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They say you can do yourself a favor forgiving others


While we of the human race have made great progress in many areas, we are surprisingly inept at getting along with one another. Here we are, hanging on to this little planet adrift in the universe; one might expect us to be kinder, if only out of self-interest. Instead, we spend much time and energy hurting each other, from family quarrels to world wars. With life so short, this seems, to say the least, to be throwing away our best shot at happiness.

To be fair to ourselves, we have made some strides. The world's religions are fairly unanimous in their pursuit of mutual goodwill, which on good days could turn into love. And as modern life grew more hectic, other disciplines and discoveries have aimed at making our lives more wholesome. Psychology, one of the success stories of the century, has taken a close look at us from the inside and found room for improvement.

From justice to mercy

Not surprisingly, the best time for improvement is when we're young. So, when developmental psychologist Robert Enright was lured at a young age to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, his main focus was the moral development of children.

Now, 19 years later, he tells NCR on the phone, he is "as much a fixture at Madison as the ivy on the hallowed walls." And he is making his mark in an area so offbeat as to raise academic eyebrows, but so vital that, if he is correct, the way we cope with each other may never again be quite the same.

He is founder and director of the International Forgiveness Institute, the only such institution in the world.

Most of the work done this century in developmental psychology, Enright explains, has been focused on the concept of justice. This in turn reflects the historical evolution of our lives together. We look back now and say that "an eye for an eye," the lex talionis, recommended in the Old Testament, was rather harsh. In fact it was an effort at a more benign justice system. Previous to that, if you took my eye, I took your life, or as much of you as I could get. And ever since Old Testament times we have been searching for ways to improve on an-eye-for-an-eye. "How people learn to be fair," Enright calls it. In the modern social sciences, this justice orientation has been dominated by the theories of Lawrence Kohlberg. The Western, Christian ethos developed over the centuries to go the extra mile has had an uphill climb.

Then, 12 years ago, Enright goes on, "I realized that much of that work was insulated within university walls and not much of it was getting out to everyday people." So he began some serious personal evaluation. What could he explore in the field of morality that would be 1) unique, 2) of interest to everyday people and also 3) helpful to them?

As he studied the situation more thoroughly, in place of justice "questions of mercy kept coming up." But his peers, he found, had only "dabbled" in mercy, including some studies of altruism.

As he delved deeper into the concept of mercy, forgiveness kept surfacing. Forgiveness matched his three criteria, especially the first: He was amazed to find how unique his interest was. He went in search of all the works in English and found only 110 from the time of St. Augustine to 1970, and most of these were not major works. Considering how freely we throw around the word forgiveness in daily conversation, and considering the huge overall numbers of learned articles and dissertations written over the years and centuries, this neglect of forgiveness must say something serious about us.

Enright also saw, in spite of the previous neglect, that people were, at last, interested. "Since the 1980s," he wrote in 1996, "a growing number of scholars and practitioners in such diverse fields as psychology, psychiatry, medicine, theology, philosophy, social work, counseling and education have examined forgiveness within their own disciplines."

But this bandwagon did not get rolling overnight. So Enright was taking a considerable risk when, following a hunch -- a working hypothesis, he calls it -- that forgiveness could actually help people, he "literally dropped everything" to pursue the subject. He had well-funded research programs in place, and awards hanging on the wall, and dropped it all to take a chance on forgiveness in order to have an impact on the actual lives of people.

His colleagues did not say openly that he was crazy. Rather, there was a "whispered skepticism." He recalls one colleague, "world renowned" in the area of depression, who asked if he was serious about his working hypothesis -- that if people would forgive, this would reduce psychological depression -- then laughed in disdain at the idea.

But by 1996 Enright was able to write: "Recent research has shown that people who are deeply and unjustly hurt by others can heal emotionally by forgiving their offender."

So why did so many jump on the forgiveness bandwagon in the meantime? Responds Enright: "I honestly think I had nothing to do with this explosion of interest. ... I think it's the time that's right. I do believe that, in academia and in the world at large, there are these zeitgeists, the spirit of the time, and this is one of those: There are too many people from too many diverse views coming to it. I just happened to get a head start."

Asked what exactly about our times puts such a focus on forgiveness, Enright points to the pervasive anger in society at large: the anger that has drivers doing crazy things out on the highway; the anger teachers say they see in their pupils as never before; the anger on the part of legislators, expressed by such punitive measures as "three strikes and you're out." From spitting on umpires in sports to the fulminations on hate radio, the excessive stress of the late 20th century is taking its toll on people in public and private. "If we were to keep score through the daily newspaper we'd see vindictiveness is winning over mercy," says Enright.

