Researchers note possible health benefits for people who absolve wrongdoers, but others express skepticism

Is forgiveness divine for body?

January 03, 2008|By Melissa Healy

Close your eyes and think of someone who has hurt you. Let all the anger, hurt and resentment you feel for that wrongdoer bubble to the surface. Seethe, shout, savor it. Feel your heart pounding, your blood boiling, your stomach churning and your thoughts racing in dark directions.

OK, stop. Now, forgive your offender. Don't just shed the bitterness and drop the recrimination, but empathize with his plight, wish him well and move on - whether he's sorry or not.

University of Wisconsin psychologist Robert D. Enright, the guru of what many are calling a new science of forgiveness, calls this final step "making a gesture of goodness" to a wrongdoer. It's the culmination of a process that, he says, "you've got to be able to see through to the end."

But why, exactly, would you do that?

Forgiveness - a virtue embraced by almost every religious tradition as a balm for the soul - may be medicine for the body, researchers suggest. In less than a decade, those preaching and studying forgiveness have amassed an impressive slate of findings on its possible health benefits.

They have shown that "forgiveness interventions" - often just a couple of short sessions in which the wounded are guided toward positive feelings for an offender - can improve cardiovascular function, diminish chronic pain, relieve depression and boost quality of life among the very ill.

Like proper nutrition and exercise, forgiveness appears to be a behavior that a patient can learn, exercise and repeat as needed to prevent disease and preserve health.

Psychologist Loren Toussaint of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and colleagues were the first to establish a long-term link between people's health and their propensity to forgive.

Their national survey, published in the Journal of Adult Development in 2001, found forgiveness rare enough: Only 52 percent of Americans said they had forgiven others for hurtful acts. But willingness of young respondents to forgive showed no link to health; that propensity began to make a difference as respondents approached middle age. The survey found that those 45 and older who forgave others were more likely to report having better overall mental and physical health than those who did not.

Efforts to put forgiveness to a rigorous scientific test have been funded largely by a pair of philanthropies long associated with research on faith, religion and science: the Michigan-based Fetzer Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation of Pennsylvania, which effectively created the field in 1997 with a pledge of $2 million for research on forgiveness.

These origins raise discomfort and controversy among both scientists and those who help the physically and mentally wounded heal.

To many in mental health who fear that traumatized patients face pressure to forgive when doing so is premature or ill-advised, the new science of forgiveness is deeply worrisome.

"The whole Christian, 12-step mentality has permeated our culture, and the emphasis on forgiveness is part of that," says Jeanne Safer, a New York psychoanalyst and author of Must We Forgive? "For many patients, forgiveness is a double-whammy: First someone [hurts] you, and then it's your fault you don't want to embrace them in heaven. I'm not against forgiveness; I'm against compulsory forgiveness with no choice. And I'm against `forgiveness lite,' which keeps you from feeling the intensity of the experience, from deeply grappling with what's been done to you."

Clinicians skeptical of forgiveness as a necessary endpoint of therapy say many of those who are quickest to forgive others do so because they blame themselves for the bad things that have happened to them. Others forgive too quickly because they are unwilling to acknowledge their general feelings of shame and anger or simply because they feel unworthy of better treatment.

Safer calls this "fake forgiveness." It allows victims to continue blaming themselves, she says. And it's a dangerous side effect of what Safer sees as a bid to sell forgiveness as a panacea.

Jeffrey R., a Maryland man whose father sexually molested him and three siblings as children, acknowledges that self-blame and denial after the abuse has exacted a terrible cost on his family. The Sun does not report the names of sex abuse victims.

After nine suicide attempts and decades of contending with crippling temper and suspicion toward others, Jeffrey says he's not ready to forgive the father who did it, the mother who looked the other way or the aunts and uncles who, after the abuse came to light, refused to discuss it. His sister, who was raped by her father at 5, has embraced forgiveness, says Jeffrey, telling her brother God will judge their father. Jeffrey says he's let go of the anger and bitterness caused by his abuse, and it "has saved my life."

But forgiveness on the same level as his sister's? "I'm not really there yet," he says.

Melissa Healy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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