My Academic and Personal Search for Forgiveness
When you were young and magic was new, you were taught how to do spells and rites from your parents. Yes. You were. Despite religious affiliation or moral apprehension at the notion of doing magic, you were taught how to perform some of the most ancient and powerful spells humans can know. One of these spells involves two words of power, two words that can evoke incredible reactions and cause total change in your environment, two words that can literally alter the way your life’s path curves. They were handed to you at such a young age that you may have forgotten their power by now. What are these two words? I’m sorry.
Why are they so powerful? Why do I call them a spell? Well, they are words of power that are evoking a marvelous change. Also, it’s a sensational opening paragraph that gets you to read on. Either way, the two words in and of themselves do not mean much of anything without the second part. See, this spell is interactive. It requires the participation of more than one person. The second party/parties must recognize the spell’s call and then choose to impart the gift of forgiveness. It is a choice, after all, and not a guaranteed reaction - as it is with almost all of magic, never being guaranteed a result.
What is forgiveness? Why is it important? What does it do for us, personally, and for others? What are its types and its opposites? All these questions will be examined, but first I would like to explain why this question is coming up for me today.
There is a man named Mark Berndt whose name has been racing through the headlines recently for acts of sexual depravity against young children the likes of which are incredibly rare and incredibly disturbing. He was an elementary school teacher in a Los Angeles area school called Miramonte Elementary School for 31 years. On January 21, 2012, he was arrested and charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct with children, a charge that carries a punishment in California of 15 years to life. He is currently being held on a $23 million dollar bail, $1 million dollars for every count against him. Why so much? Because the kinds of crimes he committed were so extraordinarily appalling.
In his over 30 years of teaching children, he victimized young boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 10. He blindfolded them, fed them his semen with a spoon, put cockroaches on their faces, gagged them, bound them, and had the gall to photograph everything. He was only discovered after a film processor saw that 40 images Berndt was attempting to develop depicted the aforementioned crimes. It is expected that Berndt will serve multiple life sentences.
This kind of case puts my usually over-extended ability to forgive in a precarious position. It also brings to mind the famous C.S. Lewis quote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”
I do not know this man. I do not live in California. I do not have children that go to school at Miramonte, nor do I have any children beyond my prodigiously possessive Pomeranian and my formidably fat cat. I am not sure I have the right to feel the kind of hatred that I do about or towards this man. Yet, I do. When I heard this story for the first time, and as I’ve followed it in the weeks since, I have this deep pit of hatred for this man whom I’ve never met. However…
I grew up in a Christian household. I grew up around a central idea of forgiveness. Jesus was the giver of forgiveness. We were to be like Jesus and forgive others of their wrongdoings against us. The Lord’s Prayer has a line that asks Yahweh’s aspect of God the Father to ‘…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.’ So… Forgiveness. It’s pretty big for most folks. And, it’s not just Christianity that espouses forgiveness.
Judaism requires its adherents to forgive, expressly forbidding wronged individuals not to grant forgiveness. (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 2:10) Islam also preaches forgiveness, and one of the names for their god literally means ‘The All-Forgiving’ (Al-Ghaffur). Eastern philosophies like Buddhism and Hinduism take a karmic approach to forgiveness that is quite psychological in nature. According to those philosophies, one should allow forgiveness so that the wrong done to you does not further wreck your mental well-being. There are almost no religions in the world that do not preach forgiveness.
Here is where I falter. Here is where I scratch my head, because forgiveness is typically seen in a religious light. Most of the time, I can agree that all beings deserve divine absolution, for it is our destiny to learn the lessons of life - perhaps over several lifetimes of learning them - and merge with the divine at the end of our journey. Atonement. Forgiveness. These concepts are central to learning such lessons, but it is severely limiting as a human with the emotional spectrum of a human to look at a person who has done the things that the above-mentioned criminal (and the rest of the folks in history who have committed heinous acts against humanity) has done…and think that they should be forgiven, too.
