Whom Do I Forgive in the COVID-19 Crisis?
Here, I answer questions about forgiveness in this time of challenge.
Posted Mar 24, 2020
Because I have received many questions about forgiveness during this challenging time of waiting out the COVID-19 virus through social distancing and quarantine, I thought it best to answer in one blog post and we do so here. We will address six questions.
1. A Facebook friend quipped recently, "I am getting resentful of babysitting my mom's grandkids." The question then arises: Will there be times that I have to forgive my children as we practice social distancing from others outside the home?
Before forgiving, it may be a good idea to be aware of your own displaced anger toward your children when you are under stress. It is very easy to let our anger fly at our children because they so often accept it. Thus, we first have to be careful not to be the one who is creating the tension between the adults and the children in the family.
Yet, at times, the children will act out and to prevent your own anger from swelling, it is good to practice forgiveness toward them in these circumstances. Try to see their suffering as they wait out the passing of the virus. They are both imperfect and at the same time in possession of inherent or built-in worth. Practice seeing their unconditional worth and their stress. This will help you to forgive when they act up from time to time.
2. If I overdo it and displace undeserved anger onto the children, should I forgive myself?
Yes, it is reasonable to forgive yourself when your tensions get the better of you and you let out that tension onto the children or your partner. When you forgive yourself, you are not now saying that your behavior was fine at the time of the excessive anger. Instead, you are saying this to yourself: I, too, am a person of unconditional worth and I sometimes blow it. I want to welcome myself back into the human community in spite of my imperfections, just as I welcome into the human community those who have hurt me (when I forgive them).
3. Are there likely to be increased tensions between partners during the times of social distancing and "sheltering in place?"
I consulted a friend, Monsignor, Dr. John Hebl, who published the first-ever empirical study of forgiveness therapy (Hebl & Enright, 1993).
As a long-time pastor and expert in forgiveness, it is his studied opinion that spousal tensions likely will increase a lot during this time. Thus, it is important for each to be aware of rising tensions caused by the virus, as well as left-over resentments from childhood or adolescence that can spill over into the present. Practice forgiving parents, siblings, and peers from one's past, even the distant past, so that these resentments do not escalate current resentments. Then, practice forgiving each other, especially now, because these unanticipated and difficult times can enhance tensions.
4. Are there false forms of forgiveness of which I need to be aware as we go through this crisis?
Yes, and a big one is being too harsh on yourself. A social worker once told me that those who care for others can develop the false sense that they never have done quite enough. So, as tensions emerge in your home, please be careful not to excessively blame yourself ("If only I had done more."). We are all imperfect and so we have to be gentle with ourselves and others. Cut yourself some slack now, knowing that you are trying and accept your imperfections of fatigue or anxiety at this time. I recommend that you refrain from forgiving yourself if you simply and truly are doing your best, yet the family is not interacting perfectly.
5. I have been asked: Can I forgive the Chinese people for this virus?
No, you should not consider forgiving the Chinese people. Why? It is because citizens of China did not cause the virus and so this idea of forgiving all Chinese people is to commit the logical fallacy of over-generalization. To over-generalize in this case is to blame way too many for that which was not their fault. Many Chinese are as much victims of the virus as people in other parts of the world.
6. Here is a final question for us: I know there are many theories out there right now about how the virus was introduced into the environment. I am not settling on any one of them just yet, but let us suppose the following is correct: A scientist in Wuhan was handling the virus and mistakenly (without intending to do so) let a vial of the virus out. Can I forgive him even though I do not even know him and he did not intend to do wrong?
Yes, you can begin forgiving him with the expectation of stopping the forgiveness process if this scenario proves to be unwarranted. Yet, how can you forgive those you cannot name, whom you have never met?
The philosopher, Trudy Govier of Canada, talks about primary, secondary, and tertiary forgiving. Primary forgiving occurs, for example, when your brother deliberately is mean to you. You know the person and in this case he hurt you directly. In secondary forgiving, you forgive those who hurt your loved ones. If your sister's partner was mean to her, you can forgive her partner because that person also hurt you by hurting your sister. Tertiary forgiving is with more distant people. Here, for example, you can forgive a governmental official whom you have never met and who does not know you if, in your view, that official is acting unjustly and this is hurtful to you.
Forgiving an unknown person in Wuhan who might have released the virus is tertiary forgiving. Again, if evidence emerges that no person released the virus, then you can cease the process of forgiving at that time.
Regarding the issue of forgiving those who did not intend to do wrong, yes, you can forgive. Some acts have such grave consequences that those engaging in them need to be more careful. A person who is texting while driving and hits another car, killing the driver, can be forgiven (if you choose to do so) because this person should have been paying closer attention to the driving, given the possible and now real consequence. It is the same with a researcher who is handling a potentially highly contagious virus: Great care is needed and when that care is not forthcoming, then your forgiving is reasonable.
To forgive is to try to be good to those who are not good to you. As you forgive, you do not abandon the quest for justice and you do not excuse the behavior. As you forgive, you try to see the other's woundedness, confusion, and weakness. You try to approach the other with a sense of doing no harm to that person even if the person was unfair to you.
If you have some extra time to read, you might consider the self-help book, The Forgiving Life (Enright, 2012), which walks you through an empirically-verified forgiveness process. The science shows that resentments, which have built up, can be statistically significantly reduced by practicing forgiving (which can take 12 or more weeks), giving relief to the forgiver and to those with whom the forgiver is in close relationships (Aktar & Barlow, 2018; Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). Now may be the time to start forgiving in the family, as families are closed-up and asked to wait out the challenging COVID-19 virus.
Akhtar, S. & Barlow, J. (2018). Forgiveness therapy for the promotion of mental well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 19, 107-122.
Enright, R.D. (2012). The forgiving life. Washington, DC: APA Books.
Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: APA Books.
Hebl, J. H., & Enright, R. D. (1993). Forgiveness as a psychotherapeutic goal with elderly females. Psychotherapy, 30, 658-667.