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Filling the Psychological Void With Charity

Jesslyn McManus on Replacing Hatred With Love

ARLINGTON, Virginia, SEPT. 9, 2006 ( The cultivation of Christian charity in the wake of forgiveness can go a long way to improving mental health, says a Catholic doctoral extern therapist.

So says Jesslyn McManus, of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, who presented her research on forgiveness therapy for the Society of Catholic Social Scientists at its last national meeting. In this interview with ZENIT, McManus shares her views on working through hatred and resentment in order to build a sense of self rooted in love.

Q: Many would agree that it is good to forgive one’s enemies, and that forgiveness contributes to mental health. So why is it sometimes difficult to let go of anger or hatred toward those who have hurt us?

McManus: In recent years, forgiveness has come to be seen by many as an effective means to bring about psychological healing to those who are suffering from the effects of an injustice.

Anger, whether outwardly expressed or defensively denied, is a reoccurring theme in psychotherapy.

Forgiveness therapy models, such as those offered by Robert Enright and Richard Fitzgibbons; E. Worthington; and F. DiBlasio, offer an alternative to common methods for dealing with anger and resentment, which rely primarily upon expression and/or the use of medication.

Forgiveness therapy is used in order to help people gradually let go of resentment and hatred, which causes stress and psychological pain.

After working through each of the phases in the “forgiveness model,” the client is able to make a moral response of goodness toward the offender.

However, when anger and hatred come to take on a central role in one’s life, problems may arise even when one has successfully worked through the forgiveness stages and the dispositions are abandoned. These difficulties, which may become apparent in “post-forgiveness therapy,” need to be addressed with empathy, genuine care and skillful guidance.

Given its vivacious quality, hatred has a powerful attraction which is difficult to resist. Although forgiveness contributes to mental health, it is sometimes difficult to let go of anger or hatred toward those who have hurt us because of the psychological “benefits” these emotional states provide.

Pain or hurt is usually underlying anger or hatred. Therefore, hatred can be seen as a way to protect oneself from damage to one’s self-image or concept. However, these “rewards,” which are associated with egocentric gratification, only perpetuate hatred and impede psychological and spiritual health.

Q: What kinds of psychological benefits does hatred provide on a short-term basis that makes it difficult to let go of?

McManus: As psychologists Paul Vitz and Philip Mango point out, hatred can be used to defend against painful memories and emotions.

As long as one hates, he or she does not have to confront or experience the underlying pain and suffering caused by the offender. It also keeps one from recognizing that one’s self is flawed and that others have positive attributes.

In addition, hatred may become so pronounced that it comes to provide a sense of meaning or purpose in one’s life and makes one feel alive and powerful.

In cases where intense hatred persists over a long period of time, it may also come to serve as a means of self-identification.

A person may come to define himself in a negative way, by contrasting himself with the one he hates. Those who find themselves in this situation may experience an existential crisis and psychological pain manifested in the form of profound feelings of emptiness, upon letting go of the hatred.

Q: What is it about our postmodern culture that leads people to latch onto hatred for a sense of identity, and how can a person move toward an accurate sense of self devoid of negative attitudes?

McManus: In its forms of deconstruction as well as its rejection of universal truths, postmodern culture produces a society in which “knowing oneself” proves to be a difficult task.

The absence of tradition and shared meaning and values characteristic of postmodern society has resulted in a fragile, empty sense of self. This condition leads people to turn to such things as consumerism to fill the vacant self as Phillip Cushman states.

This lack of rootedness, combined with a fragmented sense of reality, makes it difficult for one to establish a firm sense of where one came from and who one is today.

This sets up a context in which self-identification through hatred will flourish.

A person can move toward an accurate sense of self devoid of negative attitudes by fulfilling their vocation as relational beings, who are made for love.

Q: What is the next step, after letting go of anger and hatred? What is the significance of “filling the void”?

McManus: As was previously stated, successful removal of the hatred may produce an existential void and the loss of sense of self.

The hatred must be replaced with something engendering self-worth, namely, altruism — that is, living a life of true Christian charity.

The next step after letting go of anger and hatred, therefore, is to redefine oneself as a person who loves rather than one who hates, through acts of self-giving. The significance of “filling the void” is to provide the person with newfound meaning in their lives and a source of identity through love.

Q: In what sense do you equate altruistic activities with the virtue of Christian charity, or love?

McManus: Both altruism and Christian love involve self-giving, moving away from the self and toward others. This love was perfectly exemplified in Christ Jesus.

Q: How has altruistic behavior proven successful in improving mental health?

McManus: Many studies have shown that altruistic emotions and behaviors are associated with psychological health and well-being. In his article “Altruism, Happiness and Health: It’s Good to be Good,” Stephen Post provides a summary of the literature in this area.

Some of the factors which have been found to help bring about these psychological benefits are enhanced social integration, distraction from the agent’s own problems, increased perception of self-efficacy and competence, and enhanced meaningfulness.

Q: On what level could secular psychology adopt this theory, and how does our Catholic faith imbue it with a deeper dimension?

McManus: This theory may be formalized in a clinical program in which self-giving love is actualized in overt altruistic acts. This therapeutic program may be implemented once the forgiveness process is under way.

The program would resemble the following:

The client would be encouraged to choose a person whom the client feels is having a difficult time and is need of care, and to do specific acts of kindness for him or her. This may consist of running an errand, cooking a meal or simply calling the individual often to see how they are doing.

In addition, the client will be asked to choose a secondary group or organization to which he can offer his time. For example, the person may choose to volunteer at a soup kitchen, visit the elderly in a nursing home, or work with disabled children.

They will keep a journal in order to track their progress in their altruistic activities. They will record what each act was and for whom each was done. They should also include the feelings they experience and any feedback they receive.

While these acts may not be altruistic in the true sense of the word in the beginning — since they are done as part of a therapeutic program — they will lead the client to understand the merit of living selflessly. This will, in turn, lead the person to do truly altruistic acts on his or her own initiative as time goes on.

Theologically, the idea that people are fulfilled in and through community with others is based on the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of a triune God whose very being is self-giving love.

Therefore, this type of program would not only be effective in that it would bring about psychological benefits for the client. It also would enable people to fulfill their vocation as persons made for self-giving and relationships with others.

Furthermore, in helping others to cultivate the virtue of charity, the therapist plays a role in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.

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