Transcript of journalist and senior media executive Richard Sergay's interview with Everett L. Worthington Jr. for the “Stories of Impact” series.
RS = Richard Sergay (interviewer)
EW = Everett L. Worthington Jr. (interviewee)
EW: I'm Everett L. Worthington Jr. I'm a Commonwealth Professor Emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University.
RS: The genesis of your interest in forgiveness.
EW: I got interested in studying forgiveness really because I was doing a lot of couple counseling. When I was early in my academic career I directed a clinic at Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU, and I also had a part-time private practice of almost all couples. Well as soon as you start counseling couples you're into forgiveness issues and it was difficult to deal with those issues when you could train people in communication and conflict resolution but then they held onto these old grudges. So I felt like we had to do something about that and with a graduate student, Don Dancer, we made up a little intervention. It was a really short intervention but that started this down the road of looking at forgiveness.
RS: Your background is in...
EW: I'm a counseling psychologist and educated at the University of Missouri Columbia. Originally I was a nuclear engineer and that was at the University of Tennessee and at M.I.T. for a master's degree.
RS: And why the transition?
EW: The transition was really for two reasons, one, I was in the Navy during the Vietnam era and a lot of the guys that were in there then were very stressed out and I really enjoyed helping them and I thought well that would be fun. I enjoyed nuclear physics and nuclear engineering, but that would be fun. And the other is I became a Christian and so shifted some of the values that I had and so those two things came together and directed me toward a counseling psychology degree.
RS: How do you define forgiveness?
EW: So I define forgiveness in-- as two different experiences. So one of those is making a decision about how you intend to act towards someone who's harmed you or offended you. How you intend to act in the future. You say I'm not going to get even with them, I'm not going to get revenge on them, I am going to treat them as a valued and valuable person. So even if the person is not alive I can still say well if they were alive I would treat them in a different way so I can make this decision about how-- how I would like to act in the future. That's called decisional forgiveness. But I can make a decision to forgive someone and still feel enormous resentment and bitterness and hostility every time I think about it. That must suggest that there's a second type of forgiveness that we call emotional forgiveness. And this is when I replace negative, unforgiving emotions with positive, other-oriented emotions. So what tends to happen is I erode away the negative at first, and if it's a stranger that I'm talking about or someone that I don't really want to continue my interaction with, I'm pretty good with just getting rid of the negative. But if it's my partner or a valued friend I'm not really good with stopping at neutrality. I want to get back to a net positive feeling toward them. So that's emotional forgiveness, that titration that you know, dissolving of the negativity into positivity.
RS: How do you go about doing both?
EW: decision forgiveness and emotional forgiveness are actually separate processes, so scientifically they're correlated at about .4, which means they have some relationship to each other but they're not joined at the hip. So just making a decision to forgive is actually fairly straightforward although people don't want to do that often and they will struggle with getting the motivation to make that decision to forgive. Emotional forgiveness, well of course most people want to have a sense of peace after they've been offended so they want to do that, but emotions are unruly and don't obey our wishes as much as decisions do. And so that usually requires some kind of process in which they have experiences that change their emotional valence toward-- toward the person.
RS: And as a trained psychologist how do you help people reach both emotional and decisional?
EW: Most people, if they come to a psychologist want to forgive but aren't fully clear as to how to do that. So I want to facilitate their achieving their goals. Not everyone has to forgive of course and so there are people that just don't want to go there because it's too early or they just, that's not in their value system. But as a psychologist what I want to do to help them make a decision is to help them explore what their motives are and what kind of cost that's enacting on them. So we know that unforgiveness really does have a lot of costs, it has mental health costs, it has physical health costs in the long run, it has relationship costs, and it has spiritual costs. And, and so if they explore these costs often they'll want to make a decision and because they can make a decision without as much rigmarole as an emotional change then they often will be able to make that decision. Emotional forgiveness though it usually is a longer process. And if I'm working with a person in counseling and they really want to spend the time on reaching emotional forgiveness then it's pretty much going to be about six, seven, eight hour, depending on the hurt and offense they're dealing with. But it's going to take time because they have to have experiences where they can see things from the point of view of the person who hurt them, or even if they can't, if they just say I can not empathize with a person who hurts me like this, maybe they can say but I feel sorry for him or her for doing this. And so sympathy ends up being a replacement emotion or compassion toward the person, like you know they, I think they need help with this and I wish I could help them. Or even love, the person might draw on some kind of unselfish altruistic love or romantic love in a couple relationship. And those experiences of empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love, those are the experiences that neutralize the negativity, get people to have a more positive emotional response and eventually come to say yes, my emotions have changed, and I do emotionally forgive the person.
