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I’m sorry. Are you?
Learning how to forgive.

By Dr. Sharon Chubbuck, associate professor, College of Education

“Now forgive each other. Say you’re sorry, shake hands and be friends.”

In some form or another, this demand is given from parent to child, from teacher to student, from religious leader to follower. Every organized religion includes some admonition to forgive, some calling for unconditional forgiveness, some attaching contingencies to the possibility of forgiving. Indeed, the human condition, quite apart from religion, may suggest the wisdom of forgiveness in the face of conflict and retaliation that would escalate into ongoing, devastating violence. But with all the commands to forgive, where is the instruction on HOW one forgives? Is it simply a decision and an act of will? Can the children told to shake hands and be friends really just do that on demand? Can adults just shake hands and be friends? Seldom can people choose to forgive and finish the task as a one-time event. 

Seldom is forgiveness that simple.

For almost the past 25 years, psychologists Robert Enright and Everett Worthington, in particular have been studying how to teach people to forgive, identifying four steps associated with the forgiveness process. 


The first is the task of uncovering the hurt that prompts the need for forgiveness, genuinely and honestly acknowledging the depth of injury and hurt, so no hint of denial is possible. 


The second is deciding to do the work of forgiveness. This decision requires an acknowledgement that the unforgiveness being practiced isn’t really accomplishing anything valuable and a change is needed. It also requires admitting that no amount of effort will undo the hurt of the past it is time to move on. 


Doing the work of forgiveness is the third step in the process. This includes a variety of strategies, including trying to see the individual doing the harm as more than his or her actions as a person worthy of dignity and respect, in spite of the hurt done. Another is trying to reframe the event, a “restorying,” if you will, of what the event meant to the injured and to the injurer. The last strategy is developing compassion for the offender, not as an emotion but as a willingness to desire good for the one who has hurt you.

Doing the various aspects of this work of forgiveness allows the injured person to release the negative feelings of anger and resentment and any desire for retaliation, even though he or she may have a right to all these negative thoughts and feelings, and to develop positive thoughts for the well-being of the person who has done the injury, even though that person has no moral right to demand such positive regard from the one who has been hurt.


The final step in the forgiveness process is attempting to find meaning in or gain personal strength from the hurt that has been experienced in other words, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. 

Teaching these steps, including the vocabulary to talk about them, can make the act of forgiveness something within reach. The goal of forgiveness is valuable. Instruction on HOW to do it is invaluable.


Comment by Patti Baron Schreiber at Jul 12 2012 02:54 pm
Excellent article! We are rarely taught how to forgive. When working with clients, often the most difficult step is number 3. A tool I have found useful in this process is having the injured party write two letters directed to the perpetrator but not sent. The first letter is the pouring out of all emotions, feelings and thoughts around the injury, a getting out if you will. They are free to express themselves in any way they choose. The second letter is an acknolwedgement of anything good that may have come from this injury, what the gift was (if the injured party can see it). Then releasing the content of both of these letters is the final step - burning, shredding; I've even had one client bury it so her garden would turn the hurt into something positive and grow.
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