Theorizing the Nature of Forgiveness

The idea of forgiveness is complex because it has several dimensions.  For many, forgiveness is considered a human virtue that can act as a path toward healing for victims, transgressors and relationships alike.  In addition to viewing forgiveness in this way, it may also be thought of as an alternate choice to a human inclination of a fight or flight response toward a transgression.  It can also be understood that there are different types of forgiveness in addition to different theories on the purpose of forgiveness.

First, different types of forgiveness may be thought of as having different characteristics.  This way of thinking about forgiveness has been explored by Michael E. McCullough & Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, in The Psychology of Forgiveness (2002).  They have categorized the notion of forgiveness as a psychological construct consisting of several dimensions.  They identify the application of forgiveness as: 1) a characteristic of social units, 2) as a personality disposition, and 3) as a response.

What this means is that forgiveness is socially contextual.  That is, the nature of forgiveness depends on the types of relationships in which they occur in addition to the nature of the transgression being forgiven.  Therefore, forgiveness is a characteristic of relationships or social units.

Additionally, a person with a propensity to forgive is a relatively positive and agreeable person.  There is a correlation with the advancing of age and a relatively positive and agreeable personality that has a propensity to forgive.  In this way, forgiveness correlates with a relatively agreeable and positive personality disposition.

Also, forgiveness takes place when people experience a change concerning how they think about, feel and act toward those who have hurt them.  This happens in such a way that their ideas, feelings and actions become more positive over time.  Forgiveness in this way is a response to a transgression.

Therefore, the act of forgiveness can be thought of as an intersection of the increasingly positive attitude and actions of someone who has been harmed as a result of their own personality disposition, and their response to the social relationships in which the transgression occurred, including the nature of the transgression.

Yet, there are not only different characteristics or types of forgiveness, there are also different theoretical perspectives concerning the purpose of forgiveness.  For example, forgiveness may be understood as a relationship-building tool.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), Robert Enright, one of the earliest researchers on forgiveness, understood forgiveness as a process that may be used to build and maintain interpersonal relationships (Enright & Zell, 1989, p. 99.).  Thought of in this way, the act of forgiveness takes place when one develops a kind attitude toward a transgressor such that one has “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us, while fostering the underserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her” (Enright, Freedman, & Rique, 1998, pp. 46-47).   Because Enright believed that the purpose of forgiveness was to build community, he asserted that forgiveness could only be directed toward people, and not situations (Enright & Zell, 1989, p. 53.)  To Enright, the purpose of forgiveness was to build and maintain community.

Another theory on the purpose of forgiveness is that it may be understood as a way to free oneself from a role as a victim.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), Tangney, Fee, Reinsmith, Boone, and Lee (1999) understood forgiveness as a change in one’s thought process and emotional state whereby a transformation takes place in which one gives up living the role of the victim.  This sort of transformation takes place by freely letting go of negative emotions (including anger and resentment) toward a transgressor, and freely letting go of a desire for revenge, punishment and even restitution.  This change takes place even after a realistic assessment of the harm and an acknowledgement of the transgressor’s responsibility.  To Tangey, et al., forgiveness in this way, is a cancelling of all debts, so to speak, in order to free oneself from the bonds of victimhood.

An additional way of thinking about the purpose of forgiveness is that its application may reduce interpersonal conflicts and increase the likelihood of more agreeable interpersonal relationships.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), according to Mc Cullough and his colleagues, forgiveness has a pro-social motivation such that an avoidance of a transgressor and/or a desire for revenge toward a transgressor are both lessened, while at the same time, a desire for positive action increases.  In this way, and over time, a victim’s benevolence toward a transgressor increases (2000; McCullough et al., 1998, 2000a, 2000b).  According to Mc Cullough’s theory, the purpose of forgiveness is to reduce interpersonal conflicts.

Although there are various perspectives and theories about the different purposes of forgiveness, forgiveness may, in fact, be a means of healing from any hurtful situation or event.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007) Thompson and her colleagues (Thomson et al., 2005), offered a very broad understanding of forgiveness as a “freeing from a negative attachment to the source that has transgressed against a person (pp. 279-282.).”  With this understanding, the act of forgiveness may be applied to oneself, another person, a group, or even a situation or event that is harmful or out of one’s control (Snyder & Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.).  This perspective or theory on the purpose of forgiveness offers inclusiveness such that forgiveness may be the way to heal from any harm.

The complexity of the subject of forgiveness includes the intersection of types of forgiveness and the purposes of forgiveness.  Forgiveness should always be understood within the context of the relationships in which it is applied, and the nature of the transgression.  Forgiveness may be a characteristic of relationships, a personality disposition, and/or a response to a transgression.  The purposes of forgiveness may include to heal oneself, others, and/or relationships from any harmful situation or event.  The notion of forgiveness is multi-dimensional in that it is a response to a transgression that is dependent upon one’s perspective and personality disposition in addition to the social context in which it occurs (including the nature of the relationships and the transgression), and its intended purpose.

Yet this very inclusive view of forgiveness can be expanded even more.  For example, in his speech, The Psychology of Forgiveness, (2008) Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, approached the subject of forgiveness through a scientific lens, by which he offered insights into the healing powers of forgiveness.

