Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Meaning of Forgiveness: From the Perspective of an American Catholic Priest Psychologist

Even though it is difficult to define, most human beings have an intuitional awareness of what is meant by the word--forgiveness.[1] It is much the same cognitive mechanism as the response given by the United States Supreme Court Justice who, when asked for a definition of obscenity, replied: “While I can’t define it, I know it when I see it.” To fit obscenity, with universal agreement, into every legal, theological, sociological and psychological category is probably far beyond the dimensions of reality. My psychological training suggests to me that “it all depends.” This, at least analogously, applies to the notion of “forgiveness.”

The Major traditional religions of human history have generally taught Forgiveness within the context of real or perceived hurt/injustice from another. The spirituality of religion deals with the consequent anger and urge for revenge. All these Religions necessarily, by definition, have, more or less, required from their congregants some form of forgiveness in order to remain in “good standing.” My own religious tradition constantly reminds Catholics of the Command of Jesus Who insisted that should I have a gift-offering for the altar but retain in my heart something negative toward my “brother”, I must postpone the giving of the gift. I am to seek reconciliation, first, with my brother and then return to offer the gift. This is an internal priority which I am to develop so that I can more properly confront obvious social ills and be on “good terms” with my God.

Whatever form the mechanism of forgiveness assumes, most human beings find it easier to talk about it than to dig deeply into one’s generosity and actually forgive a transgression. Talk can be cheap. However, some of us apparently can forgive another’s transgressions fairly easily. Others will struggle for years to approach even a semblance of forgiveness. How can we explain this? Is it temperament? What is it? Obviously, we differ from each other. It is important to remember that we all are the product of nature and nurture which, on several levels, make each of us so different from everyone else. It may be partly genetic and partly environmental. These differences can strongly influence our emotional growth, and feed into “whether or not we forgive those who treat us badly.”

The term “nurture” (or environment) includes the educational matrix as well as the familial and religious core from which we come. Here is where we find the genesis/formation of most of our attitudes. Even in religion one can find surprising “penumbras” which allow, at least passively, their adherents to punish others who offend in some way or another. Decapitations and enlisting the Lord to crush foes with His heel and hurling babies of enemies against the wall are, at times, justified by a religious interpretation in dealing with one’s “enemies.”

It is probably a truism to say that the Lex Talionis (Law of the Jungle) is deep within all human beings. There is a kind of unlearned reflex in all of us which tends to respond (in kind) with a basic dynamic. “You strike me. I will strike you back. You lie about me. I will lie about you. You push me. I will push you back. You hurt me. I will hurt you.” The somewhat na├»ve notion of the “Noble Savage”, as espoused by some arm chair anthropologists, is an illusion. If we are left in the “forest”, untrammeled, with no laws or restraints, we will, not love one another, but ravage and destroy each other. The Catholic notion of human nature is clear: we are all wounded but not corrupt—but still tempted to evil. We are basically good, though weak. We are all tempted toward that which is not Godly. “To forgive is Divine”, we are told and we sincerely strive for the ideal. At the same time, we are all tempted to withhold the forgiveness so required for true spirituality.

The Catholic approach to Forgiveness, then, is two leveled: natural and supernatural. First, it is natural to be hesitant to drag one’s emotional feet in the matter of forgiveness. But it is essential that one admit especially to one’s self that he/she is hurt and wants to strike back .To pretend that one’s emotional life is like a great, placid lake when one has been insulted or degraded, is to resort to some kind of primitive denial which is obviously unhealthy, both spiritually and psychologically. One must admit the truth.

One can sense this very point in the Biblical instance when Jesus instructs Peter on the extreme requirement to forgive “seventy times seven”, an obvious metaphor for unending forgiveness. To forgive again and again without limit. Without discrimination of the level of transgression. Is this not simply asking too much of the human being? Is this the truth? Is one to be a doormat who practically invites others to stomp all over him? Is this not some kind of disrespect and irreverence to the human being- emanating not only from others but from oneself ? Understood properly (with sharp qualifications), this is the requirement. Peter is rightfully staggered, he who had described himself as a “sinful man.” He understood very well the rigor of the command of Jesus. How could anyone—even the most sincere among us—ever fulfill the 70 times 7 command?

