The Importance and Difficulty of Forgiveness

Recent (in the 1990s) studies of mothers with insecure attachment patterns in relation to their own mothers, but with secure attachment patterns in their children’s behaviour to them, emphasise the importance of forgiveness.[1]  Those mothers who had been able to forgive their own mothers, had been more successful caregivers. This relates to our own experience of work with offenders and their families, where forgiveness is rare and an atmosphere of blame and punishment is common.  The Court part of the system is of course devoted to the expression of blame and punishment, and the probation officer has somehow to work to reach a different kind of working atmosphere. There is a continuous tension between probation officers and the Courts in relation to this dynamic, and it is a constant effort to prevent the relationship between the Magistracy and the probation officers being preoccupied with blame. By its nature, offending arouses feelings of blame and demands for punishment, and this is an important preoccupation in the life of probation clients and their families. In divorce too, there is enormous difficulty in moving away from the blame – punishment preoccupation. ‘Blame’ and ‘punishment’ could perhaps be regarded as what Byng-Hall in the family therapy setting terms ‘scripts’ which the probation officer inherits.

The starting point for moving towards an atmosphere in which forgiveness is possible, must be the probation officer’s capacity to forgive their clients. My most recent experience of the difficulty of this was in a conciliation interview at the divorce court, where we often come out of the interview furious with one or other party who has seemed especially destructive. But it is often hard to forgive our offenders. Some of the offences are themselves hard to forgive but perhaps more commonly, the anxious ambivalent behaviour of the clients to us as workers makes them easy to hate. Indeed, it is because of the circular process in the relationships of those with insecure attachment patterns, whereby each new attachment seems to confirm the pattern set by earlier relationships, that we often become involved at all. The clients simply are often hard to like.

If the probation officer can find a way to forgive the client for his / her destructive behaviour, there begins to be hope for a shift from the frightening dynamic of blame and punishment towards one in which change and development is possible. I should distinguish forgiveness from an atmosphere in which the destructiveness and hatefulness of the client is kept out of the relationship with the probation officer altogether. This is a common feature of probation work and can take various forms:

  • “You are the only one who understands me”
  • Failure to discuss the offences at all
  • “My Giro hasn’t come again” and similar diversionary tactics
  • “I am the victim” – of police, DHSS, the Courts, the absent partner, the parents etc.

 

It is worth also noting the distinction between the passiveness of our traditional notion of acceptance and the active nature of forgiveness.

[1] Ricks, M H.  1985 The Social Transmission of Parental Behaviour: Attachment across Generations in Growing Points of Attachment Theory and Research. Ed Brotherton I and Waters E University of Chicago Press   p224

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