Americans Embracing Forgiveness Practitioners Cite Spiritual, Emotional, Health Benefits Of Letting Go

Americans seem to be in a forgiving mood.

In a wave of religious revivals, and in research showing that bitter, vengeful people lead shorter, less happy lives, many are looking to forgiveness as a way of dealing with those who have trespassed against them.

Even as religious leaders and scholars were getting the first International Forgiveness Institute off the ground, a million evangelical men of the Promise Keepers movement were prostrating themselves in the nation’s capital, asking their wives and children for forgiveness.

And at a Friday evening discussion group for divorced and separated Catholics in Hamden, Conn., Nancy spoke of forgiveness as the key that freed her emotionally from an alcoholic husband who tried to strangle her and repeatedly threatened to kill her.

“I used to say to myself all the time Christ was crucified on the cross,” and his last words were ones of forgiveness, she said. “I felt like he had his arms around me the whole time.”

Among scores of people interviewed in area churches - victims of childhood abuse, abandoned spouses, people who had loved ones murdered or had friends betray them - there was a surprising consensus: Forgiveness caused a remarkable transformation in which they left bitterness behind and felt free to get on with their lives.

This is one self-help trend, however, that cannot be accomplished alone, say these voices from the pews. Listen to their stories, and nearly all say they could not have forgiven without their faith propelling them.

Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist in suburban Philadelphia, says spiritual forgiveness is sometimes the only way to relieve deep hurts.

“If there is really deep, deep betrayal and anger, people are limited in their ability to let go of their anger, even if they’re intellectually able to understand it,” he said.

Not everyone will choose to forgive, and many will not move from forgiveness to reconciliation with their tormentors.

James D. Stone of Jacksonville, Fla., says he can never forgive the two men who murdered his nephew. He attended the executions of both.

At a broader level, victims of the Nazi Holocaust are unlikely ever to find any justification for forgiving. And more than 130 years after the Civil War, white and black Americans still debate whether forgiveness can ever apply to slavery.

No one said forgiveness is easy.

The Bible is filled with exhortations to love your enemies. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” says the Lord’s Prayer.

How many times must people forgive one another? “Seventy times seven,” Jesus answers in the Gospels.

Frederick DiBlasio, a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland, believes the concept of forgiveness is gaining momentum.

In the ‘60s, ‘70s and particularly the high-flying ‘80s, when climbing over bodies was in vogue on Wall Street, people would say they agree with religious teachings on forgiveness, but not do much about it, DiBlasio said.

“What’s happening in the ‘90s is that we’re putting some action behind it now,” he said.

Part of the reason is simply that as the population gets older, many baby boomers facing mortality are starting to measure their lives by their human relationships rather than their stock portfolios.

As Scrooge discovers in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” holding grudges seems a fairly futile mark to leave in life.

Jay Baker of Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, Conn., was glad he made up with his father after a bitter falling out. Years later, he decided that in order to move on with his life, he had to forgive.

“I jump then to his deathbed,” Baker says slowly, picturing his dad on a respirator and him giving a last squeeze of his father’s hand before his life support was turned off. “It’s a lot easier when your I-love-yous are up to date.”

The effect may even be physical.

In a 1996 study of 30 divorced mothers, Kristy Ashelman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that women who forgave their ex-husbands were less anxious and depressed and became better parents than those who could not forgive.

Other research in recent years has shown people who scored high on forgiveness scales had significantly lower levels of blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and relatively high self-esteem.

“There is a clear consensus in the journals that forgiveness is an important therapeutic goal,” Robert D. Enright, Elizabeth A. Gassin and Ching-Ru Wu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote in the Journal of Moral Education.

Enright, a pioneer in research on forgiveness, now finds so much work being done that he helped found the International Forgiveness Institute, a forum for interdisciplinary studies and conferences on forgiveness.

Until recently, he said, he saw no “window of opportunity” for promoting the concept. But “in the past couple of years, I’ve seen the window swing wide open.”

Jim and Carolyn Weeks were newly married college students when they decided to give away their possessions and join the Woodcrest Bruderhof, a pastoral oasis in Rifton, N.Y., where community members try to live like the early Christians.

But the petty jealousies and power struggles drove them out and they took up the yuppie life in Baltimore.

Nearly a decade later, they were visited by a Bruderhof couple asking forgiveness, and that was enough to send them packing again with their six kids back to the community where they live simply in a small apartment.

“We were in an impossible situation. If we didn’t forgive them, it would have been just death for us,” said Carolyn, 47. “It would have killed a part of something inside of me not to forgive.”

What has helped many people embrace forgiveness is a broader discussion that defines the act in terms of individuals freeing themselves from their tormentors, not caving into them.

“No one, not even the one who acted unfairly, can tell someone to forgive or when to forgive. This is an individual decision,” according to Enright. “Even if the other person remains stubbornly unchanged, a forgiver can go ahead with the gift of forgiveness, experience the release of stifling anger, and get on with life.”


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