Dr. Luskin’s understanding of forgiveness is inclusive in that it is an intersection of the forgiveness ‘types’.  To him, forgiveness is a response to harm, such as interpersonal unkindness, human failings, life’s unpredictability and difficulties, or simply the horrors experienced as part of being a human being.  The response is that the victim of harm alters a negative disposition by practicing the elements of forgiveness such as goodwill, patience and compassion.  This practice results in a transformation toward an agreeable and positive disposition and it has many benefits including the reduction of harmful stress and the improvement of emotional, physical and relational health and wellbeing.  Therefore, Luskin understands forgiveness to comprise of each of the three types:  forgiveness as a response, forgiveness as a disposition, and forgiveness as a characteristic of social units, but he also understands forgiveness in another sense.

Theoretically speaking, to Dr. Luskin, forgiveness is a psychological therapeutic approach to letting go of the stress of un-forgiveness as a way to regain and maintain emotional, physical, and relational health benefits.  What Dr. Luskin proposed in his speech is that the ‘practice of forgiveness’ can be taught to individuals (and groups) such that as they apply the elements of forgiveness to their daily lives, they will realize the associated health benefits such as cardiovascular health improvement and breathing improvement, and therefore live healthier and happier lives.  In this way, Luskin’s theory concerning the purpose of forgiveness is much like Tangney’s:  Forgiveness is a transformation of one’s own way of thinking and feeling that frees oneself from a role of victimhood and restores health and wellbeing to the individual(s) who practice forgiveness.  Luskin’s approach to the subject of forgiveness is also broad and inclusive and in this way, he also aligns with the theories of Thompson, who understood forgiveness as a way for anyone to heal from any type of harm.

To Dr. Luskin, the act of forgiveness is one of purposefulness.  His intention is to teach a method of forgiveness in such a way that anyone may use it in order to receive the emotional, physical and relational benefits that it has to offer.  His broad and inclusive approach to the subject of forgiveness has the primary focus of teaching others how to use forgiveness as a means of releasing stress that is caused by any type of harm in order to increase one’s own emotional, physical and/or relational health.  Dr. Luskin’s very inclusive view on the subject of forgiveness is that it can help anyone heal emotionally, physically, and/or relationally from any type of harm.

My own perspective concerning the subject of forgiveness is that forgiveness is purposeful, personal and multi-dimensional or multifaceted.  I can see this by the different lenses with which I view forgiveness:  The different dimensions (purposes) for which one chooses to forgive, and how the ‘types’ of forgiveness intersect.

For example, I discussed the emotion of anger in the subject of forgiveness as it relates to a nonviolent social change ideology, explaining that anger toward an injustice may used in a purposeful way in order to fuel a thoughtful response, such that situations of greater social justice may result.  I also related forgiveness as a kindly and healing response to harm when I explored this concept in Zora Neale Hurston’s short story The Gilded Six Bits (n.d.).  I also related forgiveness to process that takes place over time, and may even be an ongoing practice.  I explored this when writing about Albert White Hat’s story of forgiveness, Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (One Sky Above Us, 1996).

In these examples, I viewed forgiveness as a purposeful response to an injustice and/or a harm (depending on the social context), plus a change in attitude and action (personality disposition), and as a characteristic of social units in that the initial harm may be transformed into a greater social good either by improved personal wellbeing, improved social relationships, or greater social justice in general.  For this reason, I tend to think of forgiveness as layered or multi-faceted rather than being of different distinct types.

Additionally, in the examples of forgiveness that I examined, I found that the purpose of forgiveness might include healing oneself, to heal others, and/or to heal relationships from any harmful situation or event, depending on context.  For this reason, my ideas concerning forgiveness align with Tangney’s theories (as cited by Snyder and Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.):  Forgiveness is a transformation of one’s own way of thinking and feeling that frees oneself from a role of victimhood and restores health and wellbeing to the individual(s) who practice forgiveness.  I also understand forgiveness with a broad view, attempting to take in many perspectives.  Therefore, my ideas concerning the purpose of forgiveness also align with the theories of Thompson (as cited by Snyder and Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.), who understood forgiveness as a way for anyone to heal from any type of harm.  And my ideas of forgiveness also aligns with Luskin, in that forgiveness can be a purposeful method of healing oneself, others, and relationships.

To me, forgiveness is a personal choice, and sometimes relational response to any possible harm, such that an ongoing process of moving toward an increasingly positive attitude (and perhaps actions) occurs in a way that brings about greater emotional, physical and/or relational healing to those harmed, to the transgressors, to relationships, communities and even societies, depending on the context of the transgression and the social relationships in which it occurred.

References:

Hurston, Z. N. (n.d.). The gilded six bits [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.bhscpa.org/0708HW/bells/bellamlit/thegildedsixbits.pd

McCullough, M. E., & Witvliet, C. V. (2002). The psychology of forgiveness. Handbook of positive psychology, 2, 446-455.

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 1, 2014, from http://digital.films.com.library.esc.edu/PortalPlaylists.aspx?aid=1667&xtid=44418

Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J. (2007). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

“The Psychology of Forgiveness”. (2008). (Theology Institute Annual Conference: Forgiveness ) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlo26PwfcL

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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