Try Forgiveness as Your New Year’s Resolution

Well here we are in a new year – a time for new beginnings, a time for resolutions – most of which we won’t keep, but just the same, important to make – to remind ourselves that we can be better if we really try. Once there were two boys, Tom and Bernard. Tom lived right opposite Bernard. One day Tom stole Bernard’s bicycle, and every day Bernard saw Tom cycling to school on it. After a year, Tom went up to Bernard, stretched out his hand and said:

“Let us reconcile and put the past behind us.”
Bernard looked at Tom’s hand. “And what about the bicycle?”
“No,” said Tom. “I’m not talking about the bicycle – I’m talking about reconciliation.”
(Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull)

Well here we are in a new year – a time for new beginnings, a time for resolutions – most of which we won’t keep, but just the same, important to make – to remind ourselves that we can be better if we really try.

And it seems that for some reason, forgiveness is now in the air. On Jan. 4 a piece appeared in The New York Times about a community effort aimed at “restorative justice” – a program that attempts to bring together victims and crime perpetrators in order to reach some kind of understanding that can arise from face-to-face confrontation and interaction. This particular program is based in Kansas and is run out of the Department of Corrections. The goal is for offenders to try to come to terms with what they have done – and for victims and their families to ask the question that in many cases has haunted them for years: “Why?” This particular story focuses on a guy named Zachary (in my lead photo) who, while driving very drunk in the middle of the night, plowed into the back of a car while he was speeding at 111 mph on the road behind it. The crash instantly killed a young man named Cameron who was sitting in the back seat. (His parents are shown at his grave in the second photo.) The Times article includes excerpts from Cameron’s parents and Zachary himself – both before they met, and then reflections after their six-hour meeting.

Cameron’s mother thought the sentence that Zachary got – six years – was too lenient, but still she wanted to meet him and ask him that question: “Why?” She remembers thinking, “This is a person we don’t even know. How can we judge him? … I remember thinking, ‘if he was my son, I hope someone gives him a hug.’” In any case, after much reluctance Zachary agreed to meet with Cameron’s parents, and at the end of the long session, he apologized for his actions – even though he still couldn’t remember even getting into the pickup truck he stole that slammed into the back of Cameron’s car. He summed up their long meeting thus: “At the end, she actually asked me if she could give me a hug. That’s kind of what changed my life. If a mom can do that with what I’ve done – and give me a hug. That’s huge.”

Huge and, yes, heroic. But there are other examples of such heroic forgiveness. I’m in the middle of reading Justine Van Der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things (third photo) about the brutal murder of Amy Biehl – a 26-year-old Fulbright scholar who went on a mission trip to South Africa and was stabbed to death in 1993 by a group of rioting South African youths on a rampage after a rally held in a black township outside of Cape Town. The book is about the story of Amy’s death and about the forgiveness embraced by her parents. They created a foundation in her memory that aids South African youths today – including those accused of her murder. In the preview to the book, the following observation is expressed: “We Are not Such Things reveals how reconciliation is impossible without an acknowledgment of the past, a lesson as relevant to America today as to a South Africa still struggling with the long shadow of its history.”

When an issue of the Monitor on Psychology on the topic of forgiveness appeared earlier this month, reviewing recent research showing that forgiveness can improve mental as well as physical health, I decided I was being called to blog about the topic at the start of our new year. Since forgiveness is good for both body and soul, let’s take a look.

In first addressing the question, “What is forgiveness?,” the author of the Monitor piece makes clear that it doesn’t always involve reconciliation – although sometimes it does, as the story beginning this blog reflects and both the book and The New York Times article describe as part of the outcome. But sometimes reconciliation can’t be achieved – the perpetrator has died, or is too dangerous to reconcile with, or is unwilling to engage the victim. But true forgiveness offers some things that are positive: “empathy, compassion, understanding toward the person who hurt you.” Forgiving another who has hurt you takes effort and practice at forgiving, but can be worth the struggle. Research has clearly demonstrated that those who are able to empathize have some understanding and even compassion for the wrongdoer; have better mental health, less anxiety and anger; and in fact, remain physically healthier than those who can’t forgive – even in the face of continued life stress.

Apparently forgiveness can also build up one’s own self-esteem. One researcher says, “When people are beaten down by injustice, you know who they end up not liking? Themselves. … When you stand up to the pain of what happened to you and offer goodness to the person who hurt you, you change your view of yourself.”

The article’s author points out the obvious: That some folks are better able to forgive than others. It’s a trait characteristic that, like any trait, we can cultivate with practice. Religious people who pray are more likely to forgive wrongs than those who are not. But there are other steps beyond prayer that seem to work In fact, there are formal therapy programs designed to facilitate such practice and enhance personal tendencies to forgive. Ev Worthington, a psychologist who has studied forgiveness for decades, has developed a five-step program called REACH Forgiveness that involves addressing the hurt, finding empathy for the perpetrator, reaching for forgiveness and holding onto it over time. The Monitor article ends with the following observation: “It can feel unfair to have to put in the effort to forgive when the other person was the one in the wrong. But that’s life.” Now you have a place for healing.

Let me close this blog with an excerpt from one of my favorite poets, Isobel de Gruchy.

How can we live with it,
but not try to live it again?
How can we let the burden of it go,
but not abandon it altogether?

How can we weave it into the tapestry of today?
So that remembering inspires,
so that the sorrow and tears
soften any hardness of heart, sensitise us to the hurts of others –
Oh, how can we do this?
 – “The Past” by Isobel de Grunchy. Found in In Well and In Woe, 2010, p. 25.
But we must try. For the other’s sake. For your own sake. For God’s sake! Forgive and live!

Peace to everyone in this new year. And keep your resolutions … as I will try to keep mine!