RS: Is one of these more difficult to achieve than the other?
EW: Both emotional forgiveness and decisional forgiveness is difficult. So for some people, coming to the place where they want to make a decision to forgive is like, I can't get there. And so it can be just as hard or harder than emotional forgiveness. They're very different processes in that decisional forgiveness, when the person makes a decision, it's pretty much done. But emotional forgiveness is more two steps forward, one step back, three steps forward, two steps back. And-- and so it tends to progress in an uneven way, once it's started.
RS: Break down on the decisional forgiveness side, the four buckets?
EW: Decisional forgiveness has different effects than emotional forgiveness. So for example, if I make a decision to treat a person differently that's going to more affect my relationship with the person than just having a kind of a gradual emotional change toward the person. It actually may affect my spiritual position more because I say well, I've made this decision and I feel more at right with the world, or at right with God, or whatever the person treats as sacred. But decisional forgiveness doesn't quite have the same impact on, on mental health or physical health that emotional forgiveness does. So it does have a positive effect because it reduces people's stress response and therefore it reduces cortisol in their bloodstream and lowers blood pressure, but not nearly as much as just changing the emotion does.
RS: What are some of the health effects of being unforgiving?
EW: So there are a number of health effects for holding unforgiveness toward a person about an event. Physical health, unforgiveness is a stress response. And so it's going to have all of the negativity of a chronic stress response. So it's going to put people at risk for cardiovascular events because the blood pressure is higher, because you know as, as the heart beats and it stretches out the arteries with that higher blood pressure, you know it tends to make little tears in the, in the walls, and eventually those can snare plaque or snare chemicals that would turn into plaque. So, cardiovascular risk is one thing that unforgiveness elevates. But there's this hormone that we know a lot about called cortisol. It's a neural hormone secreted by the adrenal glands besides adrenaline. And cortisol, if it is chronically elevated, will basically affect every physical system in the body. It can shrink people's brain, different portions of it. The hippocampus which consolidates memories for example is-- is really vulnerable to prolonged elevated cortisol. It will affect people's cardiovascular systems. It will affect people's gastrointestinal tract and they can have colitis and ulcers and things like that. It will affect their sexual and reproductive system. Basically that elevated cortisol, if it's kept at an elevated level for a long time, it's better if we get a chance to not elevate it. It's better not to elevate it. Because it can have a lot of pernicious physical health effects. In terms of mental health effects of unforgiveness, really I think a lot of that comes through rumination that goes along with unforgiveness. So rumination is playing bad events over and over in the mind and the more people ruminate the more they keep their stress response elevated. And also rumination has just been shown in lots of research to be what I like to think of as the universal bad boy of mental health. It is implicated in anger disorders, in depression, in anxiety disorders, in obsessive-compulsive disorders, in post-traumatic stress disorders, in some psychosomatic disorders. So rumination really can affect people's mental health in many different ways. And I think you know as long as people are feeling unforgiving they tend to keep bringing this up in the late show the mind. There are relationship effects also of unforgiveness. If I'm holding a grudge toward someone clearly I don't respond in a positive way toward them. Also, there's a theory in positive psychology called to broaden and build theory of positive emotions and positive reactions. That positivity tends to widen our perspective and openness to things and not having that positive response can shut down a lot of possibilities that relationships have. So, people tend to have more negative interactions in the relationship and fewer positive interactions. In a spiritual sense, often when people feel unforgiving they feel out of sorts with what they feel is sacred. So if they're, if they hold god as sacred or the church they feel like that-- this unforgiveness is a sin that puts them out of sorts with God or with the church. But if they hold humanity as sacred, they feel that this person has done this crime against humanity. And you know so I feel as long as I hold on to this negativity, I feel out of sorts with that unity with humanity or with nature, a crime against nature. So people hold different things to be sacred that we call spirituality, closeness or connection with that which people can hold to be sacred. And unforgiveness tends to put people out of joint with the things that they hold sacred.
RS: You talked about physical issues-- talk about the science of how we understand all of that.
