Forgiveness is an important part of a full and healthy life

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

Sam Cox battled a porn addiction several years ago and his wife, Trudy, was so mad and betrayed she could hardly bear it, but she never thought about leaving, but instead, they've worked on forgiveness and been able to emerge stronger than ever Tuesday, March 19, 2013, in Midvale.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

MIDVALE — Trudy Cox knew she'd never leave her husband Sam even as she stared with disbelief and revulsion at the unexpected, vile images on the screen of the computer they shared. Her Sam — 75 then, a Mormon missionary as a young man, a family man, a rock — caught by pornography?

She fled to a little river that she loved near their home. The refuge gave her no peace. She sobbed and raged and sobbed some more. Later, she marched him to their church for counseling and confession.

She was by his side as he worked the 12 steps of addiction recovery. She went to the parallel program for spouses. She stood by him as he was stripped of church callings and membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as he rebuilt a shattered reputation. It would take five years to earn much of it back.

But she seethed quietly for the longest time. Forgiveness, she said, is the tough part of trial. It would come only later and after great struggle.

There's a reason that making amends — the asking for and giving of forgiveness — is the ninth step in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. The heart and head need time.

Science and religion sometimes butt heads, but on this they agree: Forgiveness is an important part of a full and healthy life. Virtually all major religions and probably most if not all minor ones embrace that message, which takes on special importance on Easter for Christians who follow Christ's teaching, "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

Brain vs. heart

Forgiving wrongs is part decision, part emotion, said Everett L. Worthington Jr., a noted expert on the topic of forgiveness, who teaches psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. You can decide not to seek revenge or that you're going to treat someone as valued. The emotional is harder — replacing negative emotions with positives like empathy, compassion and love.

"There's an injustice gap and the size of the gap is proportional to how difficult it is to experience forgiveness," said Worthington, whose book "Moving Forward, Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past," will be released soon.

Research proves forgiving matters. Worthington, the American Psychological Association and other experts see major consequences in physical, mental health, relationship and spiritual realms for hanging onto grievances. "The research says if you are holding onto unforgiveness, grudges and revenge motives, you're going to experience a lot of fall-out in your life," he said. Half the time, forgiveness adds positive experience; for the rest, it moves negative to a more neutral position so life can go on.

Coloradoan Diane Bucci's autistic son Mikey committed suicide in a store while in a delusional state. "I can tell you, the reason we have to forgive, whether it's forgiving God, a loved one, ourselves or life in general," she says, "is because we cannot move out of that 'pause' moment of misery/anger/grudge-holding bitterness until we forgive."

Worthington listed ways people overcome feelings of unforgiveness — getting revenge, seeing justice done, seeing the offender get consequences, condoning what happened, justifying or excusing it. "But the only thing you can do that can push you into positive areas is forgiveness."

The "how" of forgiving

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."

Others also couple action with forgiveness. Barry and Beverly Adkins' son, Kevin, died of alcohol poisoning the day he moved out on his own, at 18. "I have long since forgiven those that were at the party with him and, of course, I can forgive my own child," said Barry Adkins, of Gilbert, Ariz. "But the hardest person of all to forgive was myself. As his dad, there had to be something I could have done differently to prevent this needless and all-too-common tragedy."

He walked 1,400 miles carrying Kevin's ashes in his backpack, stopping at schools to tell students the dangers of binge drinking, a journey chronicled in "Kevin's Last Walk." "Somewhere on the open road between Arizona and Montana, I found a way to forgive myself for letting my child die. Forgive, I have. Forget, I won't," he said.

What forgiveness is not

Michael Gardner, counseling manager and addiction specialist with LDS Family Services, never pushes a spouse to forgive an offending partner. "It has to be done in their own way and own time. Their forgiveness is more for their own healing and recovery and moving on. We often think we do a person a favor by forgiving them, but it's really more about being able to forgive so we don't harbor anger and resentment that can block our own healing."

Forgiveness is needed for wholeness and wellbeing. Withholding forgiveness usually means hanging onto anger or victimhood, he and other experts agree. Still, there are things forgiveness is not:

It is not a promise that it's over and amends aren't necessary. "It means I am willing to go down the path of recovery with you; it means I am wiling to give you a chance to build trust again," Gardner said.

It doesn't mean it will never be talked about. "It means it is talked about differently."

Amends

Alcoholics Anonymous is the granddaddy of 12-step programs, one of the first to institutionalize forgiveness as crucial to interaction and healing. In separate situations and programs, Ann and Ted learned they had to let go to hang on.

Ted abused drugs and alcohol for years and didn't get sober until he was incarcerated. It started with real cruelty at the hands of his mom. Finally free and sober at last, he saw a little girl with her dad. He realized he was once innocent like her.

"I thought I'd forgiven my mother, but anger was coming up again. My minister told me to ask God to show me how she couldn't help doing what she did." After that prayer he remembered how compulsively cruel and selfish he was when he was younger — like her. He didn't know what her past contained. "I felt compassion for her and forgave her."

They talked about it later, when she was dying and he was caring for her. They cried together and made peace. He'd been sober 20 years when he replaced the silver coins he'd stolen from his brother to support addictions. Can we be brothers again? he asked.

"He was flabbergasted. It's very hard to continue a grudge ... I don't see him much, but he doesn't hate me any more."

Ann became an alcoholic at 16; she sought help at 32, a "terrible mom, a terrible wife, unemployed and unemployable, as well as physically sick," she said. In the personal inventory recommended in AA, she sorted out her role in what went wrong. She's done a "lot of asking for forgiveness. I have been overcome with self-pity, regret, self-condemnation, fear. The hardest is forgiving myself.

"I can't choose what others decide — to forgive me or take my amends. But I have to make those amends, live life differently and say I hurt you and make it right however I can. It's a conscious process."

Last Mother's Day, her kids, now grown, put together a slide show. Seeing the old photos was painful at the family low points. The card made her cry: "Mama, we don't regret the past or shut the door on it. We forgive you. Will you please forgive yourself?"

As Trudy Cox supported her husband through his recovery from pornography addiction, she realized one day that she could be miserable as long as she wanted. But it was keeping her from feeling all the good things that had been so much a part of who she was. She let her anger go.

In forgiving Sam, she found both herself and the husband she loved.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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