SARAH MAC DONALD attended a conference in Dublin recently where Dr Robert Enright spoke on the theme of forgiveness. Here’s what the American Professor had to say on the subject.
Dr Robert Enright is a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness. A psychologist and professor of educational psychology at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, in 1994 he helped found the International Forgiveness Institute. This not-for-profit organisation is dedicated to disseminating information on the effectiveness of forgiveness for personal healing as well as spiritual and community renewal. An author and much sought after lecturer, his ‘process model of forgiving’ is a twenty-step intervention which has helped people all over the world learn forgiveness and cope with the wounds inflicted on them.
According to the International Forgiveness Institute, “Forgiveness is a paradox – something that may sound illogical but still works. It is the foregoing of resentment or revenge when the wrongdoer’s actions deserve it. It is giving the gifts of mercy, generosity and love when the wrongdoer’s actions indicate that he/she does not deserve them. As we give the gift of forgiveness, we ourselves are healed.”
It all sounds rather neat and, of course, the hurt and woundedness which spills over into anger, resentment and blame is anything but neat – it is messy. In Dr Enright’s opinion, “Forgiveness lays before you the possibility of leaving a legacy of love where there has been hatred directed at you.” This gentle American scholar explains further. “Much of the research I have done over the past twenty-seven years has been to look at what happens to people emotionally when they forgive those who have deeply burdened them.”
In a recent address to parishioners in the Dublin parish of Harold’s Cross, Dr Enright cited one of his research projects which he did in the 1990s with Dr Suzanne Friedman. It involved helping incest survivors – victims of probably the most horrendous and difficult crime to forgive. He underlines that forgiving an injustice as deep as this takes time. “All those dear women came to us clinically depressed. They had a lot of woundedness and a lot of pain. They didn’t have much hope for the future.”
The twelve women were divided into two groups of six; one group underwent forgiveness therapy and the other did not. “After fourteen months these six courageous women were no longer depressed and their anxiety levels reached normal. Their hope for the future went up and they started liking themselves.” In practising the virtue of forgiveness they realised their ability to love as stronger than any injustice thrown at them.
“One woman ended up serving her dying father in hospital. When he passed away, she said, ‘I am very glad I forgave him. I would have had resentment and persistent ill will and mourning all mixed together – it would have been too much for me. Now I only have mourning.’” The contrast with other group of six who had not undergone the therapy was stark. So they too commenced and completed the forgiveness therapy.
Robert Enright’s list of publications is extensive – over 100! These include books such as Exploring Forgiveness and Forgiveness is a Choice. His education programmes on forgiveness have been implemented in Northern Ireland as a way of bridging the divide between the children of the two communities. The lessons in forgiveness help the children find a path through justice and forgiveness. He says the Belfast programme has shown that “as children learn about forgiveness, their levels of anger go down”.
People seeking to forgive are often surprised to hear that forgiveness does not involve condoning or excusing bad behaviour. “What you are saying is: ‘what you did to me was unfair and will always be unfair, but I will have mercy on you anyway. I am going to struggle to get rid of my resentment of you’,” Robert Enright explains.
Nor is forgiving about forgetting. “As you forgive, you remember in new ways. As you look back, you do not see the one who hurt you as evil incarnate because of what he or she did to you. Instead, you see a person, one for whom Jesus died. You remember the incident and the person from this vantage point.” Thirdly, forgiving does not necessarily involve reconciliation. “When Jesus died on the cross for all, not all accepted this love. In these cases, Jesus was loving, but it was rejected. So in some cases there is no reconciliation.”
Robert Enright also helps those seeking to forgive to acknowledge the wounds they bear. The first wound is the injustice itself. The second wound is the emotional reaction of anger, frustration, rage, mourning which the injustice causes you. “The third wound I see is fatigue. People get tired because they are carrying this wound in their heart.” Another wound is that the victim often compares themselves to the person who has hurt them. “We tend to conclude that the other person is doing pretty well having flattened us and that increases our resentment towards them and our own lack of worth.” The fifth wound is the victim tends to drift into negativity. “Rather than saying most people aren’t so bad in a fallen world – all of a sudden we find ourselves saying no man or woman can be trusted. Or no employer can be trusted. Or that community is against me.”
“So we are talking about five wounds from an original injustice from one person. If you have five wounds for every time a person treats you unjustly and you continue with those wounds – look at all the wounds that you are carrying around in your heart that you are not forgiving.
And when we are wounded we tend to wound others. So we have to make a decision – what are we going to do with our wounds?” Drawing from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Salvifici Doloris on the Christian meaning of human suffering, Dr Robert Enright urges people to find it in their hearts to put the person who has wounded them at the foot of the cross. To help complete Jesus Christ’s love on the cross by joining their suffering to his for the one who has hurt them. “You ask Jesus to save the person who has hurt you. You might be doing something profound in the salvation of the person who hurt you.” Those who can reach this level of love will have achieved forgiveness … and the path to liberation.