EW: So there are many physical effects of holding unforgiveness towards people. And there's been a number of ways that it's been investigated. So for example we looked at salivary cortisol in couples and you know, had them imagine a typical interaction with their partner and if they imagine this and kind of keep bringing it back for a period of five to 10 minutes, the cortisol, if they have a lot of negativity, the cortisol level will start to rise. And so we can then take a saliva sample at say 10 minutes and maybe another one at 30 minutes and we can watch the stress level change. We've been involved in a lot of peripheral physiological research also, so peripheral physiology is in contrast to central physiology, the brain and the spinal cord. But peripheral physiology with blood pressure measures, skin conductance, heart rate, you know rate pressure products, things that physiologists measure that indicate the amount of stress that a person is feeling. And so people have been wired up to physiological measures and their responses to offenses and to then forgiving have been measured and in a continuous way. And then we can make inferences about people who hold on to unforgiveness versus those who are able to reduce their unforgiveness. Central measures, there haven't been a lot of studies on brain scanning. And I think brain scan is really popular these days but there have been several folks that have done brain scanning studies, one of the very clever ones was done in England by Peter Woodruff and Tom Farrow. And what they did is they tried to see how the brain reacted differently from just empathizing with a person when someone makes a judgment that I forgive this person. And so they created a template kind of subtracting away the empathy, the portions of the brain that responded with empathy, from the portions of the brain that responded with forgiveness. And so this template could tell you when people were forgiving. So then they did a follow-up study on that in which they trained people with a forgiveness intervention and then looked to see the changes in their brain activity from before the intervention to after the intervention. And they compared it to the template. And so then they could say this person, they're reporting that they forgave but their brain is doing the same stuff as they were doing when they were not forgiving, or this person didn't really quite report that they were forgiving they said well, kind of forgiving, but their brain is matching the template. So they were able to give-- kind of a different look, if you think about triangulating on an-- on an experience, they could take self-reports, they could take reports of say their partner and they could take these central physiology measures and try to triangulate on the experience that people were having.
RS: How long have you been studying forgiveness?
EW: I started studying forgiveness really with the first scientific paper that I wrote was 1990. We actually, actually I had written about forgiveness from a clinical standpoint before then in books, but had not really put it under the microscope so to speak. But in 1990 I published a clinical article and that year and in fact the month that article came out a graduate student came to work with me, Michael McCullough, who is an eminent psychologist at University of California San Diego now. And Mike was interested in studying forgiveness. I didn't know anything about forgiveness. You know, so every week Mike would come with having gone to the stacks and dug out this article covered with dust. You know he would tell me about this article and I would stroke my beard like someone who actually knew what was going on and you know and nod, grunt in the appropriate places. And then after he'd left, run over to the library, trace down that article and try to keep up with this talented graduate student. So that really started us studying forgiveness scientifically with Mike's research and then Steve Sandage, who's-- has an endowed professorship at Boston University now, came almost immediately afterwards, he had a different perspective. Mike was more of a social psych perspective on forgiveness. Steve had more psychoanalytic analytic interests and the next year after that Jennifer Ripley showed up who's a professor at, in an endowed chair at Regent University. She wanted to study forgiveness and couples. By that time I gave up and just decided I'd better learn the literature because I got to keep up with these talented graduate students. So I blame my graduate students. They made me do it.
RS: 30 years later, where are in terms of the arc of understanding?
EW: I think at this point we really understand quite a bit about forgiveness. I think there are over 4000 scientific articles that have accumulated on forgiveness, starting really with seriousness when the John Templeton Foundation funded a request for proposals in 1998, and that infusion of money attracted senior professors and, and some junior professors who trained the graduate students and trained their postdocs and that sent out a ripple. We have just in fact, the day before yesterday I sent in the page, the copy edits of all the chapters of the second edition of Handbook of forgiveness, and I would say we have come an enormous way in understanding forgiveness, this is 32 different chapters reviewing the literature in sub-fields that study forgiveness. And it's, it's incredible for me to say we know a lot about it. And of course science being what it is, the things that we've studied have revealed that on the other hand we don't know as much about it as we would like to know. So I see that what has happened by looking at the second handbook, second edition of the handbook, is that in the first edition it was all about the internal experience of forgiveness. And we knew a lot about that but we didn't pay much attention to the social context that forgiveness might or might not be happening in. And I think what has happened in years past is that the investigators have started paying a lot more serious attention to the social context, to the environmental factors, to the social factors, to the societal factors, to you know does the offender experience self-forgiveness. Because seeing the offender struggle that they can't forgive themselves actually helps people forgive more. So you know if the offender apologizes then that helps the person forgive. So you know looking back, it makes me want to go duh, why didn't we see that before. But you know science gets us there eventually and, and so that's been really a focus in the last I'd say seven or eight years, and I think that's where it's going more in the future.
RS: The Templeton Grant you have-- it's aim and mission is to do what?