It might interest you to note that forgiveness was not seen as a topic fit for academic study until as late as the 1980s. Before that it was strictly seen as a religious topic with little psychological, sociological, or academic merit. Boy, did the academic community get it wrong. I suppose we can forgive their inattention…this time. Luckily, there is now a wealth of quality research about forgiveness that we can examine.
Forgiveness, as a word, comes to us from the Old English word ‘forgiefan’, which meant ‘give, grant, allow; forgive’ . It also meant ‘to give up’ and ‘to give in marriage’. When you break the word down to its base parts, it is made of the words for-, meaning completely, and giefan, meaning give. Originally, it is easy to see what this kind of word might have meant, especially in the marriage connotation. It’s a common idea that marriage requires you to give yourself to your partner completely, that there should be no part of you that is not your beloved’s, and vice versa. You are giving up your former life and beginning a new one. But, as was said above, the entire word hinges on the choice to do so, the choice to grant that forgiveness, which, given our newfound understanding of the word, is a bit redundant.
But, forgiveness has a slightly more modern definition. English has many words that borrow from other languages, and forgiveness became mixed up with the Latin word ‘perdonare’ (naturally, this is where we get the word ‘pardon’). When you mixed the completely giving up sense of the original ‘forgiefan’ and the ideas of absolution from punishment in ‘perdonare’, you get the modern word ‘forgive’ that now means ‘to give up the desire or power to punish.’
You see, by definition, when you forgive someone, you are giving up both the desire and the power to continue to punish that person for their wrongdoing. If I can digress for just a moment, this seems to be in direct contrast with the modern notion of ‘forgive and forget’. This phrase has led many a person to say something along the lines of, “I might be able to forgive, but I will never forget.” This seems to imply almost that forgiveness is superficial (the ubiquitous child that has said ‘I’m sorry,’ so often that it has lost all meaning), and you are choosing to harbor a grudge or resentment against the wrongdoer. You are continuing to punish the person and yourself by holding on to the negative feelings associated with the wrong done. This doesn’t seem very forgiving, especially now that we know where the word comes from.
Also, I am beginning to sense a pattern in all of this. Religions of all shapes and sizes say that forgiveness is something good for the wrongdoer. We should be seeking forgiveness for when we act against someone, and - in many cases - the person who has been wronged is required to forgive it. This is all beginning to seem very one-sided. What if Jenny stole my juice box, but then apologizes? I might not want to forgive Jenny, because I’m now juice-less. And, being juice-less is an incredibly sad state of being. Maybe I’m not ready to forgive until restitution of the juice is made. With interest.
In a 2007 WebMD article, Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, PhD, said, “Despite the familiar cliche, 'forgive and forget,' most of us find forgetting nearly impossible. Forgiveness does not involve a literal forgetting. Forgiveness involves remembering graciously. The forgiver remembers the true though painful parts, but without the embellishment of angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt.”
Let’s try and get selfish for a moment; it shouldn’t be hard. (Especially for us Americans.) What can forgiving do for me? I get that being forgiven can lift a weight of guilt off of one’s shoulders, and, by definition, it absolves one of further punishment, but what can forgiving someone do for me?
Continuing from the same article, Witvliet cites a 2001 study in which she examined 71 college age individuals. These individuals were monitored while focusing on both forgiving those that had wronged them in some way and on not forgiving.
"When focused on unforgiving responses, their blood pressure surged, their heart rates increased, brow muscles tensed, and negative feelings escalated," she says. "By contrast, forgiving responses induced calmer feelings and physical responses. It appears that harboring unforgiveness comes at an emotional and a physiological cost. Cultivating forgiveness may cut these costs."
Thanks to scientists finally deciding to examine forgiveness under a microscope, or stethoscope as it were, recent research shows that an ability to forgive those who wrong you can lead to lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, a drop in stress hormones circulating in your blood stream, the disappearance of back pain, headaches, stomach problems, and a reducing of general anger, bitterness, resentment, depression, and other negative emotions.
