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The power of forgiveness

From family counseling to political conflict, giving up grudges isemerging as a healing tool.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1999

Little Earl and his mom and dad were having a terrible time. Diagnosed as hyperactive and defiant at school and at home, the redheaded seven-year-old with a sprinkle of freckles couldn't seem to control his anger. One tumultuous week it got so bad he was hospitalized for the weekend.

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Six months later, Earl was much happier: He had found a new way to deal with his feelings, his parents' relationship with each other had improved, and he no longer needed the Ritalin or Prozac he was being given for hyperactivity. He began to do well in school.

Both he and his parents had found a "third way" to deal with their anger. Rather than denying or venting it, they had learned how to forgive. And their answer is one that is being explored much more widely today.

"Forgiveness has remarkable healing power in the lives of those who utilize it," says Richard Fitzgibbons, the Philadelphia psychiatrist who worked with Earl and is one of the pioneers in introducing forgiveness into the mental-health field.

Whether it be small wrongs, betrayals, or great crimes and injustices, most people struggle with the resentments and grudges that can arise from being treated unfairly. And the failure of so many to deal effectively with them echoes loudly in today's school violence, high rates of divorce and domestic battering, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as in criminal acts, ethnic warfare, and terrorism.

Some see hope in the rediscovered power of forgiveness. They see its potential not only for personal life, but in community, national, and international relations. And many are practicing it. In a three-part series, the Monitor looks at what some are learning.

"Forgiveness is one of the key ideas in this world. It is not just some nebulous, vague idea that one can easily dismiss," says Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the introduction to "Exploring Forgiveness" (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1998). "It has to do with uniting people through practical politics. Without forgiveness there is no future." South Africa is a testament to his words.

Forgiveness is a "hot topic" now in many areas, from academic research to marital and family counseling to politics and community life. But it isn't just President Clinton's tribulations that have brought the issue to the fore. Nor is it a popular fad. (Research shows that despite considering themselves religious, the majority of Americans don't think of forgiveness as one of their top options when they are injured.)

In the past 14 years or so, forgiveness has spread from its acknowledged domain in religious thinking and practice into the scientific community, where research has shown impressive results, and some practitioners are developing enthusiasm for its wide potential.

"Long considered the extra mile of mercy toward the offender that is required from a 'believer,' forgiveness is now being rediscovered as a creative human faculty for overcoming estrangement," says Lewis Smedes, professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., in "Dimensions of Forgiveness" (Templeton Foundation Press, 1998). Dr. Smedes is the author of "Forgive and Forget," the 1984 book some say first sparked the interest among clinicians and the general public.

"Forgiveness is more than a moral imperative, more than a theological dictum. It is the only means, given our humanness and imperfections, to overcome hate and condemnation and proceed with the business of growing and loving," says Paul Coleman, a psychologist in Wappinger Falls, N.Y., whose work "was rejuvenated" when he started planting that seed with his clients.