social scientific study of forgiveness: Interview with Dr. Robert Enright

Robert Enright, Ph.D., is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a licensed psychologist who pioneered the social scientific study of forgiveness. He is the author of over 120 publications, including seven books: Exploring Forgiveness, Helping Clients Forgive, Forgiveness Is a Choice, Rising Above the Storm Clouds (for children), The Forgiving Life, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, and Forgiveness Therapy. His colleagues and he have developed and tested a pathway to forgiveness, called Forgiveness Therapy, which has helped incest survivors, people in drug rehabilitation, in hospice, in shelters for abused women, and in cardiac units of hospitals, among others.  Enright has developed Forgiveness Education programs for teachers in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Athens, Greece, Liberia, Africa, and Galilee, Israel. 

We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robert Enright and talking about his career. We have the interview we did given below:

Q: How much indulged are you in physical activity? Any interesting hobbies such as sports?

Ans:  I am an avid mountain biker and I work out at the gym for an hour or two each day.  Physical fitness and psychological fitness are related, I think.  Also, I do extensive world travel for forgiveness education and one needs to be physically fit to endure the rigors of such travel.

Q: People are going to share their worldly problems with you, most of them irrelevant, confusing and out of standard conscious. Do you think you will be able to handle all of their transferable stress? If yes, then why do you think you’re capable? Share a similar experience.

Ans: Those of us who work with people who have been emotionally injured by others know that we are making a commitment to confronting pain, sometimes very deep pain in those treated unfairly.  It is manageable for me because I know that Forgiveness Therapy offers a way out of that pain.  It is not unlike a sports medicine physician, I would think. The sports medicine physician knows that the surgery and rehabilitation is painful, but it actually is a way out of much greater pain of living with a debilitating injury for a lifetime.  Yet, at times, I am taken aback by the pain. As one example, I was speaking to a group of students in a school in Liberia and the first question, from a second grade boy, was this: “Do you think that I can forgive the person who murdered my mother?”  Then came the second question, from a third grade girl: “I love my sister so much, but she was murdered.  Will I be able to forgive the person?”  I did absorb those children’s pain and I lived with it for about a day.  We ask people in Forgiveness Therapy to “bear the pain” of what happened, but only after the person has begun to be strengthened in the therapy.  I had to take my own advice that day and “bear the pain” on behalf of these dear children.  Bearing the pain helps us to stand up to the pain and not run from it.  It is a form of psychological strengthening.

Q: What kind of challenges do you think lies in front of you in this career? Don’t tell us the solutions in mind; just tell us what you expect.  

Ans: The largest challenge is people pre-judging forgiveness and misunderstanding it.  In their misunderstanding, they dismiss forgiveness.  Here are some of the criticisms: If you forgive, it is a sign of weakness because you are excusing the other’s wrongdoing.  If you forgive, you have to reconcile with the person who is abusing you.  If you forgive, you cannot seek justice.  Forgiveness belongs only in religious settings because you cannot forgive someone else’s sins.  If you as a therapist suggest forgiveness exercises for clients, then you are putting pressure on those clients to forgive even if they are not ready to do so.

Q: What inspired you to pursue this line of work?

 Ans: I was hired in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study moral development, a research field that goes back to about 1892 and centers primarily on how children and adolescents learn to be fair or just.  I, like so many others, followed this tradition until I grew dissatisfied with it.  The questions being asked did not seem to be helping people in any deep way. So, I began to ask myself, “What in the area of moral development could make a major impact on the lives of people?”  I thought, not of themes of justice, but the reverse: themes of injustice.  So, I asked: “How can people heal from the effects of injustice?” and the idea of forgiveness came up for me.  I hypothesized in 1985 that learning to forgive might counter the effects of injustice such as unhealthy anger, anxiety, and depression.  Our research lab at the university was the first to scientifically evaluate these effects of forgiving.  This led to the development and scientific test of Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education.  It has been an amazing experience, to test effects of forgiving and to find rather dramatic healing results.

 Q: What piece of advice would you give to people who want to pursue this career?  

Ans: Helping others to heal from emotional pain is very rewarding. You have to have the right tools for the right problem.  You would not use Forgiveness Therapy, for example, if someone has a fear of heights.  Forgiveness Therapy’s right place is when clients present with injustices that they have suffered and with emotional after-effects of the injustice(s).  Forgiveness Therapy can cure unhealthy anger, which, if left untreated, can progress to anxiety and even psychological depression.

Q: Do you plan on having any future publications, books?  

Ans: Yes, I am in conversation right now with a publisher for an edited volume, Forgiveness.  The contributors are from the disciplines of philosophy, theology, psychology, psychotherapy, and education.  It is a wide-ranging volume to show people both the depth and breadth of forgiveness.

Q:  How will you help your patients to open up?  

Ans: The client’s own pain usually is the motivator for opening up.  Many times, people are not even aware of the depth of their pain and it does take time for that to be uncovered.  Yet, there usually is enough pain, enough anger to bring a person in for help.  We work with the person’s awareness of this more-surface pain at first.  Only gradually over time do we go more deeply into the pain that is hidden, that needs to be seen and then addressed with Forgiveness Therapy.

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