So, does that mean if I can forgive Jenny for stealing my juice box, I won’t need to buy any more Excedrin? That can all depend on my relationship with Jenny and how much the juice box means to me. Research also shows that these benefits only come into play when one is forgiving something that they would otherwise not, something colloquially said to ‘weigh one down’. Such as, if I worked with a homophobic individual or if I was mugged or if I were raped, these instances are emotionally strong enough to cause the unforgiving to cause the aforementioned negative physiological effects. When someone says holding on to a negative situation is eating you from the inside, new science suggests they might be right.
How does one forgive, though, especially if the wrong is especially harsh or a source of deep scarring? Frederic Luskin, PhD, says that forgiveness is like love: it can’t be forced.
"You can't just will forgiveness," says Luskin, author of Forgive For Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. "What I teach is that you can create conditions where forgiveness is more likely to occur. There are specific practices we offer that diminish hostility and self-pity, and increase positive emotions, so it becomes more likely that a genuine, heartfelt release of resentment will occur."
Luskin suggests that the act of keeping a gratitude journal can assist by slowly changing your thought dynamic to one where you focus on the positive things that happen in your life rather than the negative. In this way, one can forgive easier because they believe there is more positivity than negativity in their lives, thus making the pros outweigh the cons. "Gratitude is simply focusing your attention on the positive things that have happened," he says. "That creates a biochemical experience that makes it more likely that forgiveness will occur."
However, Luskin also discusses something called ‘cognitive reframing’, perhaps better known as a change of perspective. In other words, focusing on the facts of the situation and not about what might have been. You might wish you had a better job, lover, parent, life situation, but the facts are that you are in the place you are and no amount of forgiving or psychological back bending is going to change the facts of the matter.
The book Mea culpa: a sociology of apology and reconciliation by Nicholas Tavuchis says the following, “Very simply…an apology, no matter how sincere or effective, does not and cannot undo what has been done. And yet, in a mysterious way and according to its own logic, this is precisely what it manages to do.” Though, one could argue the latter statement, which Tavuchis does at length. The argument he poses in his book is whether there is such a thing as a true apology in the modern day, or, as was discussed above, have we moved into an era where the apology is so commonplace that one does not take it seriously.
Once someone has apologized, though, how does the process of forgiveness take place? In my research thus far, I have found two different types of forgiveness, though I’m sure further research would lend itself to the finding of dozens more. (After all, if forgiveness is like love we could study it forever and keep finding new types.)
Everett L. Worthington, Jr., PhD, not only has an awesomely ostentatious name, but he has the idea that there are two types of forgiveness: emotional and decisional. Decisional forgiveness, he defines, is the choice to let go of the angry thoughts surrounding the wrongdoing and specifically about the person who performed the act. He says this can be decided by telling yourself you will not seek revenge or that you will actively seek to avoid that person. However, the immediate argument is that this is not the type of true forgiveness Tavuchis would want - a type that ignores the facts of the matter and restores the emotions of the offender and offended to a time before the wrong. Thus, Worthington says the better method of forgiveness, and that which we should strive for, is emotional forgiveness.
When one is engaged in emotional forgiveness, the emotions surrounding the wrong are truly replaced. Bitterness, betrayal, hatred, agony, hostility, anger, etc. are replaced with love, compassion, sympathy, and empathy.
"Emotional forgiveness is where the health action is," says Worthington. "Emotional unforgiveness causes a chronic stress response, which results in obsessing about the wrong done to you. Rumination is what gets people into trouble. Rumination is the mental health bad boy. It's associated with almost everything bad in the mental health field -- obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression ... probably hives too."
So forget an apple, forgive someone every day and you’ll live to be 1000. You might be able to tell that I’m still a bit skeptical about this total forgiveness thing. Not in cases where Jenny steals juice boxes or when someone lies to me or possibly even to those folks that wrong me in other ways. It’s the folks like the case we discussed at the beginning, with people acting so incongruently with the ideas of human decency, so outside the realm of what I feel I have the capacity to forgive, that I feel I enter into a realm of what researchers call ‘unforgiveness’.
