Letting go of anger can be good for the body and soul
Elizabeth Large The Baltimore Sun
January 11, 2005
is human. It's just very hard. People are wired to respond with anger, hold
grudges and seek revenge; and in spite of the teachings of Christianity and
other religions, victims of wrongdoing usually do all three.
who tormented you when you were little. The spouse who cheated. The terrorists
who changed our country forever on 9-11. Why should you forgive
Researchers and academics may have an answer, even for those who
don't believe that the act of forgiveness is good for the soul. In recent years,
scientists have gotten interested in the health benefits of forgiveness. Their
studies have shown the serious mental, emotional and physical consequences of an
The lowest common denominator of this research is the
flood of self-help and pop psychology books promoting forgiveness as a cure-all.
At the other end of the spectrum, psychotherapists have found forgiveness to be
a useful tool in reconciling couples and families. In some studies, it's been
linked to a lessening of chronic back pain and depression; in others, to reduced
levels of stress hormones. And scientists have found that forgiveness is one of
several coping mechanisms that help people with HIV/AIDS live longer, or at
least more satisfying, lives.
In 1997, research consisted of only 58
empirical studies. Since then, more than 1,200 scientific papers have been
published on the subject.
"The topic of forgiveness is hot right now,"
says psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, author of How Can I Forgive You? The
Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not to (HarperCollins, 2004). "Conferences are
being held. Articles are being written. Forgiveness is being plucked out of the
spiritual and theological realm and put into the psychological and
Like acupuncture, meditation and other alternative healing
strategies, forgiveness has only recently become a respectable topic of
scientific studies. In 1990, psychologist Fred DiBlasio, a professor at the
University of Maryland, Baltimore, submitted an article to an international
scientific journal on his research. The journal was willing to publish it if he
would agree to change the word "forgiveness" to "forgetting."
"It was too
spiritual for them," says DiBlasio.
But forgiveness, of course, isn't the
same thing as forgetting. He didn't make the change.
In his clinical
practice, DiBlasio has found that using forgiveness can speed up therapy. Shanae
and Fred Murray had one three-hour session with him, and three years later the
Pikesville couple still characterize it as life-changing.
came to him with a 13-year-old problem, the sort of problem that doesn't seem so
serious unless you're caught in the middle of it. Shanae was constantly inviting
guests over without telling her husband about it. Fred hated not being
consulted, and he didn't want to be a good host. The underlying conflict was
quietly destroying their marriage.
"It was eating at me," says Fred, who
is an only child. As he talked in the session, he realized his feelings could in
part be traced back to the time he served in Vietnam. "I had seen so much death,
I wanted to be alone. At home, I would close the doors. I didn't realize what I
As the session progressed, Fred came to understand why Shanae
continually put him in unwanted social situations. When she was growing up,
there were always lots of people around. After church every Sunday, her mother
would invite friends over.
"As a little girl in a large, poor family
[Shanae, one of seven children,] she took care of the whole family. When her
husband saw she was the person who brought people together, he could see it
wasn't just against him," explains DiBlasio.
"Talking it through releases
you," says Fred. "When you forgive someone, you forgive yourself. You release
"Everything is forgivable," adds Shanae. "It doesn't mean
you have to forget."
Some patients might not be comfortable with the
concept of a forgiveness session, of working toward one person saying the words
"I forgive you." The Murrays, members of the Colonial Baptist Church
congregation in Randallstown, Md., found it particularly helpful because it fit
so well with their religious beliefs.
Most studies show that people who
don't have profound faith have a more difficult time forgiving, says Everett
Worthington, executive director of the Virginia-based foundation A Campaign for
Forgiveness Research. The author of many books and articles on the subject,
Worthington found his own faith tested on New Year's Eve in 1995 when an
intruder murdered his mother.
"I'm not an uber-forgiver," he says. "I
once held a grudge against a professor who gave me a B for 10 years."
to start the process, he tried to empathize with the assailant: the fear he must
have felt when Worthington's mother walked in on him during the robbery; the
fact that all the mirrors in the house had been smashed after the attack,
suggesting to the psychologist that the murderer couldn't bear his own
Still, it wasn't until later when Worthington was talking to
his brother that he had an epiphany. He had pointed to a baseball bat nearby and
raged, "I wish he were here right now."
"Whose heart was darker?" he says
now. "I was a 48-year-old forgiveness expert and a Christian. I knew I could be
forgiven. Who am I to hold this grudge against this kid?"
Even though the
assailant was never caught, Worthington says he has been able to move
But isn't moving on possible without forgiveness, simply by letting
go of your anger? Based on her research, Lydia Temoshok, director of the
Behavioral Medicine Program at the Institute of Human Virology, University of
Maryland, Baltimore, says no. "It's letting go, and I forgive you. It's
something about that added component. Then you close the circle. It's not just
stopping something, but starting a new pattern."
She works with HIV/AIDS
patients, which, she says, can involve a lot of forgiveness. Do they forgive
people for not accepting them? Do they forgive the person who infected them? Do
they forgive God? Do they forgive themselves? Do they forgive science for not
having a cure?
The program's preliminary work suggests that forgiveness
lowered the stress hormones that in turn affect the immune system, but only when
the patients genuinely forgave the ones they blamed.
Like any subject of
scientific research, the experts come down on both sides of the question.
Jeffrie Murphy, author of Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits (Oxford
University Press, 2003), argues we shouldn't condemn those who choose not to
forgive. He worries, for instance, about the abused wife who forgives and then
gets beaten up again.
"Forgiveness can be a great blessing, but it should
be used selectively," he says. "There's a kind of messianic pro-forgiveness
movement out there. The forgiveness crowd is always saying that forgiveness will
give you closure. But also seeing [offenders] get what they deserve can bring