The next step is to decide to forgive, which necessitates knowing what it means to forgive: to deliberately try to reduce resentment and offer goodness toward the one who was unfair. Many people find this to be the most difficult part because it involves a commitment to something new for them.
Once the person decides to forgive, the next step is to begin examining in new ways the one who was hurtful. The essence of this is to see that this is a person, who is more than the behaviors that were hurtful. We examine what it means to be a person and, for Catholics, this is to see that we are all made in the image and likeness of God—even the one who acted badly. (The book is published by the secular publisher, the American Psychological Association, and so the emphasis is on the psychological journey of forgiving, not on Catholic theology per se). When we forgive, we try to see the other as vulnerable rather than someone who only acts poorly. These kinds of thinking exercises are challenging because the forgiver is asked to see beyond the other’s actions to something more, and more important, in him or her.
Practicing this kind of thinking over time can engender a sense of compassion, or a “suffering along with” the other, who is now seen as having weaknesses, just like everyone else, and is so much more than his or her actions. The forgiver has to be careful here not to slide into excusing or condoning. The person is more than his or her behaviors, but the behaviors themselves were wrong and will always be wrong.
The next part of the forgiveness journey includes bearing the pain. By this I mean that the injustice did happen; we cannot go back in time and reverse it. We have been emotionally injured. What then do we do with the pain? Forgiveness asks you first to be aware of the pain and then deliberately decide to shoulder that pain so you do not toss that pain back to the one who hurt you. Bearing the pain helps the forgiver realize that he or she is strong enough to withstand the inner discomfort for now and in this bearing of the pain, one realizes this paradox: as we accept that this did happen to us and as we take on that pain so that it is not passed to others, we begin to heal internally.
Bearing the pain is a kind of gift given to the other. You will not take an eye for an eye and instead will treat the other as a full person worthy of respect and even love And it bears repeating: You can and should strive for justice as you forgive.
Over time, the inner sadness or anger or even rage begins to lessen and eventually these difficult emotions can end. How do we know this? Our research group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have done about 20 social scientific studies, a few of which are discussed in the book, showing that as people forgive, they significantly reduce their depression (if that is present), anxiety, and anger, and increase their self-esteem and hope for the future. Forgiveness works as a healing strategy for reducing and even eliminating disruptive emotions.
“But, I don’t know how,” was Brenda’s lament. She now can know how. “Forgiveness Is a Choice” is a road map to forgiving and science has proven the method works.
Robert Enright is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope” (2001) at amazon.com.