In 1999 a joint study by Worthington and Wade cited in the 2003 article Empathy, Selfism, and Coping as Elements of the Psychology of Forgiveness: a preliminary study (whew…long title) says that unforgiveness is a ‘cold’ emotion characterized by “resentment, bitterness, and perhaps hatred, along with the motivated avoidance or retaliation against a transgressor.” By contrast, the article states that forgiveness is the conscious choice to relinquish unforgiveness and possibly seek reconciliation with the perpetrator - with the caveat that reconciliation be “safe, prudent, and possible”. The study suggests that empathy, humor, and/or love compete with the emotion of unforgiveness. This harkens back to the notion of decisional forgiveness we discussed earlier.
We keep talking about forgiveness being a choice. We’ve discussed what happens after we make that choice, to decide whether to be forgiving or unforgiving. What informs that choice? An often cited 1998 study by McCullough et al says that there are 4 different factors that affect whether one forgives. They are 1) Personality, 2) Relationship Quality, 3) Nature of Transgression, and 4) Social-Cognitive Variables. Because we don’t all speak Researchese, these variables might also be codified as 1) Selfish or Selfless, 2) how heavily invested you are in the relationship, 3) how you found out about the wrong-doing and how serious the wrongdoing was, and 4) whether the act was malicious or not.
Two quick examples.
The first: Jenny steals my juice box. Jenny was a moron and didn’t bring anything for lunch to work, so she stole my juice box from the office refrigerator. While I am greatly displeased at this action, as it has taken my sugary, appley goodness away from my lunchtime mastication, I decide to forgive her. Why? 1) Jenny usually lets me eat her Reese’s peanut butter cups because she’s on a diet. 2) I’m not invested in the relationship enough to marry Jenny, but she is my coworker and not forgiving her might cause tension. 3) When I asked who took my juice box, Jenny fessed up, and the offense is trivial comparatively speaking. 4) She didn’t mean anything by it. After weighing the Personality, Relationship Quality, Nature of Transgression, and Social-Cognitive Variables, I decide to forgive her. (But if she does it again, the chick is going down.)
The second: Eric steals my boyfriend. Eric has always been jealous of my boyfriend, and he decides to purposefully lure him away with promises of sex and chocolate, and various combinations of both one would assume. While I admit there is wrong on the part of my boyfriend, I can be quite petty and choose to only focus on how slutty and evil this Eric fellow is. I choose not to forgive him. 1) The move was selfish. 2) I am not heavily invested in keeping the relationship with Eric. 3) I had to find out through a third party and it’s a pretty serious offense. 4) It was totally intentional. After weighing the options, I decide that I am petty and hateful enough to enter into a state of unforgiveness with Eric, deem him a nasty, dirty slut, and move on in bitterness. Suffice it to say, Eric should watch out for both my pitchfork and my evil eye. (Good thing I don’t know any Erics.)
If one does choose the path of forgiveness, however, it goes without saying that there is a final step: reconciliation. Or, rather, the choice of reconciliation. This is possibly the most difficult part in the entire process. This is the true choice. This is the difference between the modern day split of forgiving and forgetting, to use the crudely applied terms. The 2003 study by Konstam et al. that was mentioned earlier states that it is easier to change one’s cognitions - or thoughts - rather than changing one’s affect - or emotions. As we’ve learned, this is the difference between decisional and emotional forgiveness, the difference between superficially moving on and actually doing so. This process has no timeline, and there are innumerable factors that can contribute to the slow and often painful or uncomfortable process of reconciliation. Restitution, appeasement, counseling, history, etc. all play a part in the reconciliation process.
In Criminal Justice, this would be called ‘restoring the victim and offender to the pre-crime state.’ That is deemed the ultimate goal of the justice system. You know that part at the beginning of any action movie where the hero and his bikini model girlfriend/wife are all giggling and happy and life is kinda perfect? Then the terrorists come in or the aliens land or Dennis gets up to his crazy shenanigans again, and that bliss is upended. The point of the entire action movie is that the hero just wants to get back to that first five minutes of the film, where the sun was shining and everyone was smiling and life seemed to be going just fine. Maybe not perfect, but fine. That is reconciliation. That is moving on. And, if one cannot reconcile with the offender, then one at least needs to get to a psychological place of being able to move on.
