To forgive is human. It's just very hard. People are wired to respond with anger, hold grudges and seek revenge; and in spite of the teachings of Christianity and other religions, victims of wrongdoing usually do all three.
The brother who tormented you when you were little. The spouse who cheated. The terrorists who continue to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Why should you forgive them?
Researchers and academics may have an answer, even for those who don't believe that the act of forgiveness is good for the soul. In recent years, scientists have gotten interested in the health benefits of forgiveness. Their studies have shown the serious mental, emotional and physical consequences of an unforgiving heart.
The lowest common denominator of this research is the flood of self-help and pop psychology books promoting forgiveness as a cure-all. At the other end of the spectrum, psychotherapists have found forgiveness to be a useful tool in reconciling couples and families. In some studies, it's been linked to a lessening of chronic back pain and depression; in others, to reduced levels of stress hormones. And scientists have found that forgiveness is one of several coping mechanisms that help people with HIV / AIDS live longer, or at least more satisfying, lives.
In 1997, research consisted of only 58 empirical studies. Since then, more than 1,200 scientific papers have been published on the subject.
"The topic of forgiveness is hot right now," says psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, author of How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not to (HarperCollins, 2004). "Conferences are being held. Articles are being written. Forgiveness is being plucked out of the spiritual and theological realm and put into the psychological and physical."
Like acupuncture, meditation and other alternative healing strategies, forgiveness has only recently become a respectable topic of scientific studies. In 1990, psychologist Fred DiBlasio, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, submitted an article to an international scientific journal on his research. The journal was willing to publish it if he would agree to change the word "forgiveness" to "forgetting."
"It was too spiritual for them," says DiBlasio.
But forgiveness, of course, isn't the same thing as forgetting. He didn't make the change.
In his clinical practice, DiBlasio has found that using forgiveness can speed up therapy. Shanae and Fred Murray had one three-hour session with him, and three years later the Pikesville couple still characterize it as life-changing.
The Murrays came to him with a 13-year-old problem, the sort of problem that doesn't seem so serious unless you're caught in the middle of it. Shanae was constantly inviting guests over without telling her husband about it. Fred hated not being consulted, and he didn't want to be a good host. The underlying conflict was quietly destroying their marriage.
"It was eating at me," says Fred, who is an only child. As he talked in the session, he realized his feelings could in part be traced back to the time he served in Vietnam. "I had seen so much death, I wanted to be alone. At home, I would close the doors. I didn't realize what I was doing."
As the session progressed, Fred came to understand why Shanae continually put him in unwanted social situations. When she was growing up, there were always lots of people around. After church every Sunday, her mother would invite friends over.
"As a little girl in a large, poor family, [Shanae, one of seven children,] took care of the whole family. When her husband saw she was the person who brought people together, he could see it wasn't just against him," explains DiBlasio.
"Talking it through releases you," says Fred. "When you forgive someone, you forgive yourself. You release some baggage."
"Everything is forgivable," adds Shanae. "It doesn't mean you have to forget."
Some patients might not be comfortable with the concept of a forgiveness session, of working toward one person saying the words I forgive you.
The Murrays, members of the Colonial Baptist Church congregation in Randallstown, found it particularly helpful because it fit so well with their religious beliefs.
Finding the way
Most studies show that people who don't have profound faith have a more difficult time forgiving, says Everett Worthington, executive director of the Virginia-based foundation A Campaign for Forgiveness Research. The author of many books and articles on the subject, Worthington found his own faith tested on New Year's Eve in 1995 when an intruder murdered his mother.
"I'm not an uber-forgiver," he says. "I once held a grudge against a professor who gave me a B for 10 years."
But to start the process, he tried to empathize with the assailant: the fear he must have felt when Worthington's mother walked in on him during the robbery; the fact that all the mirrors in the house had been smashed after the attack, suggesting to the psychologist that the murderer couldn't bear his own reflection.
Still, it wasn't until later when Worthington was talking to his brother that he had an epiphany. He had pointed to a baseball bat nearby and raged, "I wish he were here right now."
"Whose heart was darker?" he says now. "I was a 48-year-old forgiveness expert and a Christian. I knew I could be forgiven. Who am I to hold this grudge against this kid?"
Even though the assailant was never caught, Worthington says he has been able to move on.
Closing the circle
But isn't moving on possible without forgiveness, simply by letting go of your anger? Based on her research, Lydia Temoshok, director of the Behavioral Medicine Program at the Institute of Human Virology, University of Maryland, Baltimore, says no. "It's letting go, and I forgive you. It's something about that added component. Then you close the circle. It's not just stopping something, but starting a new pattern."
She works with HIV / AIDS patients, which, she says, can involve a lot of forgiveness. Do they forgive people for not accepting them? Do they forgive the person who infected them? Do they forgive God? Do they forgive themselves? Do they forgive science for not having a cure?
The program's preliminary work suggests that forgiveness lowered the stress hormones that in turn affect the immune system, but only when the patients genuinely forgave the ones they blamed.
Like any subject of scientific research, the experts come down on both sides of the question. Jeffrie Murphy, author of Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits (Oxford University Press, 2003), argues we shouldn't condemn those who choose not to forgive. He worries, for instance, about the abused wife who forgives and then gets beaten up again.
"Forgiveness can be a great blessing, but it should be used selectively," he says. "There's a kind of messianic pro-forgiveness movement out there. The forgiveness crowd is always saying that forgiveness will give you closure. But also seeing [offenders] get what they deserve can bring closure."
Steps toward forgiveness
Everett Worthington, executive director of A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, uses the word "reach" as a reminder of five steps to reach forgiveness:
R: Recalling the hurt but not getting mired in negativity.
E: Empathizing with the offender.
A: Altruistic gift of forgiving -- a gift that blesses the person who hurt you. You aren't going to forgive just because it will make you feel better.
C: Committing publicly to forgiving, even if it's just a small public, even if it's just writing it down.
H: Holding onto the forgiveness. When we see the offender, we often have a negative, knee-jerk reaction. Hold on to the knowledge that you have forgiven.