I am seeing more and more Catholics in my practice,” said Karl Menninger, a Jewish psychiatrist to his priest friend.
The friend replied, “Well, that’s interesting. I’ve been seeing less of them in the confessional.”
Menninger perceived a connection between reception of the Sacrament of Confession and psychological health and so he began to recommend it for the Catholic patients he was seeing. He saw that these patients who received God’s Mercy were freed from guilt and better able to become the people that God was calling them to be.
Mercy and forgiveness are not just theological terms but realities that transform lives both spiritually and humanly. The social sciences are increasingly showing that a sound moral and spiritual life is the key to a happy and flourishing life.
Menninger’s observations have been echoed by a number of mental health professionals. They recognize that patients often are bound by anxiety about not being forgiven and become slaves of guilt. Once they acknowledge their sins and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness, they are often freed in a very healthy psychological way.
It is easy to just think of the Sacrament of Penance as a scoreboard. If we go to Confession, we can just “wipe the slate clean”. This, however, is a damaging reduction of the immense gift that is God’s mercy. His abundant love for us is not about keeping score, but about restoring and strengthening a relationship. Mercy liberates our souls from the guilt and self-loathing that keep us from loving and serving God and others.
There is hardly any one who does not know that forgiveness is a necessary condition for happiness. And yet, why is it so hard to forgive? Certainly a major barrier is hatred, especially hatred between people. It is not difficult to find examples of hatred in the world today. All you have to do is to turn on the television to see how active and destructive hatred is in most cultures. This is just one of the reasons it is important to understand how to work through these barriers and strive to be forgiving.
Anger and Hatred
A distinction should be made between anger and hatred, for they are not the same thing. Anger is a natural reaction to almost any actual or perceived attack, hurt, or threat. Anger is both the immediate emotional and behavioural response to such attacks and it is familiar to all. Hatred, by contrast, is not an immediate reaction, but depends upon the cultivation of anger. This cultivation creates supporting cognitive structures that produce new anger and negative emotion long after the original reflexive anger. This kind of hatred will be restricted to interpersonal hatred. It is not a response of injustice or harmful social structures or of evil.
Unfortunately, there are many long-term consequences to hatred, and unending cycles of revenge is just one of them. For individuals, hatred in a way “pickles” a person, filling them with resentment, bitterness, and even depression. And of course, it keeps people from doing anything positive with their life.
Is Hatred a Choice?
As adults, often hatred is a choice. That is, we usually choose to hate or not to. Often in the past we didn’t choose the hatred that we have, for example hatred stemming from a childhood trauma. But as adults, sooner or later, we choose to keep it or to let go of it. Through psychotherapy and counselling, a person can confront their hatred.
For example, a therapist brings them to the awareness of how a person has cultivated the hatred and of the possibility of letting it go. So what helps one let go of hatreds? One way to begin is to reflect on them. Especially to reflect on some of the hatred that is difficult to let go of. This is the point where the choice comes. There is now a possible choice to work at letting go or not. There is now the freedom to make this decision.
People certainly enjoy hatred, or it wouldn’t be so popular in the world’s literature, and on television and in movies today. In a temporary way, hatred makes you feel morally superior and gives you energy and purpose, but at the price of long-term debilitation. In many ways, interpersonal hatred is a kind of defense mechanism protecting our ego or our narcissism.
One kind of “benefit” for holding onto the hatred is self-pity. But self-pity undermines our motivation. Hatred often leaks out and poisons relationships with those around us. Others don’t want to let go of the hatred because they have a relationship with the person they hate and in letting go, there would be emptiness in their life.
Also, holding on to the hatred can protect one from being vulnerable to new relationships, a dubious benefit. Hatred also can shield one from painful memories. Some of these effects of hatred are short-term positives but it is not hard to see how these bring long-term negative effects.
Presumably, as Christians, we all know that interpersonal hatred is wrong, and was explicitly rejected by Jesus, our Saviour. We are called to love our enemies, not hate them, as difficult as this is. One good way to start overcoming hatred for your enemies is to pray for them. With prayer the other will no longer be all bad and you will not seem all good. Thus, praying for an enemy helps make them forgivable.
It is important to note however, that you cannot force someone into forgiveness. Another may be able to suggest the notion, but ultimately the person must make the decision for oneself, otherwise the possibility of false or cheap forgiveness arrives.
Of course, a person may not have the freedom to stop hating in the sense of being able to easily let go of the structures formed over the years, but they do have the freedom to begin to stop hating, albeit the process can be difficult and requires sustained effort. And, as mentioned, with a reduction of hating comes the possibility of genuine forgiveness.
When a person forgives, they are giving away something of value, a debt or justice they are owed by the person forgiven. But, forgiveness is not excusing the person for what they did or condoning the act. You cannot forget the act that was made, if you were truly hurt. With forgiveness, the obsessive memory of the act will decline. But forgiveness does not necessarily require reconciling with the person.
Robert D. Enright and Richard P. Fitzgibbons, propose a definition of forgiveness: “people, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they wilfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right), and endeavour to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love, to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the act or acts, has no right.”
If we desire to be forgiving in this upcoming Year of Mercy, we must first work through the barriers to forgiveness that holds us captive.
Dr. Paul C. Vitz
Inst. for the Psychological