There’s a story about two monks, a young monk and his elder, who took
a walk one day though the woods. They came upon a beautiful young woman, standing at the river and longingly looking across.
“Could you help me get to the other side?” she pleaded. The monks were forbidden contact with women. But the elder
monk picked her up, carried her across the river, and set her down gently on the opposite bank.
The two monks continued to walk, in silence, for many miles. Finally, the
young monk spoke up. “How could you do something like that?” he shouted, enraged. “How could you carry a
The elder monk smiled. “Well, I put her down at the river,” he said quietly. “But you’ve been carrying her for three hours now.”
We’re often reminded, in many old sayings and stories, that when we
carry anger with us, we’re the ones who suffer. But forgiveness is something that’s easier to talk about than
to do. And it’s especially hard to forgive in certain situations – when the offender isn’t sorry; when injustices
are continuing; when forgiveness simply isn’t “deserved.”
Robert D. Enright, PhD, may be the country’s foremost expert on the
topic of forgiveness. A licensed psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin
– Madison, Enright has been a leader in the study of forgiveness for almost 20 years. The author of 80 publications,
including the book “Forgiveness is a Choice,” Enright also speaks nationally on the topic.
Interestingly, Enright’s “Choice” book was released on September
11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, Enright’s views on forgiveness were in demand – not because the
attackers “deserved” forgiveness, but because some felt consumed and physically sick due to anger.
As Enright explained during a seminar for hospital chaplains and other clergy
at Meriter Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, forgiveness can never be demanded “in
the way justice can be demanded. There will never be a law requiring someone to forgive. Forgiveness is a gift. It’s
up to you.”
Enright says forgiveness has three components: One must have been treated
unjustly. One must decide to give up resentment. And (perhaps hardest of all) one must “offer goodness to the one who
An important element is often overlooked in the Old Testament story of the
Prodigal Son, Enright says. In the story, the father doesn’t wait for his son to apologize; he forgives him the moment
he sees him. “And when he sees his son walking over to the house, he has no idea if he’s come to say he’s
sorry, or just to get his laundry done,” he jokes.
It is that kind of forgiveness – “undeserved” forgiveness
– that Enright brings into focus in his talks and in his book. After all, it may be easy to forgive someone who grovels
at your feet. It’s harder to forgive someone who doesn’t ask to be forgiven. And yet, forgiveness is a major feature
of most world spiritualities – Christianity and Judaism, but also Islam, Confucian beliefs and Buddhism. “In fact,
we have never examined an ancient text with a moral basis to it that did not value forgiveness,” he says. “Forgiveness
cuts across many different philosophies and religions.”
Enright describes what forgiveness is, and what it is not. He makes it clear
that forgiveness is not condoning, excusing, forgetting, justifying, pardoning, or reconciling. In fact, reconciliation is
often impossible, even when someone has forgiven. A classic example is the case of divorce due to abuse or adultery. The abused
partner may forgive the abuser but may choose not to continue to live under the same roof. “You can forgive a spouse
but still divorce them,” he says.
Why is it so hard to forgive? One problem may be that many people confuse
forgiveness with the actions above. Another problem, he says, is that “We have a right to our resentment, and so resentment
is very difficult to overcome.” This is because human beings value fairness, and “Forgiveness isn’t fair.
Mercy is never fair.”
If forgiveness is so hard, and not even fair, why forgive? Forgiveness has
a positive impact on the emotions and health of the person doing the forgiving, says Enright. Among the populations he’s
studied extensively are incest survivors. Why should a woman forgive the father who sexually abused her? Studies show that
those who forgive benefit greatly. “The forgiveness group became emotionally healthier than the control group,”
his study showed. “Differences between the groups were observed for depression, anxiety, hope, and self-esteem. The
results were maintained after a 14-month follow-up. (Those who forgave) went from clinically depressed to non-depressed status.”
Enright has also worked with cardiac patients, people in drug and alcohol
rehabilitation, abused women, terminally ill patients, and at-risk adolescents. He’s also worked overseas, with youth
in Seoul, Korea, and children in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
All of his studies have shown great benefits for forgiveness.
So how does one achieve the almost-impossible? How does someone forgive the
unforgivable? Enright outlines a 20-step process, divided into four phases: uncovering, decision, work, and outcome/deepening.
Each of the steps involves a lot of work: “Insight into a possibly altered ‘just world,’ view; empathy toward
the forgiver; finding meaning for self and others in the suffering and the forgiveness process”).
In the end, the forgiver will realize that “nothing you do to punish
THEM will heal YOU.” Forgiveness, he says, “is freeing up your energy and putting it to better use.”
At the end of the process, the forgiver (who may or may not tell the injurer
that he has been forgiven) will experience a freedom they haven’t felt before. Enright says, “Everyone has been
hurt by another, but not all know how to handle such pain. The path of forgiveness allows you to set yourself free of the
anger and pain that you feel.”