EW: So we have a grant with the Templeton World Charity Foundation. And this grant was in a competition to try to take some kind of intervention-- that had been vetted scientifically and then apply it around the world, especially to developing countries. And so we were fortunate enough to get that under the leadership of Man Yi Ho at City University in Hong Kong. And this grant takes the REACH Forgiveness model that I developed along with numerous graduate students and we had vetted this in like 30 randomized controlled trials and now you know we're going to apply this. And we're going to apply this in a short two hour, do-it-yourself workbook format, so that we see whether it actually works in mainland China and Hong Kong and Indonesia, and Colombia, South America, in South Africa, in Ghana, in the Ukraine. All of these different places throughout the world with different cultures. We're going to try to test to see whether this can help people who've experienced some pretty severe harms and in many if not most of these places.
RS: Templeton grant and the mission?
EW: So this Templeton World Charity Foundation Grant our mission is to see whether we can help people forgive by using a very accessible two-hour, do-it-yourself workbook, and do it really across cultures.
RS: The point is...
EW: Research on forgiveness interventions is done by a number of people and there have been quite a number of studies that have done interventions in other cultures, mostly they tend to be longer interventions, they tend to be running groups or educational programs. So, our idea was to make something accessible to people who had serious needs but didn't have a lot of time and resources to be able to say go to a center to have a, participate with a group. They could do this on their own, in their, you know, bedroom, and take it as long as they wanted, taking about two hours to get through the workbook, but they don't have to do it on any time schedule. And so, you know, what this does is it makes forgiveness accessible to anybody in the world, this grant we will translate the REACH Forgiveness two-hour book into Mandarin Chinese, into Cantonese, into Ukrainian, into Spanish, into Indonesian. And so we will cover the languages that are available to probably three-quarters of the world. So the idea is, it's really a public health idea of making something that will affect people's mental health and physical health and relationships, making it available to anybody, whether they have a dime or not, they can take a workbook and work through it.
RS: Is the workbook intended for cultures that have been in conflict or not?
EW: So our-- this two-hour workbook is really kind of a universally applicable workbook. It's about forgiving someone and learning to forgive someone and then in the last say 30 minutes that they work on it, kind of making it broader to forgiving anybody. So the idea of this, it's like penicillin. It's like, if I have an infection and then I take this dose of penicillin, well two hours is not going to you know cure the unforgiveness of a, you know, a severe sexual abuse or physical abuse. But, just like taking a dose of penicillin okay that's going to help a little, I can do this again, I can take it again for two hours, you know I can take it again for two hours and eventually you know I can erode away the hurt of very, very serious events.
RS: What are some of the key markers in the workbook?
EW: The workbook is really aimed at making very accessible all of the experiences that we found work in psycho-educational groups and with individual counseling. So that means that we're going to start out by helping people define forgiveness in a way that they can work with. We are going to help them see the benefits of forgiving that it's going to affect their physical health, their mental health, their relationships, their spirituality. We're going to help them make a decision to forgive. We invite them to make a decision early on and then we enter into trying to help them have an emotional experience of forgiving. So they will go through five steps to reach forgiveness and the English version, reach is an acrostic, that stands for the steps. So recall the hurt, empathize with the person who hurt you, give an altruistic gift, an unselfish gift to, of forgiveness to a person who doesn't deserve forgiveness. Commit to the forgiveness you experience and then hold on whenever you doubt. So as they work through exercises to help them experience those five steps of emotional forgiveness and then eventually get to the place where they see that they have reduced the emotional unforgiveness. Then we go back and we re-invite them to consider the decision to forgive again. Because decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness are not locked in a particular time order, they're independent of each other. And then the very last part we get them to apply this Reach Forgiveness model again and again to different people and events in their life that are troublesome. So that it broadens out the application and they can feel like that they're not only able to forgive a particular event but they are becoming a more forgiving person and kind of building that virtue into their life.
RS: Can it be used for society? Victims of apartheid, etc?
EW: So this method of forgiving it-- they-- people learn this method and it is applied to an individual event in their life. And so once they learn that-- to forgive that individual event, then they can broaden out those events by applying it to different events. So someone who let's say although we don't do a study in Rwanda, let's say that this was done in Rwanda, a person might feel that they were wronged because they lost a loved one to, to a murder, that they were wronged by the person who did the crime. The people who encouraged the crime, the government who permitted that. So they have multiple targets, they could apply this to forgiving each one of those targets and therefore reduce the whole feeling of societal unforgiveness. So the way that our mind works is, we generalize, and so we experience something specific, we experience something else specific, something else, and at that point or at some point we start to say ok, I can forgive the whole, the whole, because I've forgiven enough of the specific instances. So it's the same way that we come across the same way we deal with offenses. You know someone hurts us and, and we feel like well they hurt us but they meant well, and then they hurt us again, I always say well maybe they didn't mean well, and they hurt us again and we say I can't forgive that person. We generalize. So we just reverse the process for forgiveness and forgive this one and this one and this one and when a person feels like he or she has forgiven enough, then they get a settled position that they've, they can forgive the whole event.
