Indeed, the daughter of one of the murder victims seems to have internalized this distinction. According to a report in USA Today, the daughter of Ethel Lance, one of the nine church members killed on Wednesday, was the first family member to speak out during the shooter’s bond hearing.
She said to him:
“I forgive you. You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people but God forgive you and I forgive you.”5
It seems to me that Ethel Lance’s daughter was expressing forgiveness for the immense pain and loss that the murderer had inflicted on her—and was not forgiving him for his act of murder. This is a qualitatively different moral act than saying, “I forgive the shooter for murdering those nine people.” The nine victims themselves, of course, can never authorize such vicarious forgiveness.
Forgiveness in Psychotherapy
We all bring our own ethical, religious and spiritual “baggage” with us, when we enter the mental health field—and I certainly bring mine. But as psychotherapists, we recognize that patients come to us from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions and many come from no faith at all.
Still others have combined elements from various faiths into their personal “blend” of religion or spirituality. As therapists, we often have personal feelings about our patient’s religious views, and we have an obligation to understand “where the patient is coming from”, religiously speaking—especially when we don’t share that perspective.
Thus, working with Orthodox Jewish patients; those of a Christian fundamentalist background; an Islamic background, etc., may pose special challenges in psychotherapy—particularly for the non-religious or secular therapist. 6,7
To be clear: it is not our role, as psychiatrists, to dictate when or how our patients ought to forgive. Rather, it is our job to explore the nature and meaning of forgiveness with the aggrieved, abused, or traumatized patient. In so far as forgiveness may be part of a powerful and positive healing experience, we will understandably encourage it in our patients, as my colleague, Dr. Steven Moffic, discusses in his article.8
But at the same time, it is within the therapist’s purview to explore the depth and maturity of the patient’s forgiving process.
Just as some patients may exhibit a “flight into health,” some abused or victimized patients may demonstrate a “flight into forgiveness.” They may feel obligated or pressured—sometimes by virtue of upbringing, sometimes by reason of religious inclination—to “forgive” an abusive parent or spouse, without having worked through the process on a deeper level.
For example, “forgiving” an assaulting partner a day after being assaulted–without first having dealt with one’s feelings of rage, helplessness or self-blame–is unlikely to yield lasting peace of mind or spirit. And if instant, superficial “forgiveness” leads only to passive acceptance of further abuse, we have probably not done our job as therapists.
As marriage and family therapist Dr. Athena Staik observes:
“Too often, the pressure or advice of family, friends or church to forgive merely contributes to the emotional baggage the person wronged already carries. Just as harmful, if not more so, premature forgiveness can hinder the unique emotional-growth needs of each person in the relationship.”9
Indeed, Dr. Geppert observes that an unreflective or reflexive forgiveness on the part of a victim may signify a defense mechanism that “…enables the hurt, wounded, angry, and grieving person to restore their self-esteem without doing the hard work” of fully confronting and moving beyond their anger and grief (personal communication, 7/12/15).
When asked to describe how the virtuous person deals with anger, Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, described someone who “…becomes angry on the right occasions, with the right people, at the right time and for the right length of time.” 10
While there may be no single “right” way to forgive, perhaps, as therapists, we can reformulate the Aristotelian teaching roughly as follows: genuine and lasting forgiveness occurs on the right occasions, for the right reasons, at the right time, and after a sufficient process of self-reflection in both the forgiver and the forgiven.