Forgiveness is an important part of a full and healthy life

Published: Saturday, March 30 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

If Adolph Hitler were alive and decided to forgive himself, "Nobody in their right mind would say, 'Yeah, now you go have a good day,'" Worthington said. But forgiveness is usually possible. There are crucial steps, starting with making it right with a higher power. That's more complicated than just asking forgiveness; you have to do something. Some grievances require social reparations. His example includes lifers teaching young convicts about the problems that come with gang life. Another "precondition" step centers on dealing with the psychological damage that's been done.

Twenty-plus studies support the importance of empathy and altruism in creating genuine forgiveness. The piece that gives people the most trouble is self-directed: learning to forgive yourself and accept what an action says about you. Worthington provides a hypothetical example: "I can forgive myself for losing my temper and hitting a child. I just can't accept that I could be the kind of father who hits his kids." He said, "Self-acceptance is what keeps psychotherapists in business." The final step is pursuit of virtue — "Live a life that doesn't get me into trouble again."

Its own time

This is what Sheridan Becker lost in a lighted pedestrian crosswalk with her mom, sister and three step-brothers 30 years ago in Orlando, Fla. A drunk teenager ran a light and slammed into them, killing Debbie, 8. His car landed on the boys. Will and Lance were in critical care for weeks and Will took months relearning to walk. Jim was slightly injured, as was she. Her mother went into a mental institution. "Overnight, I lost my family," said Becker, an American who blogs about travel from Brussels, Belgium.

She wasn't mad so much as overwhelmingly sad. It would take years of therapy, strong faith in God and becoming a mother herself to completely forgive and become joyous again. "It doesn't just happen overnight, and at different stages of forgiving you see a more in-depth way of forgiveness. ... It wasn't until I had children of my own that I came full circle and acquired more in-depth forgiveness."

Cathy Taughinbaugh, who writes for treatmenttalk.com, said people who won't forgive trap themselves. "To withhold forgiveness means you continue to remain the victim. (Forgiving) is something you do for yourself, not the other person. It means focusing your energy on the healing, not the hurtful action."

Moving forward

Several video clips online show a man and a woman side by side, talking about justice. Their story was a huge but inadvertent miscarriage of it. Jennifer Thompson was a college student when a man raped her at knife point for hours in North Carolina. She was determined to memorize his features so she could identify him if she survived.

Later, she picked Ronald Cotton out of a lineup. She testified against him with great assurance not once, but twice. Someone else had bragged that Cotton was "serving my time." In the second trial, Thompson looked at both men and again blamed Cotton. He was convicted again.

He'd served 12 years when DNA evidence exonerated him. The rapist was the other man.

It took her a couple of years to get up the courage to ask Cotton to forgive her. He did, without hesitation. Their journeys would converge to include efforts to educate the world together about forgiveness, the limitations of eyewitness recall and more. They co-wrote a book, called "Picking Cotton."

While the world was stunned by Cotton's decision to forgive Thompson, it doesn't surprise Jensie Anderson, legal director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project and professor at the University of Utah Law School, who tells their story. "What we find in the innocence community is many of our clients have the same attitude of forgiveness as Cotton had," she said. "Unless the mistakes are purposeful — then it's not a mistake — our clients tend to be pretty amazing folks and find it in their hearts to forgive. They tend to be wise and amazing people."

Those who fare best, Anderson said, find a way to forgive. She referred to Debra Brown, released after serving years for murder and now awaiting a decision on whether she'll be retried. "She forgives the mistakes made and doesn't hold a grudge against anyone. She doesn't see that as an opportunity to move forward. She told me if she lives in a place of anger, she will live in the past."

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