RS: Breakdown The REACH program?
EW: So our program to promote emotional forgiveness besides making a decision is to take people through five steps that we use in English the Acrostic Reach. So R stands for Recall the hurt. So we can't forgive if we're denying that we've been hurt. So we have to face up to the fact that we have been hurt. And hopefully try to look at things a little differently than we have been. So if we keep playing the same thing over and over in our mind we're not going to change. So we try to be maybe a little more objective in our recall. And to help people become even more a kind of experience of it even more differently, we try to help them empathize with the person. To think about you know, I've hurt people in my life and I usually didn't get up in the morning and say today I think I'm going to ruin this person's life. You know I usually meant well, I meant to help them but it didn't work out that way, or I lost control, lost-- lost my temper or whatever. So usually if we can understand that that's often the way we have behaved toward other people, then maybe I can get into the other person's frame of reference and give them the benefit of the doubt. We help them use an empty chair dialogue pretending that the person's there and talking to that person and getting in their chair and trying to talk back and that helps them empathize with what the position the other person might have been. Empathy might not be the key emotion that helps them. They might need to sympathize with the person and feel sorry for the person or feel compassion toward the person. So we have exercises that help them to consider whether they feel compassion toward the other person or love toward the other person. So the idea is we're emotionally replacing the negative with positive. A stands for giving altruistic gift. So if I've experienced an emotional change at some point I want to declare that I have experienced this emotional change and I emotionally forgive the person. And I know that the person doesn't deserve forgiveness, they hurt me, so they didn't earn the right to forgiveness. So I'm going to give them this emotional gift and so altruistic forgiveness is, declaring that you forgive. So I can declare that in my mind. But you know I doubt things that happen in my mind all the time. I think, you know, maybe I was just in an emotional state, or maybe I did this or that and it is just temporary. And so to help people solidify the experience that they've had, we encourage them to commit to that experience that they've, that they've had as they work through the book. They can commit in lots of ways, they can write down a little statement saying I forgave a certain particular day. I forgave that person for doing this. They can fill out a certificate of forgiveness for themselves posted. They can, they can do a little exercise at which they write on their hand you know kind of a shorthand if you will pardon the pun, a statement like betrayal and they wash that off and they say oh, I got most of that I didn't get all of it, which suggests that maybe they can you know achieve a lot of forgiveness working through this workbook but maybe they need to wash it again and maybe they need to go through the Workbook again to get all of it. So that's commitment to the forgiveness that you experienced. And the reason they do that is to hold on when they doubt, because we do doubt that we've forgiven. We doubt usually because if somebody hurt me, my body has been conditioned to respond with fear and anger when I think about that. It's not that I haven't forgiven them but maybe I, I work through this workbook and I feel like I've forgiven this person and I will go into work the next Monday and I see that person, I will immediately respond with fear and anger because it's my body that's been com-- you know it's been programmed to respond that way biologically. When we get hurt we respond with anger. You know, I bumped my head on a cabinet when I'm cooking breakfast and punished that cabinet. Angrily slamming. It's not that I don't forgive the cabinet for hurting me, it's my body being kind of responding in the way that it's been designed to respond. And so, I see commitment to the forgiveness that I've experienced so that I hold on when I doubt. And I, I almost certainly will doubt.
RS: Have you found those who just cannot forgive?
EW: So, not everyone can forgive and maybe not everyone should forgive when they've been hurt. So when a person has been hurt or offended, they establish in their mind a kind of an injustice gap. This injustice has been done to me. If it's a big gap it's really hard to forgive. It's hard to deal with. If it's a small gap, somebody bumps me in the street, it's easy to deal with. So there are many ways to reduce that injustice gap. Many very legitimate ways. I could turn this over to God for divine intervention. I could turn this over to God just to relinquish it to God. I could, I could excuse it, I could forbear, you know which is you know often used in collectivistic type cultures where I just say for the good of the group I'm not going to respond negatively to this. I can you know, I can see justice done. I can, you know, take this into a procedure that deals with just-- there are many, many ways that people can deal with those injustices. Forgiveness is one of those ways. And when that's in somebody's value system to forgive, then they may want to try it. A lot of these other ways but if they can't get rid of all of this sense of injustice they may also forgive. Now some people, the injustice gap just seems impossibly high for them. And they don't feel like they can forgive. They can't close that gap with forgiveness. With those folks, we encourage them, use whatever means available to close that gap and then you know maybe if the gap gets smaller they can approach forgiveness at a different time. But we don't know, we always try to help people deal with their experience from where they are. We don't ever try to impose an ought, that they ought to forgive. They need to come to that because they want to.
