Here is the second in a series of three reflections on the upcoming Year of Mercy, provided by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Psychologial Sciences. This second reflection, titled “Psychological Barriers to Forgiveness,” is written by Dr. Paul C. Vitz.
The first reflection, on mercy as more than a theological term, but rather a life-transforming reality, can be read here.
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Why is it so hard to forgive? Certainly a major barrier is hatred, especially hatred between people. It is not difficult to find examples of hatred in the world today. All you have to do is to turn on the television to see how active and destructive hatred is in most cultures. This is just one of the reasons it is important to understand how to work through these barriers and strive to be forgiving.
A distinction should be made between anger and hatred, for they are not the same thing. Anger is a natural reaction to almost any actual or perceived attack, hurt, or threat. Anger is both the immediate emotional and behavioral response to such attacks and it is familiar to all. Hatred, by contrast, is not an immediate reaction, but depends upon the cultivation of anger. This cultivation creates supporting cognitive structures that produce new anger and negative emotion long after the original reflexive anger. For present purposes, this kind of hatred will be restricted to interpersonal hatred, not in response of injustice or harmful social structures or of evil.
Unfortunately, there are many long-term consequences to hatred, and unending cycles of revenge is just one of them. For individuals, hatred in a way “pickles” a person, filling them with resentment, bitterness, and even depression. And of course it keeps people from doing anything positive with their life.
Is hatred a choice? As adults often it is. That is, we usually choose to hate or not. Often in the past we didn’t choose the hatred that we have, for example hatred stemming from a childhood trauma. But as adults, sooner or later, we choose to keep it or to let go of it. Through psychotherapy and counseling a person can confront their hatred. For example, a therapist will bring them to an awareness of how a person cultivated the hatred and of the possibility of letting it go. So what helps one let go of hatreds? One way to begin is to reflect on them. Especially to reflect on some of the hatred that is difficult to let go of. This is the point where the choice comes. There is now a possible choice to work at letting go or not. There is now the freedom to make this decision.
People certainly enjoy hatred, or it wouldn’t be so popular in the world’s literature, and on television and in movies today. In a temporary way, hatred makes you feel morally superior and gives you energy and purpose, but at the price of long-term debilitation. In many ways, interpersonal hatred is a kind of defense mechanism protecting our ego or our narcissism. One kind of “benefit” for holding onto the hatred is self-pity. But self-pity undermines our motivation. Hatred often leaks out and poisons relationships with those around us. Others don’t want to let go of the hatred because they have a relationship with the person they hate and in letting go, there would be emptiness in their life. Also, holding onto the hatred can protect one from being vulnerable to new relationships, a dubious benefit. Hatred also can shield one from painful memories. Some of these effects of hatred are short-term positives but it is not hard to see how these bring long-term negatives effects.
Presumably, as Christians, we all know that interpersonal hatred is wrong, and was explicitly rejected by Our Lord. We are called to love our enemies, not hate them, as difficult as this is. One good way to start overcoming hatred for your enemies is to pray for them. With prayer the other will no longer be all bad and you will not seem all good. Thus, praying for an enemy helps make them forgivable.
It is important to note however, that you cannot force someone into forgiveness. Another may be able to suggest the notion, but ultimately the person must make the decision for themself, otherwise the possibility of false or cheap forgiveness arrives.
Of course, a person may not have the freedom to stop hating in the sense of being able to easily let go of the structures formed over the years, but they do have the freedom to begin to stop hating, albeit the process can be difficult and requires sustained effort. And, as mentioned, with a reduction of hating comes the possibility of genuine forgiveness.
When a person forgives, they are giving away something of value, a debt or justice they are owed by the person. But, forgiveness is not excusing the person for what they did or condoning the act. You cannot forget the act that was made, if you were truly hurt. With forgiveness, the obsessive memory of the act will decline. But forgiveness does not require reconciling with the person. Robert D. Enright and Richard P. Fitzgibbons, propose a definition of forgiveness as “people, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right), and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love” (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the act or acts, has no right.)” (Enright, R., & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). p. 32. Forgiveness therapy: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope (Washington, D.C). American Psychological Association Press.) For those who want a serious psychological treatment of forgiveness, I highly recommend their book. If we desire to be forgiving in this upcoming Year of Mercy, we must first work through the barriers to forgiveness.
Paul C. Vitz, Ph.D. is Professor and Senior Scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Arlington, VA. For additional information on “Interpersonal Hatred and Barriers to Forgiveness” and to sign up for a discount of the online webinar course visit here. [http://www.ipsciences.edu/20percent]