Filling the Psychological Void With CharityThere is a difference between hate as an emotion, in which one reacts to an evil that is present or one that has been afflited upon one's self by another and hatred that is the act of will. While the former can be morally licit, the latter, involving the willing of evil towards another, is not.
Jesslyn McManus on Replacing Hatred With Love
ARLINGTON, Virginia, SEPT. 9, 2006 (Zenit.org).- The cultivation of Christian charity in the wake of forgiveness can go a long way to improving mental health, says a Catholic doctoral extern therapist.
So says Jesslyn McManus, of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, who presented her research on forgiveness therapy for the Society of Catholic Social Scientists at its last national meeting. In this interview with ZENIT, McManus shares her views on working through hatred and resentment in order to build a sense of self rooted in love.
Q: Many would agree that it is good to forgive one's enemies, and that forgiveness contributes to mental health. So why is it sometimes difficult to let go of anger or hatred toward those who have hurt us?
McManus: In recent years, forgiveness has come to be seen by many as an effective means to bring about psychological healing to those who are suffering from the effects of an injustice.
Anger, whether outwardly expressed or defensively denied, is a reoccurring theme in psychotherapy.
Forgiveness therapy models, such as those offered by Robert Enright and Richard Fitzgibbons; E. Worthington; and F. DiBlasio, offer an alternative to common methods for dealing with anger and resentment, which rely primarily upon expression and/or the use of medication.
Forgiveness therapy is used in order to help people gradually let go of resentment and hatred, which causes stress and psychological pain.
After working through each of the phases in the "forgiveness model," the client is able to make a moral response of goodness toward the offender.
However, when anger and hatred come to take on a central role in one's life, problems may arise even when one has successfully worked through the forgiveness stages and the dispositions are abandoned. These difficulties, which may become apparent in "post-forgiveness therapy," need to be addressed with empathy, genuine care and skillful guidance.
Given its vivacious quality, hatred has a powerful attraction which is difficult to resist. Although forgiveness contributes to mental health, it is sometimes difficult to let go of anger or hatred toward those who have hurt us because of the psychological "benefits" these emotional states provide.
Pain or hurt is usually underlying anger or hatred. Therefore, hatred can be seen as a way to protect oneself from damage to one's self-image or concept. However, these "rewards," which are associated with egocentric gratification, only perpetuate hatred and impede psychological and spiritual health.
Q: What kinds of psychological benefits does hatred provide on a short-term basis that makes it difficult to let go of?
McManus: As psychologists Paul Vitz and Philip Mango point out, hatred can be used to defend against painful memories and emotions.
As long as one hates, he or she does not have to confront or experience the underlying pain and suffering caused by the offender. It also keeps one from recognizing that one's self is flawed and that others have positive attributes.
In addition, hatred may become so pronounced that it comes to provide a sense of meaning or purpose in one's life and makes one feel alive and powerful.
In cases where intense hatred persists over a long period of time, it may also come to serve as a means of self-identification.
A person may come to define himself in a negative way, by contrasting himself with the one he hates. Those who find themselves in this situation may experience an existential crisis and psychological pain manifested in the form of profound feelings of emptiness, upon letting go of the hatred.
Q: What is it about our postmodern culture that leads people to latch onto hatred for a sense of identity, and how can a person move toward an accurate sense of self devoid of negative attitudes?
McManus: In its forms of deconstruction as well as its rejection of universal truths, postmodern culture produces a society in which "knowing oneself" proves to be a difficult task.
The absence of tradition and shared meaning and values characteristic of postmodern society has resulted in a fragile, empty sense of self. This condition leads people to turn to such things as consumerism to fill the vacant self as Phillip Cushman states.
This lack of rootedness, combined with a fragmented sense of reality, makes it difficult for one to establish a firm sense of where one came from and who one is today.
This sets up a context in which self-identification through hatred will flourish.
A person can move toward an accurate sense of self devoid of negative attitudes by fulfilling their vocation as relational beings, who are made for love.
Are we talking about racism and such? What other examples of establishing an identity through hate are there?
Q: What is the next step, after letting go of anger and hatred? What is the significance of "filling the void"?There is a difference between hatred of an evil that has been done [emotion] and a transferrence of that emotion to the one who committed that evil. Now, is it possible for one to feel anger (or hate) towards that person, without willing evil towards that person? I think so. Charity and understanding may, over time, mitigate the emotions, but one wonders if those emotions can be so quickly dispelled when there is no sign of repentance and reform.
McManus: As was previously stated, successful removal of the hatred may produce an existential void and the loss of sense of self.
