Fall 2008

Family and Relationships

Forgiveness  (or Something Like It)

Gina Stepp

In January 2008 a Michigan man was sentenced for the particularly cruel murder of his former girlfriend and their newborn daughter. His girlfriend’s sister was quoted as saying, “On behalf of [our] family, we forgive this man, because through forgiveness we can go on with our lives and leave his horrific deeds behind us.”

The local newspaper noted in its report that the sister had hoped vainly for an apology, and that the family was “relieved” that the sentence would mean life imprisonment. Notwithstanding, the slain woman’s family said they forgave the man who had shot their loved one and left his own newborn daughter screaming next to her dead mother while he took another pregnant girlfriend to an appointment. The killer had then gone to work before returning to the murder scene and setting the bed on fire, the baby still crying as he left her to burn with her mother’s body.

It seems incredible that anyone could forgive an apparently unrepentant murderer, especially in such circumstances. But this is not the first family to react this way. What did it mean when their spokesperson said they forgave the murderer? And is there any contradiction in their approval of his prison sentence?

How does one define forgiveness, and what is the point of extending it? Some conceptualize it as an all-encompassing absolution and release from the requirement of a penalty. Others allow that there can be a kind of forgiveness without completely forgetting, while still others believe it’s impossible even to approach forgiveness unless and until an apology has been offered and accepted. It seems the word forgiveness is popularly applied to a variety of actions that might be better described in different terms. In fact, there is no universally accepted definition of forgiveness. Yet without a definition, it is nearly impossible to determine whether and how this virtue can be applied in human relationships. It may be that we sometimes use the term forgiving when we mean “setting aside our differences” or “not nursing a grudge.”

Researchers who study mental and emotional health do know one thing, however: when we don’t work toward a state of mind of something like forgiveness, we are the ones who suffer the most harm. A long history of research has shown that holding on to resentment, hatred and anger has measurable negative health consequences that can manifest themselves in a variety of forms, from emotional and cardiovascular problems to a weakened immune system.

For this reason there has been renewed interest in the topic in recent years, along with some attempts to evolve a practical definition of forgiveness. In a 2001 study published by the American Psychological Society, for instance, three researchers from Hope College in Michigan boiled down existing research this way: “The literature on forgiveness has focused on the effects of two unforgiving responses (rehearsing the hurt, harboring a grudge) and two forgiving responses (developing empathy for the offender’s humanity, granting forgiveness) to interpersonal violations.”

This definition seems somewhat circular at first glance. It’s easy to see how developing empathy for the offender’s humanity is a response that facilitates forgiveness, but what did the study’s authors mean by the second term, “granting forgiveness,” especially considering that forgiveness was as yet undefined?

One good reason for breaking down forgiving responses into two categories is that developing the empathy required to put aside a grudge doesn’t require the participation of the offender. However, granting forgiveness is widely seen as a series of actions between two people, one of whom is penitent, and one of whom grants forgiveness in response.

Forgive, perhaps, but don’t forget—at least not entirely. There are larger lessons for humanity to learn from acts of oppression and brutality. They need to be held in mind as morality tales, reminders to the ages.” 

Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence (2006)

The authors continued: “Granting forgiveness builds on the core of empathy and involves cognitive, emotional, and possibly behavioral responses. It is important to note that forgiveness still allows for holding the offender responsible for the transgression, and does not involve denying, ignoring, minimizing, tolerating, condoning, excusing, or forgetting the offense” (emphasis added).

While this may help illustrate what forgiveness is not, there is still a need for clarification on the positive side. The researchers went on to address the issue this way: “Although no universal definition of forgiveness exists, theorists emphasize that it involves letting go of the negative feelings and adopting a merciful attitude of goodwill toward the offender.”

