Man exercises a year of forgiveness after drunk teen driver kills wife, two children

Published: Monday, April 8 2013 9:00 a.m. MDT

The point, he says, is that none of us is entitled to a perfect life. Really understanding that, he says, is central to being able to forgive. To think that things will always work out in our favor, he says, is to set ourselves up for anger, at other people and at God.

And yet this is how most of us move through our days: expecting that we deserve a good life, desperately hoping that we can hold on forever to everything that is good. These are what forgiveness researcher Fred Luskin, co-founder and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness project, calls "unenforceable rules."

And, too, humans are hard-wired to want payback. Studies done in Switzerland, using fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) on people confronted with a simulated grievance show that the brain's pleasure pathways light up right before a person enacts vengeance, says professor Everett Worthington Jr. of Virginia Commonwealth University, who researches forgiveness and is a clinical psychologist.

To forgive goes against "the natural impulse to make things even," Worthington says.

There are now scores of people researching forgiveness, producing 950 studies as of 2005, up eightfold from eight years earlier. Before Dr. Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin launched the field 20 years ago, though, the concept of forgiveness was considered the domain of religion, a topic for the pulpit but not for academic study or even psychotherapy. Then researchers showed that the inability to forgive has an impact on health — on blood pressure, immune response and depression, for example — and people started paying attention.

There are two kinds of forgiveness, says Worthington: decisional and emotional. So a person may choose to forgive another person, but if he's still feeling bitter, it hasn't been an emotional forgiveness. Follow-up studies of the Amish parents who immediately forgave the man who shot 10 schoolgirls in October 2006 show that "they still express difficulty dealing with the losses emotionally," says Worthington.

That's not to say that a person whose daughter was gunned down wouldn't still feel immensely sad a year later. But, Worthington explains, "if I'm sad because of a loss, that's grief. If I feel resentful and angry, that's emotional unforgiveness."

There are personality characteristics that tend to make a person more or less forgiving, Worthington says. People who are more "agreeable" are more likely to forgive; people high in "neuroticism" (not the tendency to be neurotic but the tendency to react hyper-emotionally to stimuli) tend to form grudges more easily. Anger, anxiety, fear and a narcissistic sense of entitlement also contribute to a person's inability to forgive, as does a person's tendency to ruminate.

"Rumination is what gets people in trouble when they have been wronged," he says.

Containing grievances

Think of your brain as a house, with rooms you rent out, says Stanford University's Luskin in his book "Forgive for Good."

"We can rent our grievances the master bedroom and build them a hot tub out back. ... We can allow them to put their stuff in all the rooms of the house, or we can restrict them to a small room in the back." In other words, Luskin writes, we need to ask, "How much time do we spend thinking about our hurts and disappointments? And, when we think about them, how much intensity is there?"

If he could tell people anything, Chris Williams says, it would be this: "Forgive for your sake, not the other person's." Forgive because, if you don't, your bitterness will consume you. Or, as Luskin writes, "Besides the anger and hurt, the loss of joy, love and intimacy mar the lives of those who do not forgive."

"He could be a shadow," Williams says about the teenager who killed his wife and children. "He could be rocks in a backpack I'd be carrying everywhere."

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