Jeanne Safer, PhD., says that one doesn’t have to reconcile in order to get the positive effects of forgiveness. Indeed, one can move on emotionally, though it might be harder.
"Many don't have to forgive in order to resolve their feelings," Safer says. "They say, 'I can never feel OK about these terrible things, but I'm not going to be vengeful’…What's important is working it through and achieving resolution, whether it leads to forgiveness or not. Forgiveness involves wishing the other well. You're already there if you don't wish them ill."
I’d like to end this with a personal discussion of forgiveness, if you don’t mind. Leaving the research and academia behind, I’d like to just say that I find forgiveness to be a glossy concept, a photograph that looks so easily put together that one might never notice the thousands of ink dots that are shoved together to create the singular image. If I can get even more personal than usual for a moment - my apologies - I have these scars that I don’t like to discuss, and I have but briefly touched on them before. Most of them come from high school and from growing up as an obviously gay, overly sensitive child with too many questions about religion and an aversion to sports in a Texas town of less than 600 people surrounded by folks who felt sports was a religion and that god was a white guy who told them who to dislike. I had a difficult time making friends, an even harder time trying to find myself in the cacophony, and a harder time still trying not to let the physical and emotional abuses I suffered at the hands of people who were bigger (both in a physical and mental way) than me get so bad that I wanted to end my life. It was hard, and sometimes I dream of showing up to a high school reunion and kicking the collective asses of the guys that made my life hell for 13 years. For the record, in my dream I have Uma Thurman, Kill Bill style kung-fu abilities and an enviable six pack. This is how I know it’s a dream.
I still have dreams that feel so real I am shocked to wake up and not find myself back in my hometown. I relive some of these tortures and situations still. I’ve gone to therapy and I’ve moved on to a point, but I share this to say that there are some scars and some wrongs that one might never truly forgive. I relate to the last bit of research the most, the idea that we can be ok emotionally without the need to give forgiveness to a person or group that has wronged us. I daresay, however, that I am not emotionally whole and that this is invalid for me. I do not believe that if I were truly moved on from the event that I would still relive these nightmares. I believe that this is the grain of the photograph, to continue the metaphor.
This is where one looks close and sees that the photograph isn’t so glossy and perfect, but that it’s this chaotic mass of dots haphazardly strewn across paper. Close examination sees that red and yellow and blue and green and black are just slapped next to each other in groups both large and small in hopes that others think it looks nice.
I understand why it took researchers a long time to want to study forgiveness, because, when it’s left in a realm of religion and ultimately up to the divine, it’s easier to feel human. That is, it’s easier to accept that as human creatures we don’t necessarily ever go back to a pre-crime state. We don’t go back to that first 5 minutes of the action movie, because we can never erase on a cellular level in the memory banks of our brains the most hurtful of wrongs done to us and that we have done to others.
The point of forgiveness, if I may be so bold, is that we try. We try to move on each and every single day, sometimes it’s a moment by moment process. We consciously decide to forgive. We consciously decide to inch ourselves back from the chaos of dots and fix our eyes upon the coalescing of the red, the yellow, the blue, the green, and the black into the formation of the bigger picture.
So, can I forgive someone that does great harm to the innocent? Can I forgive myself, or my high school tormentors? Well, I made it through today, and I’ll work on tomorrow when it gets here. Maybe…just maybe…the magic I was taught as a child, the power of those ancient words, will take hold.
Love and Lyte,
Empathy, Selfism, and Coping as Elements of the Psychology of Forgiveness: A Preliminary Study. Varda Konstam , William Holmes , Bethany Levine. 2003
Mea Culpa: a sociology of apology and reconciliation. Nicholas Tavuchis. Stanford University Press. 1991