With this specific interpretation of forgiveness in hand, the researchers then examined the emotional and physical effects that this kind of forgiving attitude had on victims of an offense. They found that forgiving thoughts resulted in lower stress responses and increased feelings of control, which is one characteristic that psychologists see as a key to resilience, or the ability to bounce back from stress and trauma (see “Building Resilience in a Turbulent World”). Unforgiving thoughts, in contrast, caused increases in negative physical measurements, including heart rate and blood pressure changes.

Can’t Forgive, Won’t Forgive

Clearly there are concrete physical benefits to offended parties when they choose to forgive. Do we therefore conclude that this is the point of putting aside our differences? To focus on ourselves and our needs so we can get past the hurt?

In a 2008 book titled The Forgiveness Myth, authors Gary Egeberg and Wayne Raiter suggest that focusing on the self is a helpful alternative approach for those who “can’t or won’t forgive.”

Egeberg, a former prison chaplain, and Raiter, a therapist, argue that while forgiveness may be preferable in some cases, not everyone is able to summon this attitude: “If that is the case, then it makes sense to leave your offender out of the picture and focus on yourself and on what you need” (emphasis theirs throughout).

The reality, they say, is that even when we think we have forgiven, we may sometimes have intensely bitter thoughts and feelings about those who have hurt us. Their alternative approach allows for this. “In fact,” they write, “the alternatives allow you to think and feel—and accept—exactly what you are thinking and feeling at any point in time, even when it is not what you would LIKE to be thinking and feeling.” 

The authors continue, “You can be having the most bitter thoughts and painful feelings imaginable, and that is perfectly acceptable. And it matters not whether you are experiencing them three days or thirty years after you were first hurt. . . . The healthy alternatives free us from having to think and feel in a certain way.”

Following Egeberg and Raiter’s exposition further, we find this statement: “Regarding someone who has hurt you, the healthy alternatives to forgiving allow you to feel whatever you are feeling, whether it is complete bitterness and hatred toward and about your offender or an overwhelming sense of compassion for them, or something in-between.”

Perhaps it’s not farfetched to imagine that part of one’s inner turmoil might be relieved by grasping at Egeberg and Raiter’s permission to feel hatred and bitterness, but it does seem hard to believe that holding on to such feelings can truly constitute a healthy alternative, especially considering the overwhelming research that points to the important connection between physical health and well-being and letting go of negative feelings.

Interestingly, Egeberg and Raiter hardly bring up the subject of research, despite the fact that several important studies on various aspects of forgiveness have come out in the current decade. Instead their arguments seem to focus on tearing down one straw man: “Conventional understandings of forgiveness,” they assert, “do not allow you to think and feel what you are thinking and feeling, unless you are thinking positively and feeling warmly toward and about your offender, which is hard to do when a memory of how you were hurt comes to mind again.”

Is it at all likely that the sister of the murdered Michigan woman is feeling “warmly” toward her sibling’s killer? It wouldn’t seem so. Yet she considers herself to have forgiven him. Perhaps what she means is that she has put hatred and bitterness behind her and found a way to consider a future that transcends both the murderer and his atrocities. But the fact that she may not feel hatred does not necessarily mean she feels warmth. Might she, even without warmth, have attained an attitude that is popularly called forgiveness? Might she somehow have summoned the goodwill to hope that the man who so violently ended her sister’s life will someday come to a complete change of heart and mind and feel genuine horror and sorrow for his actions?

Even without the warm feelings that Egeberg and Raiter assume are an essential part of conventional understandings of forgiveness, this woman displays a constructive approach to emotional healing. So where does their assumption come from?

According to the chaplain and the therapist, “some of the strongest advocates [of conventional understandings] are those who invoke the name of God or ‘religious truth.’ Yet many millions are turning away from the religious tradition in which they were raised . . . because the ‘truths’ that were—and still are—assumed to be true are no longer plausible or credible. They don’t seem to be so unquestionably true after all, especially in light of their life experiences.”

