Forging Forgiveness

As many people know, it's not always easy to forgive and forget. But new research shows that forgiveness might just be the key to a long and healthy life.

By Nina Schuyler

For several years, Catherine O'Brien played host to the usual rounds of winter colds and flues that frequented her office. But she alone was visited by stomach aches and things that weren't so mild. There were times her heart seemed to clench and lurch, as if she was having a heart attack. She hadn't always been sickly. In fact, she could pinpoint when her health condition changed. It was around the time her husband left her, suddenly and unexpectedly.

Even seven years later, when she thought about him, she was unsteadied by her anger and sadness. How could he have done this to her, she wondered. He had been a huge part of her past. Sixteen years of marriage, and now he had vanished.

She recalls several things coalescing right before another momentous shift occurred in her life. One night, she watched a documentary and she longed to discuss it with her ex-husband. It was something they often did together. Then a friend gave her a taped discussion about forgiveness. The talk, given by Frederic Luskin, a post-doctoral fellow in the Complementary and Alternative Medical Program at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. explained the importance of forgiveness and, when it is undertaken, its transcendent sense of relief.

Finding forgiveness

Forgiveness has long been extolled by religions, but only recently has it become the focus of medical research. Although it is too early to make sweeping assertions about the power of forgiveness, initial research shows much promise.

Not only does the act of forgiving bring about an ease of mind, but also a myriad of positive physical effects, such as reduced blood pressure and the lessening of depression and anger, all of which ease pressure on the heart.

In April, over 600 physicians, psychologists and others gathered for the 21st annual meeting of Society for Behavioral Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the topics covered in the three-day affair was the issue of forgiveness and health.

At the symposium, Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, assistant professor of psychology at Hope College, presented her paper, "Embodied Forgiveness: Empirical Studies of Cognitive, Emotional and Physical Dimensions of Forgiveness-Related Responses." Witvliet found that when people thought about an offender in unforgiving ways, the physiological symptoms of stress notably increased. Specifically, blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension rose significantly.

Kathleen Lawler, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, ended up with similar results in her study on the link between forgiveness and health but with an important addition: the negative physical effects remained. In particular, people who were less prone to forgiveness had higher blood pressure, even after they had stopped thinking about the event that had caused them harm. "This finding has big implications for heart patients," says Lawler.

Forgive not forget

Yet recommend forgiveness to someone who has been deeply offended, wounded or abused, and you are likely to incite moral indignation. Part of the problem is the nebulous meaning of forgiveness — there seems to be more consensus around what it is not.

Researchers agree that forgiveness is not denying, excusing, minimizing, forgetting or tolerating the offense. It does not necessarily mean reconciling.

"That's an important distinction," says Witvliet, "Forgiveness is not about being a doormat, going back to the person who was dangerous for you."

The offender need not even know about the act of forgiveness. "Forgiveness is not for the other person," says Harold H. Bloomfield, a San Diego based psychologist and author of Making Peace with your Past. "It's something you give to yourself."

The act of forgiveness also seems to require something beyond a normal human reaction.

"It goes against every natural instinct we have, the foremost being revenge," says Roxane Lulofs, professor of communication studies at Azusa Pacific University, who is studying the ways in which people describe forgiveness episodes. Fortunately, researchers and psychologists say it can be taught.

Witvliet describes forgiveness as a two pronged response: The first step is to relinquish vengeance. "Feelings of ill will toward the offender are let go," she says. The resulting void is filled by the mercy component of forgiveness: Wish the offender well, even if it can only be in a small way. Perhaps you hope for the offender to express anger in a healthier way, suggests Witvliet, or that the offender will be able to maintain sobriety or develop healthy patterns of living.

The art — and science — of forgiving

Luskin, along with Carl Thoresen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Stanford, teach a class, "The Art and Science of Forgiving" which helps people learn and practice the act of forgiveness. They assist students in their understanding that every action has a personal and impersonal component to it; that if they are inclined to see actions as personal attacks, they are more likely to feel distress and blame others for that distress.

A recent graduate of Luskin's program, O'Brien says her life is healthier and, surprisingly, richer. "I'm a lot more tolerant of people," she says. "I don't take things as personally." She called her ex-husband and said she wanted him in her life, in some fashion. He was surprised, then pleased. They recently met for lunch. "It was the first time there was definite affection toward each other," she says. " It was very nice."

Nina Schuyler is a San Francisco based writer. She can be reached at

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