How to forgive

This morning I learned about Everett Worthington. One would not expect his name to be on everyone’s lips, as those of prominent politicians and celebrities are, but now would be a good time to become acquainted with him. Worthington is Commonwealth Professor Emeritus since his retirement from Virginia Commonwealth University a year ago. This academic year he will serve also as Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Department of Psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois.

His field is forgiveness. Here is what Virginia Commonwealth says about that: “His research and writing focus on forgiveness and other virtues, religion and spirituality, and issues related to marriage and family. His mission is to help individuals (every heart), couples and families (every home), and even communities and countries (every homeland) forgive. Everett was counseling couples when he first became interested in the concept of forgiveness, and he began studying the topic scientifically in 1990. Since then, he has been a leader in the field of forgiveness research.”

He’d been studying this for several years and had written several books on the subject when it all was put to the test. Someone broke into his mother’s house, brutally murdered her, raped her with a wine bottle then walked through the house, smashing all the mirrors before leaving. Olga Khazan recalled the incident and Worthington’s struggle to respond to it in The Atlantic in 2015. Initially, Worthington wanted to find a baseball bat and smash the perpetrator’s brains out. Many of us would harbor the same feelings.

Quoting Khazan’s article, “’I thought, “Oh man, here is a guy who has written a book about forgiveness, has taught about this,’ Worthington said of himself. Surely, he thought, an expert on forgiveness could find a way to make peace with even the most heinous perpetrator.

“He decided he was going to try to forgive the killer.

“To do it, Worthington used his own, five-step method of forgiveness (he calls REACH.) First, you ‘recall’ the incident, including all the hurt. ‘Empathize’ with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the ‘altruistic gift’ of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, ‘commit’ yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, ‘hold’ onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.”

Few of us have experienced such a horrible personal trauma as Worthington did, but all of us have been wronged by another in a hurtful way at some point and have nursed a grudge because of it. That’s unhealthy. Quoting Khazan’s article: “When someone holds a grudge, their body courses with high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. When cortisol surges at chronically high levels for long periods of time, Worthington says, it can reduce brain size, sex drive, and digestive ability.” There is plenty of research telling us that forgiving makes us healthier.

One of my favorite remarks on this subject comes from author Anne Lamott, who wrote, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” Martin Luther King, Jr., put it this way: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Forgiving is not easy, but we know it’s the right path. Let’s walk it together.


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