The power of forgiveness

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

A pioneer who helped spur this growing interest is Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who created the first research program on forgiveness. Unhappy with research that didn't directly speak to people's needs, Dr. Enright found during the mid-1980s that "forgiveness" struck an immediate chord among his students from various cultures and walks of life, and that there were almost no studies on the subject.

He and his partners have since explored what forgiveness is, worked on a model for how to forgive, and studied its effects on groups, from elderly people holding on to hurts to victims of incest. They have found that for those who achieve it, forgiveness reduces anxiety, anger, and depression, and increases self-esteem and hope.

"My biggest surprise is how powerful forgiveness actually is for emotional healing," Enright says in an interview. "I figured it would make a difference, but usually in the social sciences our results are quite modest and mixed.... For the most part, our findings have been very strong and have withstood the test of time in people."

Dr. Fitzgibbons says he also sees in his practice "enhanced capacity to trust, freedom from subtle control of individuals and events of the past, and increased feelings of love."

Enright and Fitzgibbons are together writing a book on forgiveness. "What we are trying to do," Fitzgibbons says, "is propose an alternative method for treating anger other than medication."

He is particularly concerned about what he thinks are increased levels of anger in schools, which often go unrecognized. He points to the almost 40 percent of young Americans who are in homes without their fathers. His experience shows, he says, that many youngsters feel sad and angry about this and about conflicts they have with their fathers. That anger becomes misdirected at other children, who are picked on and scapegoated.

In Earl's situation, not only was he hurt by the anger his parents constantly expressed even though they loved each other, he was also being scapegoated at an after-school program. His parents learned to forgive their own fathers (for alcoholism), which reduced their anger levels, and Earl learned to forgive them. He also stopped going to the after-school program.

"Being a scapegoat is a painful experience that often results in fantasies of getting revenge," Fitzgibbons says. He and Enright see the need for developing educational materials on forgiveness for use in schools. Enright has already had requests from school districts for help in developing a curriculum, and is even in contact with people in public schools in the Balkans.

The potential applications for many fields have galvanized researchers. When the Templeton Foundation in 1997 set aside $3 million for forgiveness research, it was swamped with worthy proposals on aspects ranging from marriage to coping with violence to politics to effects on physical health and spiritual well-being.

The nonprofit "Campaign for Forgiveness Research" has been created to seek donations to fill out the $10 million needed to support them.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is co-chair with former President Jimmy Carter, author Robert Coles, and community activist Ruby Bridges, known for her forgiving spirit at age 6, when threatened by crowds as she walked to a then all-white New Orleans school.

While such research has been controversial ever since Enright got started, "it's mainstream now - small, but mainstream," says Everett Worthington Jr., executive director of the campaign and a marriage and family therapist in Virginia who pioneered forgiveness in his field. He points to the top journals that now accept writing on the subject.

For some scientists, it remains too religious a concept. Others may see it "as naive or simplistic in a culture where rewards must be earned and benefits always paid for," says British therapist Sue Walrond-Skinner in the Journal of Family Therapy. In domestic violence cases it could be dangerous if not handled properly.

But forgiveness is not the same as condoning or forgetting wrong, nor does it preclude justice being done (see box on page 14), say Enright and others. It's a choice we make and often a challenging and lengthy process we go through to wipe away the negative consequences of an injustice to ourselves and the wrongdoer.

Forgiveness has "a spiritual component," Dr. Coleman says, "a grace from God, if you will," and spirituality has only become a little more accepted in the mental health field in the last decade. Using forgiveness also requires a change in the therapist's traditional approach, he points out. In focusing wholly on the client in a nonjudgmental way, "psychology had contributed to a sense of entitlement," he says. "People weren't guilty of anything themselves, they were victims." But forgiveness requires focusing on understanding the other person, as well as seeing oneself as capable of hurting others, too.

Coleman, author of "The 30 Secrets of Happily Married Couples," first learned its power from his clients Mary and Rick back in the late 1980s. They came to him on the brink of divorce. After working with them for months, he was startled when Rick said one evening, "Our last meeting changed the way we view our marriage. For all that's been accomplished over the past year, your question about whether we'd ever forgive each other might be the most important thing you've ever said."

Coleman didn't recall saying it, so he obviously hadn't considered it crucial. But from then on, "I worked with a transformed couple. Forgiveness was their goal, and they worked hard on it. Resentments really did wither, hope emerged healthy and vigorous, and they were in love again." The bottom line, he says, is "you can't have a reconciliation with family members without forgiving. You can forgive without reconciling."

Ann McLaughlin understands that situation. A therapist in Poulsbo, Wash., she has worked a lot with families where sexual or physical abuse has occurred - experiences that often "shake people to their roots and shatter their sense of meaning," she says.

She began to explore the process of forgiveness after three years of tough cases, seeking to "help people extricate these things from their lives when they look so inevitable to them."

Forgiveness "is very central to addressing deep hurts," she says, "and it becomes a question of harnessing their spiritual belief system." But it is a layered process that usually takes a lot of time. It is also especially important in such cases that justice be done, and an apology be rendered.

"Why is forgiveness so powerful a force?" asks Harry Aponte in the Journal of Family Therapy. "Because it is a direct product of love.... The spiritual will to forgive frees us to do the emotional work of forgiving. The ability to act more freely follows."

Everyone agrees that it can't be done casually, however. "Cheap forgiveness," in which one marital partner expects another to forgive right away, can "make it impossible for a relationship to continue," warns Ray Anderson, professor of theology and ministry at Fuller. He teaches reconciliation and does pastoral counseling.

Dr. Worthington, author of "To Forgive is Human," says the key ingredient is empathy. "The degree to which a person can empathize is related strongly to the degree they can forgive."

Given what is happening in the world, he adds, forgiveness "has the potential to be enormously influential" in the 21st century. Research will also soon show, he says, that it will be very healthy not just to forgive an event or a person but to have a forgiving character.

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