Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Leaps of Faith: Is Forgiveness a Useful Concept?

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Leaps of Faith: Is Forgiveness a Useful Concept?

Article excerpt

Using detailed clinical vignettes, the author argues that, despite the current idealization of the concept of forgiveness, the term has no place in psychoanalytic work, and there are some hazards to giving it one. Clinically, the concept of forgiveness is seductive, implying that there should be a common outcome to a variety of injuries, stemming from different situations and calling for different solutions. Every instance of what we call forgiveness can be seen to serve a different defensive function. While the conscious experience of what is called forgiveness is sometimes confused with the unconscious process of reparation, the two can only be described at different levels of psychic life. Despite the fact that in 'the unconscious' there is no such thing as forgiveness, the term has an adhesive quality in our thinking that also blunts the analyst's appreciation of the aggressive components in the work. In a final vignette, the author illustrates an analytic outcome that has the appearance of forgiveness, but is best understood as the complex result of the everyday work of analysis.

Keywords: acceptance, aggression, compromise, countertransference, defense, forgiveness, reconciliation, reparation, resentment

Hardly a week goes by these days without an invitation to attend some workshop to improve my skills as a therapist or as a person. Many of them these days want to teach me about forgiveness. Google the word forgiveness and a flood of such offers appears. One reads:

Hurting? Angry? Grieving? Depressed? Stuck? Need to forgive but don't know how? Life not working as you'd like?

The Radical Forgiveness Strategy is the answer. It's quick, easy, empowering and nonthreatening.

It continues:

What is Radical Forgiveness? Well, it's a far cry from what we normally understand as forgiveness, that's for sure! What makes it radical is that it's simple, easy to do and immediately effective. This is in stark contrast to traditional forgiveness which is known to be difficult, time-intensive and only for the heroic. With Radical Forgiveness, anyone can do it, no matter how skeptical they are.

(Tipping, 1999-2008)

Another from the Midwest Institute for Forgiveness Training is quieter but its voice no less insistent:

The Unconditional Love and Forgiveness Workshop is a unique healing experience in which you learn tools in one weekend that you will use for a lifetime ... you will learn The Eight Steps of Forgiving Another, The Five Steps of Self-Forgiveness, the psychological model that simplifies some of the complexity of being human, and the Laws of the Universe that enable you to live in greater harmony with life.

(Grieco, 2002-2008)

Admittedly extreme in their message, these invitations illustrate a form of thinking that is gaining widespread acceptance in our own field and in the world at large. A search for books on forgiveness yields nearly 400,000 entries on, and there is a recent proliferation of them in the psychological literature, including The Power of Forgiving (Worthington, 2005) and, from the American Psychological Association, Forgiveness is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (Enright, 2001). The truth is that the topic of forgiveness is everywhere, in fields as diverse as sociology, anthropology, religion, and, indeed, psychoanalysis. I believe the time has come to question the concept of forgiveness and its ever-broadening appeal by examining its function from a psychoanalytic point of view.

Forget and forgive

My current interest in the subject began a number of years ago when I was studying a passage from King Lear (Shakespeare, 1606). Near the end of the play, the old king is reunited with his devoted daughter Cordelia, whom he has cruelly and mistakenly disowned. Lear says to her:

I know you do not love me; for your sisters

Have, as I do remember, done me wrong. …

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