Forgive Their Trespasses

All Is Forgiven?

From the WebMD Archives

June 18, 2001 -- On the evening of the day after his mother was murdered in 1995, Everett Worthington stood with his brother in the house where the crime had been committed and contemplated a baseball bat. "If the guy who did it were here," he remembers thinking, "I'd beat his brains in."

Â

Worthington, chairman of the department of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., is a researcher who had already spent 10 years studying forgiveness -- the mysterious capacity of individuals to relinquish their fury against an offender. And his enraged reaction the night after the murder would later serve as an epiphany in his own coming to terms with forgiveness.

Â

As Worthington recounts, a teenager had broken into his mother's house on New Year's Eve to commit a robbery. The lights were out, the woman had gone to bed early, and there was no car in the driveway.

Â

"He must have thought it would be the perfect crime," Worthington recalls. "I tried to image very vividly what this kid, who probably had a record of breaking and entering, might have been thinking when my mother appears behind him. He's standing there with a crowbar in his hand, and he probably just lashed out."

Â

Was the furious reaction of a troubled adolescent much worse than the vengeful anger of the mature psychologist holding a baseball bat? For Worthington, the question confirmed his own belief -- one shared by other researchers -- that a key to forgiveness is the ability to see oneself in one's own tormentors.

Â

"I realized that with all my maturity compared to your average hormone-driven teenager, I still wanted to beat his brains out," he recalls. "I thought to myself: How can I not feel compassion for a kid who is reacting on the spur of the moment? If I can confess that anger and be forgiven, how can I not forgive him?"

National Forgiveness Week

In the wake of the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the subject of revenge, forgiveness, and bringing closure to open wounds is on many minds.

Continued

Â

This week, National Forgiveness Week is being sponsored by Positive People Partners of Maumee, Ohio, an association of individuals "dedicated to improving interpersonal communications and eliminating negative thinking and negative stress in the environment." The weeklong observance asks people to forgive themselves on Sunday, spouses on Monday, children on Tuesday, family on Wednesday, friends on Thursday, neighbors on Friday, and enemies on Saturday.

Â

Meanwhile, Worthington and other scientists interested in forgiveness -- what it is, how it happens, and how it affects human and health and relationships -- say research in the field is exploding. "Before the mid-1980s there were almost no scientific studies of forgiveness," Worthington says.

Â

Psychologist Michael McCullough, PhD, says interest in forgiveness is a reaction to a "culture of victimization" that appears at times to encourage dwelling on grievances.

Â

"People have grown tired of simply pointing fingers and attributing blame," says McCullough, assistant professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Culturally, people have begun to wonder whether there is something more positive we can do."

Â

Worthington and McCullough say research on forgiveness suggests it can lead to better health. One recent study, for instance, found that holding a grudge could be bad for your heart and your health.

Â

In the study, 71 volunteers were asked to think about someone who had hurt them significantly and to reflect on that person in both forgiving and unforgiving ways.

Â

During unforgiving reflection, volunteers were asked to actively relive the offense and to think about how they would like to get back at the offender. Later, they were asked to reverse their thinking, to focus on the humanity of the offended, and to think sympathetically about why the person may have committed the offense.

Â

During both forgiving and unforgiving reflection, a host of bodily reactions -- including heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, and facial patterns -- were monitored.

Â

The results were telling: During unforgiving reflection, volunteers had a higher heart rate, higher blood pressure, increased perspiration, and increased frowning.

Â

"Our research shows that simply thinking about one's offender in a begrudging way can have immediate physical ramifications," says author Charlotte Witvliet, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. "Short, fleeting thoughts are unlikely to have long-term health impact, but we know hostility is a potent risk factor for heart disease. When we have deep wounds, and hostility becomes an engrained personality trait, then it can be health eroding."

Â

Yet for all that is being learned about forgiveness, it remains a largely mysterious phenomenon. McCullough says he believes scientists have a long way to go before proving conclusively that the capacity to forgive produces better health.

Â

"That type of evidence will turn up soon, but right now it's an open question," he says. "This is a brand new field, still in its embryonic state."

Continued

Forgiveness: What Is it?

A fundamental problem confronting forgiveness researchers is how to define it. Is it an emotional response, a mental process, or some complex combination?

Â

Worthington believes it can best be defined by comparing it to its opposite -- what he calls unforgiveness. "I look at forgiveness as an emotional replacement of unforgiving feelings with positive emotions, such as love, empathy, or compassion," Worthington says.

Â

Some personality types appear to be related to the capacity to forgive or not to forgive. Anger and rumination may predispose individuals to being unforgiving, while the converse of those traits -- agreeableness, generosity, and empathy -- are likely to predispose one to let go of grudges.

Â

"What we have found is that people who are really good at forgiving are people who are able to generate empathic emotions -- feelings of tenderness, warmth, and sympathy -- for the offender," says McCullough. "Those tender emotions themselves actually cause people to be more forgiving."

Â

And there have been some steps toward understanding the brain and body chemistry of forgiveness, drawing on the work of neuropsychologists who look at the way feelings become "embodied" through the chemical activity of the brain.

Â

In theory, it works like this: The body produces muscle reactions and other bodily sensations in response to any experience -- for instance, a slight, an insult, or a violation. Those sensations are fed into the brain, which "labels" the experience with a specific chemical response. Later, when any similar slight or insult is experienced, the old embodied emotion will be reproduced.

Â

So forgiveness may be a process -- sudden and profound, or time-consuming and incremental -- by which old embodied feelings of anger and resentment are replaced with new chemical reactions in the body, Worthington says.

Liberating the Offended

Such a complete replacement of unforgiving feelings can be difficult and painful to come by -- as anyone who has suffered a profound grievance can testify. But even if true forgiveness is impossible, Worthington says, there are many ways to reduce unforgiveness -- including retribution.

Â

So what of the execution of Timothy McVeigh? Will it help people close the wound of the Oklahoma City bombing, or prolong its pain in a different way?

Continued

Â

"For many people it puts a close on the interaction with McVeigh himself," Worthington says. "Some people probably feel that justice has been done sufficiently that we can put it aside. Justice does chip away at the boulder of unforgiveness."

Â

But forgiveness -- of the kind Worthington says he has fought for in his own personal struggle -- is something different and more difficult, he says. And it is something the bombing victims' survivors can only struggle for themselves, if they wish.

Â

Witvliet emphasizes that forgiveness isn't about letting offenders off easy, but about liberating the offended from the ill effects of vengefulness.

Â

"It's about letting go of the bitterness eating at us," she says. "By giving an unwarranted gift to someone who doesn't deserve it, we find paradoxically that it is we, ourselves, who are freed from that bondage."

WebMD Feature
© 2001 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

Pagination