At the first national conference on forgiveness, in 1995, psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons said: "We are in a culture where excessive anger is totally out of control. Something must be done quickly or we are in great trouble. There are three basic ways of dealing with the anger, Fitzgibbons went on: deny it; express it in indirect or underhand ways while pretending we're not angry; or forgive.

Forgiving is the other side of the anger coin. When therapists actually try forgiveness -- and sometimes they just stumble on it, Enright says -- they find "there's a certain beauty to it, a helpfulness that keeps them going."

The forgiveness institute

As this new interest in and respect for forgiveness grew, Enright last year moved on to the next step, the foundation of the International Forgiveness Institute. The institute has no ivied walls yet; it is situated, rather, in Enright's home. But it has a distinguished board of directors, including honorary board member Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It has a newsletter. It proposes five activities: information, education, consultation, research and an association of forgiveness studies.

If these sound remote and academic, that's not Enright's intention. In keeping with his original impulse to avoid academic isolation, he wants his home phone and fax numbers and E-mail address available to everyone at all times (PO Box 6153, Madison WI 53716-0153. Phone (608) 222-0241. Fax (608) 222-0281. E-mail Enright@itis.com).

Currently 14 graduate students are working at the institute on various aspects of forgiveness. And Enright, who has a formidable list of academic publications to his credit, is in growing demand as a speaker and consultant.

So what's forgiveness?

Enright defines forgiveness as "giving up the resentment to which you are entitled and offering to the persons who hurt you friendlier attitudes to which they are not entitled." Sometimes his definitions vary. Forgiveness is so abstract and spiritual, it's hard to wrap it in a definition. In his first newsletter he writes that he and his colleagues have been struggling with the definition for a decade. They agreed that it should be "centered in moral issues, not primarily in psychology or self-help." All the major religious traditions -- he mentions Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian -- placed forgiveness "within morality or the quest for the good."

Catholics, of course, are well acquainted with forgiveness. Christian forgiveness, however, is a theological concept based on belief rather than science, specifically our belief that God forgives us, whereas psychology uses the scientific approach to cope with our more down-to-earth challenges in interpersonal relationships.

While religious movements have exalted forgiveness, other modern theorists have tried to deflate it. Enright points in particular to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who held that forgiveness is for weaklings, or for the down-and-out with no other options. "The strong go to war, the weak forgive," sums up this point of view.

"I think he is absolutely, positively wrong," Enright responds hotly. Empirical findings indicate the opposite: that willingness to forgive shows strength rather than weakness.

Again and again the point is made that, instead of being strong, people who refuse to forgive remain in the power of whoever injured them in the first place. Writes psychiatrist Fitzgibbons, "Those with whom you choose to remain angry will control you. They will limit you emotionally, physically, developmentally."

There's a Chinese proverb to the effect that "the person who seeks revenge should dig two graves." This is quoted by Mike McCullough, author of To Forgive Is Human (InterVarsity Press, 1997). He explains the proverb by saying, in effect, that the anger is just bad medicine. People who nurture revenge are liable to increased heart rate and blood pressure -- "all the risk factors for heart disease, essentially," he says. A study at Harvard School of Public Health showed that men who scored highest on an anger scale were three times more likely to develop heart disease over a seven-year period than low scorers.

McCullough, who has conducted several studies of the physical and emotional consequences of forgiving, concludes: "Those who forgave their transgressors -- even six weeks after the experiment -- were less depressed and anxious, slept better, and were free from obsessive thoughts and revenge fantasies."

There is an abundance of testimony to this healing power of forgiveness. Joanna North, a British philosopher and author of an influential article, "The Ideal of Forgiveness," told the national conference that, while forgiveness is a sort of good deed to the wrongdoer, we find healing power for ourselves. In offering this gift to the other, we ourselves receive a gift as well.

We are also doing something worthy of ourselves, she implies: "Forgiveness enshrines high values which we should endeavor to put into our lives. These high values are trust, compassion and human dignity."

In the end, the experts say, a gift of forgiveness can go far beyond ourselves and the wrongdoer. Often, if we don't let go of the hurt, it will fester and grow from one generation to the next. We can see this on a major scale in places like Northern Ireland and Bosnia, but it is also true at an individual and family level. Sr. of Charity Jacqueline Kowalski told the Cincinnati Enquirer, for an article on forgiveness: "Parents who hold grudges and are consumed by revenge model that behavior for their children." Enright makes the same point: "We must stop a cycle of pain for our own good and for the generations which come after."