RS: No should-have's...
EW: No should-have-- people bring shoulds to this situation, maybe their church says they should forgive and so they bring that should, but we try not to put the should label on, on the forgiveness experience.
RS: Real world -- forgiveness from the church?
EW: So there are many examples in which forgiveness has been shown to be very prominent. The Nickel Mines killing of the children up with the Amish community. But one that in the United States has made a big impact is Charleston, South Carolina, slaying where the young man joined the Bible study group and then killed people. And the church members were able to forgive that young man and state that publicly. And there are many reasons why things like that happen. One is you know, there's a cultural norm within churches that promotes forgiveness. So just like in the Amish community there was that cultural norm that the religious norm was to forgive. And so people could do that because that was in line with their values with something that they held to be a cherished value. Now you have to ask yourself what kind of forgiveness was that. You know, my bet is that for most people it was primarily a decision to forgive. Because in Christianity anyway that's kind of the thing that Christians feel is required of them is to make a decision, I'm going to treat this person in a different way. While people may still have negative feelings but they have made a decision to act differently, and they may follow this for the rest of their life and deal with the emotional unforgiveness and hopefully erode that down to zero over time.
RS: Does that surprise you?
EW: I think that incident was surprising, I think it surprised many people. You know, it didn't surprise me that it could happen but it always is surprising when somebody goes above and beyond what you expect and is able to forgive something that seems almost unforgivable to an outsider. We don't know what went on in their minds. All we see is their behavior. And sometimes if we have trouble getting on and getting into their minds we have trouble seeing it from their point of view.
RS: Nelson Mandela or Archbishop Desmond Tutu who both have an enormous capacity for forgiveness. How do you explain?
EW: So some of the really kind of outstanding examples of forgiveness really happened in South Africa. The world kind of looked on at the apartheid for years and years and it just kept going and yet when Nelson Mandela became president you know he was so magnanimous and so able to just put aside all of these systematic harms that the people of South Africa had experienced and had inflicted on-- others. And even personal harm of being imprisoned and losing much of his vision and so it just kind of astounds people how could he do that. And it astounds me. He's probably one of my major heroes of forgiveness in life. And it, you know he had such dedication to the hope of being able to reconcile. And I think that for him was the norm that drove everything. It's like he can see this vision in his mind of blacks and whites able to work together in a reconciled society. And so he could take a distancing perspective and say well what happened to me is minor in that case and I forgive that because this hope is so important and so grand and, and can bring that about. I think for Archbishop Tutu, he-- I think he had a different motivation being an archbishop in the Anglican Church. He had religious motivation as well as social motivation. So he had again a strong, overarching reason to be able to say yes, I've been hurt. Friends of mine have been hurt. You know, enormously. My people have been hurt. And yet I see this, this redeeming value that can be achieved in our lifetime and whatever I experience is not consequential compared to that dream that could come about.
RS: A higher purpose?
EW: I think-- I think-- (LAUGHS) personally I think there is a higher purpose and that you know, people are meant to eventually be reconciled. But, I think from the point of view of individuals, if they can get in touch with what they think is a higher purpose, that can help them put aside their personal experiences and really focus on the redemption that's possible if they forgive.
RS: Is the example of a Mandela unique in your mind?
