiveness occurs by both means:  sometimes by being asked for, and sometimes by being offered.  The proposal of forgiveness takes only one person, but the result of forgiveness takes two.  Indeed, forgiveness offered but not accepted is not forgiveness, just as forgiveness asked for but not given is not forgiveness.  A gift means nothing without the relationship between the giver and the receiver.

Further definition of the interpersonal nature of forgiveness will result in a richer, more practical approach.  But forgiveness often involves more than the two roles of forgiver and forgiven:  much of the literature addresses the issues of “third-party” forgiveness.  “Third-party” forgiveness is when a person confides or confesses to a priest, rabbi, minister, therapist, mediator, or friend.  The controversy is when the third party presumes to substitute for the other roles, either offering forgiveness in place of the person wronged, or accepting the offer of forgiveness in place of the wrong-doer.  Clarifying the roles in forgiveness will help us refine a viable definition.

The roles can be defined in grammatical terms.  The first person in forgiveness is the forgiver:  “I forgive you”.  The second person in forgiveness is the forgiven, the “you” to whom the offer is made, and the only person in a position to accept the offer.  The third person is anyone who becomes involved in the situation, either helping or hindering the prospects of forgiveness.  Unless we understand the limits of our roles, we are likely to hinder rather than help the process of forgiveness.

A dialogic approach does not limit itself to dyadic (two person) relationships, but considers relationships in triads, as well as larger groups.  Although the I-Thou relationship is considered fundamental, this relationship implies the third element of the “between” of two persons.  Dialogic therapy is relationship mediation, introducing a viable third element when that third element is lacking in the relationship.   When a relationship is flawed, the purpose of mediation is to strengthen what is “between” two people, what they have or should have in common. This perspective has implications beyond the involvement of professionals, for anytime a neighbor, a friend, a family member helps strengthen the relationship between two other people, that person is serving as a mediator in the relationship.

The only person in a position to offer forgiveness is the person who has been wronged.  The only person in a position to accept forgiveness is the wrong-doer.  The third person can help the wronged make the offer, and can help the wrong-doer seek or accept forgiveness, but the third party cannot substitute for either role.  This means that the proper role of a third party is as a mediator between the other two.

To mediate forgiveness means to encourage the offended to offer forgiveness and to encourage the offender to seek forgiveness.  The initiative to forgiveness can therefore come from three sources:  1) the offended, whose offer of forgiveness can lead to the repentance of the offender; 2) the offender, whose request for forgiveness can lead to the offended becoming forgiving; 3) a third party, whose mediation can lead to the offer of forgiveness or the request for forgiveness.

Forgiveness requires that we use our imagination, but it also requires that we not lose our judgment.  Without an approach steeped in the lessons of history, even the best of the current literature lacks a fully developed balance in this regard.


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