Forgiving for the sake of children who are not involved, but may get dragged into the circle of pain later, is a strong motivation to do something healing once and for all. Writes Enright: "The abuse one person feels could be the result of something that happened four generations earlier. Unless you and I make a decision about that pain, we will pass it on to our children. They won't even know why it is happening."

Because people have such fuzzy ideas about forgiveness, Enright condensed the most common misconceptions into four "myths" in an article in McCall's (December 1996): 1) Forgiving is the same as excusing; 2) forgiving is the same as forgetting; 3) forgiving is the same as reconciling; 4) forgiving makes you weak.

Anyone reading a few books or articles on the subject will soon see how wide and deep the misconceptions are.

The process

While it can look neat and cozy on paper, forgiveness is far from easy. As North points out, "we are required to accept back into our heart a person who is responsible for having hurt and damaged us." There is, in short, self-sacrifice involved.

Enright tells the story of a man sentenced to execution for the brutal murder of a child in Taiwan. The child's mother visited him in prison and forgave him. She had no plans to reform him -- there was no time left for that. She had little to gain because the killer had little to give. She said she simply wanted him to have "peace." Hers was a heroic gift with no strings attached.

Even when the injury is smaller, forgiveness can still seem like a very high wall to climb over. There is something in our make-up that wants to hold a grudge and get revenge. For this reason, says Enright, forgiveness can't be forced. It can happen quickly or it might take years. The experts describe it as a process.

Although the journey differs from one case to another, Enright describes a number of important steps along the way:

1. Face up to the anger, shame, hurt or harm. We may feel depressed and not know why until we confront and admit the reasons. This is often hard to do, which is why people often deny or repress their anger for years.

2. Recognize the source of our hurt -- let's say it was Uncle Joe -- and also the particular injury or offense. We may dislike Uncle Joe but be unable to forgive him until we identify what bad thing he has done to us. There's no point in forgiving him just for being Uncle Joe, which he can't help anyway.

3. Choose to forgive. Though there is reason for anger or revenge, we decide not to act on these. It doesn't have to be for the highest possible motive. Enright gives a couple of examples from real life. "I needed to stop being furious with Carol to get my work done effectively," one said. Another felt God wanted her to forgive and would help her do so.

4. Find a new way to think about the person who wronged us. When we stop to think about it, we usually find the other person, despite what he or she did, is not evil incarnate but a vulnerable, possibly hurting human being trying to cope with life like the rest of us.

5. Try on the shoes of the other person. "What was it like for this person, as best you are able to discern, growing up?" asks Enright. Maybe this other person has suffered too. Not that this is an excuse, Enright is quick to point out, but it might put a different complexion on the injury done to us.

Enright writes that frequently this part of the process causes a change of feeling and attitude toward the one who did the injury and predisposes us to think forgiveness might be more appropriate than a chain reaction of revenge and retaliation that often spreads to family or children or neighborhood or workplace, with no end in sight.

Enright doesn't always describe the steps the same way. This probably reflects how unique the process is each time, and how particular the circumstances. At the end of one list he adds another "step": "Don't give up! No one said it's easy."

Yet he and others bear witness that forgiveness works to a surprising degree when given the chance. Even though this was his original hypothesis, he is still surprised how often it works. But he quickly adds that it makes sense anyway: For people who are able to let go of the anger and the hurt, "much of the giving comes back to us in a form a religious person might call peace ... in a diminishment of anxiety and depression and an increase of hope and of self-esteem."

What Enright also finds surprising is how frequently those who attain the forgiveness mode are able to stay there. After other forms of therapy, a "wash-out effect" often occurs -- that is, the effects of the therapy wear off. In the case of forgiveness, by contrast, people usually maintain their emotional health and willingness to forgive.

For believers, of course, forgiveness has one more thing going for it. It's the way God chooses to deal with us, and God expects us to do no less.

The bigger picture

If forgiveness can heal individuals, families and workplaces, Enright is convinced it can work on a wider scale. His goal is nothing less than to create a forgiveness consciousness similar to our health or peace consciousness.

In a 1994 paper delivered in Beograd, Serbia, Enright and his colleagues proposed "a solution to the social crisis in former Yugoslavia through the development of forgiveness education programs."

A tall order. And it must be done individual by individual. Nations can't forgive nations. People forgive people, and sometimes this could reach national proportions. Enright offers South Africa as an example of how forgiveness can be contagious. At his inauguration as the first black president, Nelson Mandela invited his former jailor to sit in the VIP box. He talked about reconciliation but never mentioned forgiveness -- merely demonstrated it.

Forgiveness is a choice, Enright repeats. "You'll never see it legislated." But he hopes to see it demonstrated. And plans to see it spread.

Michael Farrell isNCR's executive editor.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997