Dr James Johnston reports and reflects on Squiggle’s 2016 Spring Lecture ‘Forgiveness: a gift at any cost?’

Drinking from a shared bowl of bitterness

Squiggle Foundation Spring Lecture; London 23rd April 2016

Forgiveness: a gift at any cost? Adrian Sutton


 Shakespeare offered the view in King Lear that forgetting is a prerequisite of forgiveness. Lear asks forgiveness of his daughter Cordelia:


You must bear with me.

Pray you now, forget and forgive.

I am old and foolish.

King Lear Act 4, Scene 7.

I suspect it was not the rhythm of the iambic pentameter that led Shakespeare to prefix forgiveness with forgetting. He understood the relationship between remembering and being unable to forgive. I will return to this later in relation to Freud and working through.

 The experiences that led to Adrian Sutton turning his thoughts towards forgiveness and writing the paper he presented for the Squiggle Foundation on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was spending five years as part of a medical education project between Manchester and Gulu University in Northern Uganda. This paper was his psychoanalytic and cultural response to the subject of forgiveness, a subject about which he had not previously specifically formulated his thoughts. His thinking was in part inspired by ‘The Forgiveness Project’ – a joint action research project between Gulu University’s Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies and three Danish Universities. The Forgiveness Project was a contribution to the recovery programme which led to the paper ‘Attainment of Positive Mental Health Through Forgiveness in Northern Uganda’ (Ovuga et al 2011). Adrian had responded informally to this paper which led to to him writing ‘Forgiveness: psychodynamic considerations and their implications’ (2016, in press) for the Journal of Peace and Security Studies.

Seeing the subject of forgiveness through the lens of Winnicott’s maturational processes and the facilitating environment, which has a particular contribution to make as Adrian sees it because it gives due attention to both the internal and external worlds, he set out to explore his misgivings about the way forgiveness is being used in Uganda. With due caution not to question the integrity or honesty of those individuals in Uganda or elsewhere who forgive the perpetrators of awful acts against them, he sought to address four key questions:

Does forgiveness drive change, or is forgiveness a target of change or is it a marker through which we can witness a change?

  1. Does forgiveness result from conscious decisions and acts or is it a result of a complex interaction of various processes (overdetermined in analytic terms)?
  2. What does it take to attain and maintain a state of forgiveness?
  3. What is the relationship between individual experience of forgiveness and the wider social group process that promote forgiveness as morally desirable and pragmatically necessary?
  4. What is the relationship between individual experience of forgiveness and the wider social group process that promote forgiveness as morally desirable and pragmatically necessary?

Adrian concluded that forgiveness should not be presented as a coping strategy for well-being – it emerges in some people as part of a process of coming to terms with their trauma in a state of relative equanimity. It is in some a marker of such change but cannot be seen as a target because this misunderstands its nature as an emergent state of being from within rather than a prescribed or expected aim from without. Adrian sees processes involving personal, interpersonal and community approaches to forgiveness as potentially promoting a state of ‘better being’ in communities and individuals. However, he thinks that forgiveness is not a solution for suffering and forgiving or being forgiven are not a route to peace of mind which might be achieved by someone who remains unforgiving. Adrian sought to emphasise the dangers of an expectation of the achievement of a state of forgiveness in order to secure relief from suffering. He saw this as further victimising victims who are made responsible, implicitly or explicitly, for the ‘duty to forgive’ – and in the absence of forgiveness their suffering may be seen as the cost of a failure to give, a failure to forgive.

A new thought emerged for Adrian in the process of writing about forgiveness – is it morally justifiable to ask for forgiveness? This question arose in the light of his view that the expectation of forgiveness is an unacceptable burden for the victim if it becomes a societal duty rather than a gift freely given. This led to an interesting and far reaching discussion in response to his paper and the discussant Tessa’s response. Adrian had been late in sending his paper to Tessa but in the light of what he had learned he did not ask for her forgiveness.

Human cruelty and hatred in the guise of Christian faith were enacted in Uganda and the injunction to forgive arises in the notion of grace – in a Christian context grace is a God who forgives the sinfulness and evil that resides in all flawed human hearts. An idealized view of forgiveness, it finds its echo in the Mato Oput Ugandan ritual in which victim and perpetrator join in drinking the same bitter juice from one bowl so the bitterness can be left behind.

The working through of guilt, of sorrow, anxiety and concern for the damage we do to others is the psychoanalytic account of facing our unconscious sense of guilt. The trauma that is inflicted on an individual will have different meanings according to their unconscious phantasies but what Freud discovered is the importance of unconscious guilt. In Uganda a child may have been kidnapped and put to killing as part of the Lord’s Resistance Army and then returned to their village. Their capacity to make reparation will be predicated on the severity of their superego. The more severe their superego the less likely they can face the sorrow anxiety and guilt that are part and parcel of the love required to mitigate the hatred they have enacted. In the victim of trauma the more severe their superego the less likely they can face the sorrow anxiety and guilt that are part and parcel of the love required to mitigate the hatred they feel.

The limitations of working through are a recognition that remembering and repeating are an intrinsic part of our grievance and the pain of grieving. Forgiving the irreparable damage done for both victim and perpetrator is a process for both of facing unconscious guilt and the lessening of the severity of the superego through a deepening of sorrow, anxiety and guilt. It is not an event and cannot be prescribed; it is not a cure – no magical reparation will resolve this mental pain. Drinking from the same bowl of bitterness marks a beginning of the reparative process, not the completion of reparation. Reparation cannot be completed.

The capacity for truthful reparation, of concern and a possible deepening of love requires the mitigation of our hatred in remembering and repeating in unconscious phantasy the murder of one’s object in order to recognize it is loved and we have murdered that which we love. When this murder has also taken place in external reality the demand to forget and forgive is unrealistic when it comes to the human heart. I suspect Shakespeare knew that his injunction in the mouth of Lear was as impossible to achieve as telling or asking people to forgive.

Dr James Johnston

Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy


28th June 2016