Should All Be Forgiven?

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So far, she has studied 70 subjects, half of them men, half women. Witvliet finds "robust" physiological differences between nonforgiving and forgiving states. Subjects' cardiovascular systems inevitably labor when they remember the person who hurt them. But stress is "significantly greater" when they consider revenge rather than forgiveness. Witvliet suggests that we may be drawn to hold grudges "because that makes us feel like we are more in control and we are less sad." But interviews with her subjects indicate that they felt in even greater control when they tried to empathize with their offenders and enjoyed the greatest sense of power, well-being and resolution when they managed to grant forgiveness. "If you are willing to exert the effort it takes to be forgiving, there are benefits both emotionally and physically," she concludes.

While Witvliet labors to show the physiological benefits of forgiveness, Emory University primatologist Frans De Waal is busy extending its evolutionary pedigree. A study at his Living Links Center suggests that the Christian church's teaching on reconciliation may be viewed as the refinement of mechanisms reaching back not some 2,000 years but 25 million. "Instead of looking at conflict resolution as uniquely ours," he says, "we are showing that it exists in many cooperative species," particularly chimpanzees. De Waal's work focuses on the "social memories" of primates, and he says, "We have full confidence that they have memories of fights, hold grudges--and make up when necessary." While such behavior is not synonymous with forgiveness, says De Waal "it's hard to imagine it's not related."

Evolutionary psychologist David Buss, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, has pondered the sociobiological logic of forgiveness and concluded that at least in the realm of mating, men and women may be programmed to employ it differently. Males, he suggests, are less likely to forgive a fling because if the woman becomes pregnant, "a man doesn't want to be investing resources in other men's children." In contrast, a woman may be more forgiving of a man's one-time infidelity (assuming that he has already given her a child) but less forgiving of a long-term diversion of material or emotional resources to another woman or a second family. "From an evolutionary perspective," says Buss, "part of the reason a woman marries is to secure all the resources of a man for herself and her children."

As intriguing as such musings are, theories are made flesh outside of laboratories. A persuasive anecdotal demonstration is occurring in a spotless apartment on the struggling South Side of Madison, Wis., where a graduate student named Paul Cardis is revisiting a former insurance processor named Delilah Bell. Five years ago, Bell's fiance died of drug- and alcohol-related pneumonia, leaving her to raise their four children alone. To Bell, his death was worse than needless. It was a betrayal, and alternating bouts of anger and despair reduced her to a state close to paralysis. "I would talk to my mother about it," she says. "And she would say, 'Just let it go.' I'd say, 'How can you say that?'"

Then in 1997 Bell became part of a research project conducted by Cardis under the supervision of Enright, the forgiveness trailblazer. In eight sessions over two months, they explored a radically new approach for her condition. Today, on a follow-up visit, Cardis asks how things are going. "Pretty good," Bell replies. "The other day Michael [her 14-year-old] skipped school. He didn't walk in the door until 20 minutes to 8 that night." "Did you get upset?" asks Cardis. "I did, but I tried not to." "Did you forgive him, or are you still working on it?" "Still working on it." "That's appropriate. It's a process," Cardis says. He pulls out a set of flash cards bearing positive legends such as "Choose to forgive rather than getting even." The flash cards are familiar to Bell from last year--as were forgiveness homework assignments and forgiveness refrigerator magnets and lessons from Cardis and Enright's 23-page "Strengthening Families" instruction manual. Bell points to the card headed "See with new eyes--Take another look at the one who hurt you." "I'm trying to understand Mikey," she says, "but if I stay calm, I don't want him to think I condone what he did. I told him that to keep his job, he has to go to school." Cardis nods. "If you say you forgive him," he says, "it doesn't mean that you are letting him do whatever he wants. Forgiveness is not about forgetting the wrong." He smiles. "But deciding to forgive is a pivotal point."

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