Get out and forgive someone today

August 6, 2000


Last week in Calgary, lawyer Andrew Crooks sought forgiveness when he wrote a letter of apology to a young girl he had hit after she allegedly caused him to fall on a ski slope last winter. Instead, this letter, written as part of an agreement that would see assault charges dropped, angered the girl's mother. She still blamed Crooks, insisting that he should have been forced to take anger-management counselling.

Blaming has become the accepted norm in a society preoccupied with victims and obsessed with the notion that punishing people like Crooks helps victims recover. In a society drowning in blame, it is not surprising that we are inundated with therapists working with victims’ hurt feelings. According to the dominant theories, expressing anger is part of “the healing process.” Therapists have for years now been encouraging clients “to move towards anger,” insisting that public condemnation, civil suits, criminal charges and harsh sentences “empower” victims.

The therapy business, saturated with victim-focused therapists, is in need of a new product to sell. So what is emerging is a new version of a very old notion: forgiveness.

From ancient times, major religions and moral codes have encouraged acts of forgiveness. As a child, I was taught to “forgive and forget.” But what psychologists are telling us now is that we don’t know how to forgive because we are not “forgiveness trained.” And fortunately for us, they are coming to our rescue, promising such things as better physical health, reduced stress, improved relationships and an enhanced sense of self-worth if we learn to do it their way.

In some ways, this is good. Andrew Crook and countless others would agree that we need more forgiveness and less blame. But what psychologists would like to do is substitute forgiveness for blame, making it the new fad of the therapy business.

At prestigious Stanford University, psychologists Carl Thoresen and Frederic Luskin have established the Stanford Forgiveness Project, which focuses on training people in how to forgive in such a way as to “break the habit of blame.” While acknowledging the long tradition of forgiveness, they believe that so far only “limited practical training (has been) provided on how to actually forgive.” As well, they note that women are more forgiving than men; so in this politically correct world, they intend to develop “gender-specific forgiveness training.”

Claiming that structured forgiveness counselling improves both psychological and physical health, even reducing the risk of death from a heart attack, they want psychological forgiveness training to be an insured health service. Elsewhere, psychologist Shann Ferch offers a counselling approach called “intentional forgiving,” in which clients are directed by their psychologist to forgive someone who has wounded them. The approach teaches them how to  “fortify intentional forgiving.”

Now there is a call to have the first Sunday of August - yes, today - proclaimed International Forgiveness Day. While I might heartily endorse the idea of drawing attention to the importance of practicing forgiveness in everyday life, I find myself more horrified than jubilant because underlying the initiative is the hope that attention to forgiveness will lead to “specialized forgiveness training to assist counsellors already in the work of healing; employing the use and distribution of specialized materials in forgiveness; developing a forgiveness curriculum which will lead to certification of students as ‘forgiveness counsellors.’”

The therapists who would profit from this also want to have a “Dial 311” phone network based on the existing 911 emergency system. These “hotlines” would provide callers with instant forgiveness assistance. Just like their blame-therapy predecessors, these new forgiveness experts claim their services will prevent violence, abuse, molestation and other harm.

Their agenda is clearly self-serving. The very idea of transforming forgiveness into a commodity, marketed as a panacea for personal woes and health problems, is reprehensible. It robs forgiveness of its essential worth as a moral act. One can only bemoan the level of decay reached by a culture in which forgiveness becomes a mere technique, a selfish act, the sole intent of which is to make oneself feel better.

Forgiveness is something we all need to both give and receive. But I am reminded of Beckett’s words in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, when he struggles with “doing the right thing for the wrong reason.”

Forgiveness affords one of those rare opportunities when we can do something for another and perhaps feel good about it in return. But only if the act is genuine - directed by our heart and not our therapist.


@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,