The Catholic resolution is strikingly similar to the famous First step of A.A. which postulates that, for success with personal problems, one must admit that he has a certain powerlessness over his own difficulty---be it alcohol, food, sexual aberration, gambling or inability to “let go” of one’s grudges, angers and hatreds. This, clearly, implies the need for help from “Higher” Sources. Religious spirituality calls this help “the grace of God.” In effect, if one is to be a “forgiving” person, regardless of genetics or background, the seemingly impossible becomes a reality. With the help of God’s grace I can release urges within me for revenge or retaliation. However, profound forgiveness is extremely difficult (some say impossible) without the help of the Almighty. Yet, such an approach has been a workable staple in the spiritual experience of Catholics for centuries. Many non-Christians have found functional modes of forgiveness. Gandhi is an outstanding example of non-violence in the face of injustice and oppressions. He was a master in what Catholics call “turning the other cheek.” We would maintain that he did it “with the grace of God.”

For the most part, the forgiving experience does not erase the memory of the transgression. While we read in the Canticle of the Jewish prophet, Isaiah, that God casts our sins behind His back, the same is not true of us humans. Whether we are the sinner or the sinned against, we do remember. To pretend that negative experiences never happened is to slip into denial or delusion. It is the letting go of the anger and the desire to retaliate, in varied forms, that constitutes the essence of forgiveness. It is this very “letting go” that brings us peace and fuller human functioning which is so helpful for happy and productive living. The experience of human history generally attests to the pragmatic value of forgiveness. Basically put, I am happier if I can forgive those who have hurt me. Spiritually, it is obvious. Jesus taught Christians to pray thusly: Father, forgive us our trespasses as forgive those who trespass against us. We are forgiven our sins to the extent that we forgive others who sins against us. One, then, can live with the memory of the hurt but without the bitter, corrosive dimension of withheld forgiveness.

It is also important to consider the forgiveness of oneself for one’s own failures. Sometimes, human beings will be expansively forgiving of others but not of themselves. Great thinkers, like Martin Luther among others, are cited as being quickly forgiving and generous with others while at the same time being harsh and super demanding of self. The psychological underpinnings of this dynamic are fascinating. They are described by Erik Erikson in his work on The Young Luther. Like all withheld forgiveness there is present a strong psychological reason for such self punishment, notably the strict enforcement of self perfection which brooks no failure or imperfection. Others may fail but not I. It is not permitted by my own pride or self deception.

In the Catholic tradition, one ‘goes to confession” whereby he confesses one’s sins to an ordained priest and receives absolution from that priest. He, in his belief, is then forgiven by God of all personal transgressions. Catholics, post confession, generally experience a euphoric feeling of being relieved of a heavy interior feeling of guilt and shame. It is called: “The greatest feeling in the world.”

There is a further point to be noted in forgiveness. That of the psychological mechanism of projection. It is held by certain schools of depth psychology that we tend to criticize the failings of others which somewhat accurately reflect our own. In effect, rather than admit to me that I have failings, I attribute them to others and then can freely criticize without discomfort. This same mechanism can be used profitably in forgiveness. By forgiving the hurt I have received from others, I might be more able to forgive myself since I unconsciously recognize my own meanness in “the other.” In forgiving them, I forgive myself. Even from a pragmatic point of view, one might argue for the advantage of a forgiving stance in the search for personal happiness. Large spirited people who have learned how to forgive (according to some researchers) seem to be more productive, more creative and relaxed than those who hold grudges and fantasize about means of retaliation.

It looks like the teachings of Jesus and whose who teach similarly that forgiveness is a basic for good living. One of the last remarks of Jesus before His own death on a Cross was an appeal for the forgiveness of those who killed Him. “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Do we really know how much we hurt each other? When one considers the depth of the human personality and its endless complexities and impenetrability, good sense shouts out that we should learn how to forgive.

[1] Cf. Leach and Lark; Personality and Individual Differences. Science Direct. Oct .14 2003 “No agreed upon definition of forgiveness exists.” P. 2


Anonymous said...

Hello Fr. Lloyd,

It's good to find you again afte a year or more of no contact.

Forgiveness vs avoidance vs speaking up. My parish prist delivers his homilies in slang. This might be more easily passed over in silence if he didn't have a penchant for the word sucker, as in the Easter candle is a heavy sucker, or referring to a young child as a little sucker.

Things are neat, cool, there is the "this piece and the that piece, we play with the readings...etc. He descends from the alter to be nearer to congregation to address us.

His subject and ideation development is often a worthy effort. Because he is nearly 25 years a priest I have not yet persuaded myself that a note to him about this matter is likely to be constructive. What are you thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,
I found particular parts of your discussion on forgiveness especially helpful, as I have struggled with exactly what forgiveness actually entails in the heart and soul. My better understanding now allows me to move forward in my relationship with a family member.