EW: I think Nelson Mandela was one of a kind. But I think there are many kinds that are possible in life. And I've seen personal examples that I look at and say I just don't think I could have done that. And yet these people are able to achieve a sense of forgiveness even though it's beyond my understanding. One of my favorite examples, so-- a man that I met was on the television show, The Leeza Show. He was telling his story, I was the science guy you know who tested couples and predicted whether their marriage would last. Not my finest hour there. But anyway, I met this man. His name is Chris Carrier, and his-- his story is a public story so it's available all over the Internet but also it was in Reader's Digest too. But meeting him in person, he as a 10-year-old boy was abducted. Was taken out in the swamp, stabbed repeatedly in the torso. And then when he pleaded with the man to stop the man stopped and took him to the truck. And then as he stepped up on the running board to get in the truck the man placed a gun through against his head and shot him. And it came out of his eye. Well, he survived that and then like 20 years later a police officer came and said, we've always thought we knew who did this but we never had any kind of evidence. But this guy is dying and does not deserve to go out of this world without being confronted. And so he took Chris out to this man's house and certainly this guy was dying and he was going to die within a couple of weeks. But you know, instead of confronting the man he walked up to the man and said, so who's taking care of you. And the guy goes I'm taking care of myself, while he's clearly laying in bed, unable to take care of himself. So Chris Carrier took care of this man for the last couple of weeks of the man's life. You know, to think about having lost an eye, having been stabbed, having been physically brutalized, left for dead in a swamp and able to not just forgive but to lay down your life to bring some comfort to this man in his final days on Earth, I mean that's just an astounding story. There are heroes of forgiveness like this I think everywhere. And you know, if we're not tested then we don't find out that maybe we may have a quality like that. But I think there are many people out there that could be just the same type of heroes of forgiveness given the right tests.
RS: How do you explain that?
EW: (LAUGHS) So you know if I, if I were pressed and said you know how do you explain this idea I'd have to say I can't, I have no scientific explanation for this. Clearly, Chris Carrier had beliefs, values that made that possible. But he also had something inside of him that's probably intangible that was drawn to a needy person. And he was able to love and care for this person regardless of what the person had done. You know I'm not sure science can account for that. You know we can write questionnaires about it but it's just something in the human spirit that you know, I believe God gave us. But you know, wherever we got it, it's there.
RS: You've forgiven someone?
EW: Back in 1995, 96, on New Year's Eve night my mom was murdered. And it was apparently a young man who was going to burglarize the house but it was New Year's Eve, the house was dark, my mom had gone to bed early, she didn't drive so there was no car in the driveway, so it looked like it probably would be a safe house for him to just go in and take whatever he wanted. Well, she was there, asleep and he woke her up while rummaging, looking for treasure. And when she came out, he and probably confronted him, he ended up bludgeoning her with a crowbar that he had used to break the window to get in the door. And so she died and then he was angry, upset, afraid, and he assaulted her with a wine bottle and she lay there bleeding to death. So when I heard about that murder it was New Year's morning and it was at home with my family and my brother phoned and said you know, he was really shaken, he said you know you've got to come down to Knoxville. I live in Richmond, Virginia, a seven-hour drive. Got to come down to Knoxville. You know something terrible has happened, mom has been murdered. And so he had gone in with his son to see what was up because she didn't answer the phone when he called to wish her Happy New Year. And when he walked in the place was a wreck. And, and he walked into the hallway and there was blood splattered all over the walls and her body was lying there. So he covered up his son's eyes and left and called the police and then called me. So I went down with my sister who also lives in Richmond and her husband and we went down into this murder investigation that day. One of the things they did was take us to the house that I grew up in for the first 22 years and walk us through trying to see if we detected whether something might be missing. And it's pretty horrendous to see the devastation and the blood and the pools of blood on the carpet. That night my brother and my sister and I were in Mike's backroom kind of processing what we heard during the day and putting together this story. And apparently, the police had thought this was a youth, maybe one or more youths that had broken in. And I remember as we, the more we talked about this, the angrier I got. And I just felt like my face was going to explode and I was so angry I pointed down to a baseball bat leaning against the wall and said, I wish whoever did that were here they would take that bat and I would beat his brains out. I said he would not last 30 minutes. And my brother said he wouldn't last 10 minutes if I got a hold of him. My sister said I'd make him last an hour. You know we were all absolutely furious at this. Well, I couldn't sleep. I was pacing around to my place I was staying, my aunt's house. I was pacing around the bedroom and I got to about three o'clock in the morning and I'm like, what am I doing. I'm just roaming around and I can't sleep. And so I better do something productive. And I sat down to write a eulogy for my mom. Because I was going to give a talk at her funeral. And it suddenly dawned on me that here I had gone through like almost 24 hours at that point and I had never allowed myself to think of the word forgiveness. And you know the incongruity of that just hit me, I thought well, here's a guy, I've counseled