The hatred must be replaced with something engendering self-worth, namely, altruism -- that is, living a life of true Christian charity.
The next step after letting go of anger and hatred, therefore, is to redefine oneself as a person who loves rather than one who hates, through acts of self-giving. The significance of "filling the void" is to provide the person with newfound meaning in their lives and a source of identity through love.
Benevolence is a part of "natural law" ethics, but charity is not the same as benevolence. This is fundamentally a moral question--what is needed is for the morally wise person to give advice (or the saint, both of whom need to be detached to some extent, but detachment is not the same as not having sympathy). Why should "mental health professionals" take over a task that was originally proper to the morally virtuous in a community? Now a Catholic psyhologist/psychotherapist may recognize that spiritual health (as opposed to real mental health that is seated solely in the organs of the body) requires a recognition of real moral norms. But will they lose clients if they bring up this fact? Without such moral norms, can one avoid a saccharine "touchy-feely" conception of love and human relationships?
Q: In what sense do you equate altruistic activities with the virtue of Christian charity, or love?
McManus: Both altruism and Christian love involve self-giving, moving away from the self and toward others. This love was perfectly exemplified in Christ Jesus.
Q: How has altruistic behavior proven successful in improving mental health?
McManus: Many studies have shown that altruistic emotions and behaviors are associated with psychological health and well-being. In his article "Altruism, Happiness and Health: It's Good to be Good," Stephen Post provides a summary of the literature in this area.
Some of the factors which have been found to help bring about these psychological benefits are enhanced social integration, distraction from the agent's own problems, increased perception of self-efficacy and competence, and enhanced meaningfulness.
Q: On what level could secular psychology adopt this theory, and how does our Catholic faith imbue it with a deeper dimension?
McManus: This theory may be formalized in a clinical program in which self-giving love is actualized in overt altruistic acts. This therapeutic program may be implemented once the forgiveness process is under way.
The program would resemble the following:
The client would be encouraged to choose a person whom the client feels is having a difficult time and is need of care, and to do specific acts of kindness for him or her. This may consist of running an errand, cooking a meal or simply calling the individual often to see how they are doing.
In addition, the client will be asked to choose a secondary group or organization to which he can offer his time. For example, the person may choose to volunteer at a soup kitchen, visit the elderly in a nursing home, or work with disabled children.
They will keep a journal in order to track their progress in their altruistic activities. They will record what each act was and for whom each was done. They should also include the feelings they experience and any feedback they receive.
While these acts may not be altruistic in the true sense of the word in the beginning -- since they are done as part of a therapeutic program -- they will lead the client to understand the merit of living selflessly. This will, in turn, lead the person to do truly altruistic acts on his or her own initiative as time goes on.
Theologically, the idea that people are fulfilled in and through community with others is based on the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of a triune God whose very being is self-giving love.
Therefore, this type of program would not only be effective in that it would bring about psychological benefits for the client. It also would enable people to fulfill their vocation as persons made for self-giving and relationships with others.
Furthermore, in helping others to cultivate the virtue of charity, the therapist plays a role in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.
And what of true obligations to the community and one's kith and kin and friends? A recognition of duties to one's social circles is necessary, if we are to avoid a secular conception of "charity"--doing good works to others to feel good about one's self or to get brownie points with God, as if such works might not be required by charity.
As for forgiveness... I have heard conflicting opinions as to whether someone can forgiven another who has not asked for forgiveness. Fr. Ripperger (and Dr. Laura) maintain that one cannot forgive until the other has asked forgiveness. On the other hand, Fr. Cessario says that one should forgive, regardless. We have the example of St. Maria Goretti (and others) who forgave her murderer even though he was not repentant (and in the middle of murdering her). I think the first opinion makes more sense. While one can recognize that a harm has been done, still one can be charitable and love the offender for the sake of God and to pray for the offender's conversion, etc.
From the CCC, on the Lord's Prayer:
2842 This "as" is not unique in Jesus' teaching: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"; "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful"; "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another."139 It is impossible to keep the Lord's commandment by imitating the divine model from outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make "ours" the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.140 Then the unity of forgiveness becomes possible and we find ourselves "forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave" us.141
2843 Thus the Lord's words on forgiveness, the love that loves to the end,142 become a living reality. The parable of the merciless servant, which crowns the Lord's teaching on ecclesial communion, ends with these words: "So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."143 It is there, in fact, "in the depths of the heart," that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.
What is it, then, to forgive or pardon? Here to forgive seems to be the same as responding with charity. But that does not seem to exclude recognition that there is a debt because of the evil done. I have not found a definition of forgiveness yet; strange that one would be hard to find.