Further, they write, “millions of individuals who have turned away from religious authority are discovering that they are the true authorities of their own lives and that they have the power to author, to write, the remaining chapters of their lives as they so choose . . . and for many, neither their head nor their heart can buy in to the forgiveness myth any longer. As the one and only person who has suffered your particular hurts and who knows how your hurts have impacted your life, you are the only one who gets to decide how to heal.

A Wider View

There seem to be two major flaws in the argument that conventional forgiveness concepts can be disregarded as myth without fear of health repercussions.

The first lies in the fact that there isn’t only one conventional forgiveness concept; there are numerous religious perspectives. Even among Judeo-Christian traditions, forgiveness has no universally accepted definition. This is well illustrated by a 2000 compendium on the subject, Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice. Edited by eminent psychologists Michael E. McCullough, Kenneth I. Pargament and Carl E. Thoresen, this summary includes a 24-page chapter exploring the dizzying array of views on forgiveness held by various religious belief systems.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are facilitated when wrongdoers accept responsibility for the injustice and resulting harm and vow never again to repeat it.” 

Froma Walsh, Strengthening Family Resilience (2006)

It’s interesting to note that this analysis describes very few of the examined belief systems as requiring the victim to think “warmly” about the offender, especially when there has been no reconciliation. In fact, forgiveness and reconciliation are seen in many belief systems as very different processes. There is often room for the victim to conceptualize compassion, empathy and goodwill in transcendent terms, taking into account the future potential of the offender as opposed to developing a warm feeling about the offender’s present state.

The second flaw lies in the assumption that we can heal mentally and emotionally without changing the way we think and feel. Although it’s tempting to believe we can maintain good health while allowing ourselves to cling to any negative emotion that feels natural, research tells us this is a pipe dream. Trauma studies repeatedly underscore the importance of changing the way we think in order to resist depression and foster resilience. Replacing negative ways of thinking with positive ones is foundational to becoming emotionally mature and mentally resilient.

In fostering healing and resilience,” points out Froma Walsh, a leading expert in resilience and family therapy, “traumatic events in the past are not erased, but perceptions and feelings concerning them, as well as their implications for our lives, can be fundamentally altered.” She is quick to say that forgiveness does not remove accountability from the offender. Nor is it always necessary or even preferable to wipe the events from memory. “If we forget the damage that occurred,” says Walsh, “we may not learn from it to take the steps necessary to prevent such actions from happening again in the future.” She adds, “New terms for the relationship must be set to ensure that such damage never again occurs.”

Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of both Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, holds a similar view of forgiveness. It “does not require condoning some offensive act, forgetting what happened, or reconciling with the perpetrator,” he says. “It means finding a way to free oneself from the claws of obsession about the hurt.”

The point of this kind of forgiveness is partly for our own benefit. Goleman reiterates the well-established fact that “studies of people posthostility reveal that every time they merely think of the group they hate, their own body responds with pent-up anger; it floods with stress hormones, raising their blood pressure and impairing their immune effectiveness.” On the other hand, “forgiving someone we’ve held a grudge against reverses the biological reaction: it lowers our blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones and it lessens our pain and depression.”

But there may occasionally be other positive results. Froma Walsh has seen examples in her experience as a therapist: “In the case of the murder of a teenager,” she says, “the [victim’s] mother’s journey of forgiveness was begun primarily for her own and her family’s healing, but also contributed to remarkable transformation . . . for the offender. He rose above his initial lack of concern to take accountability, had genuine remorse, and devoted his full efforts to turning his life around. The compassion shown between the victim’s parents and the offender’s parents brought mutual healing.”

While it may be rare for offenders to be transformed so dramatically when they are approached with compassion, even the possibility of positive change for offenders offers victims a measure of the kind of transcendent meaning that is known to increase their own resilience. Add the physiological benefits reaped by those who foster positive responses, plus the increased courage and empathy for others that are also byproducts, and working toward forgiveness begins to resemble a solid pathway to personal growth.

At the very least it’s the surest way out of the prison of hatred and bitterness that otherwise confines those who refuse to let go of the bars.