people to forgive. I am a Christian I value forgiveness. I, you know I have written a book on forgiveness. I do research on forgiveness and yet I can't allow myself to think of the word forgiveness. And I thought I need to at least think through this. And so we had developed this Reach Forgiveness model and I thought well, I just use that to think through this experience. And so I started recalling the heart and recalling what this might have been like from the point of view of this young man. So that helped me empathize, where he's out in the cold on New Year's night at Knoxville, Tennessee, looking at this house thinking it's going to be a perfect crime. I'm just going to waltz in there, take whatever I want, waltz out, totally safe. They'll be gone till after midnight. And so he's all keyed up, he breaks in, and then here he is searching and he probably heard this voice behind him because apparently, he was in the hallway pulling books off the shelf. Probably heard this voice behind him. What are you doing in my house? Turning around, looking at this older woman, I probably thought I don't know what he thought but he probably thought, this, this is wrong it's supposed to be a perfect crime. This old woman's messing up my perfect crime. He's angry. She's looking at my face. I'm gonna go to jail. He's afraid. He's holding that crowbar. He's got impulse control problems probably wouldn't be breaking into people's houses without impulse control problems. Reaches out, strikes her, strikes again and again. And then you know, being really angry he assaults her. But then as we walked through the house that afternoon we saw that only the front of the house had been searched. But the mirrors in every room throughout the house had all been broken. And I realized well, he couldn't look himself in the face. So here is a kid that has done something bad, you know. But at some level can't look himself in the face and about the time I got there in my thinking through the e-- the empathy, I flash back to myself standing in that back room of my brother's house pointing to that baseball bat saying I wish whoever did that were here I would hit him in the head just like he hit my mom in the head until he died. And I thought, whose heart is darker. You know I mean I'm an adult at that...
EW: At that point, I just flashed back to earlier that night in my b-- my brother's back room where I had stood and pointed to that bat and said I wish whoever did that were here, I would take that bat and hit him in the head until he died, just like he did my mom. And I thought whose heart is darker here. Is it the heart of a young man with impulse control who's angry and afraid or is it me? The Christian. 48 years old at that time. Person who's counseled people about forgiveness, written books on forgiveness. I thought, my heart is darker than his heart. But I knew that I could be forgiven for the darkness in my heart. And I thought if I can be forgiven for the darkness in my heart, who am I to hold unforgiveness against this young man. And I was able to forgive that young man. And that's really lasted ever since.
RS: Did you ever meet him?
EW: So sometimes I'm asked, you know, did I meet the man or did I ever have a chance to interact with him. But as it turned out, no usable evidence could be brought forth. And although that-- someone confessed at about the fourth day, when the grand jury met there was not enough evidence to bring him to trial. So-- so in our system of innocence until proven guilty, there's no way to meet the young man.
RS: So the forgiveness that you gave is forgiveness in your own heart for this person?
EW: So, the forgiveness that I was able to give this young man of course happened inside of me. And, he really doesn't know about that. You know, there is a big difference between saying I forgive you and, and forgiving someone. So forgiveness happens inside our skin but someone could say I forgive you and just be setting you up to stab you in the back. So it's different what people say than what goes on inside of him, or it can be different.
RS: And decades later you still feel settled?
EW: Decades later, I still feel that forgiveness which happened one night late still holds. I had a few moments toward the police about the way that the evidence was handled that ended up making justice not being able to happen. But, but that wasn't, that didn't affect my forgiveness of the young man. That was another issue I worked through with the police.
RS: Forgiveness is to be human, common grace?
EW: When I started looking at forgiveness, I am a Christian so I came at it from a Christian standpoint and as I would talk with people in the church they would say why isn't this special that Christians can forgive. And I knew enough research to know that in fact if you just look at the group of Christians versus people who don't affirm any kind of faith, there is a big difference in the amount that they forgive. But my feeling was that it was really more about being in a church environment and having a norm of forgiveness, having a belief system, having a value system. It wasn't that people who were not religious could not forgive. You know, I think they can forgive, I think this is part of what has been known as common grace. So the idea that theologically is that God has given things like reasoning and language to everyone regardless of their belief system and I believe that hope and gratitude and forgiveness and humility and all of those are part of common grace that anyone has access to.
RS: And can forgive?
EW: And can forgive. Although at one point earlier I mentioned an injustice gap and that injustice gaps can be so large that while theoretically they could forgive, it's like jumping over a 10-foot fence. They can't get past that injustice gap.
RS: Uber forgiver?
EW: I-- you know, some people say, how can you forgive this young man, this is you know, you must be some kind of super forgiver. And I go, well you know, I had a professor in graduate school who gave me a B and I didn't forgive him for 10 years so I think you know, I'm not really doing something that that anyone could-- I think anyone could forgive, given the right circumstances. And you know I don't have some kind of special gift of forgiveness.
EW: So forgiveness I believe is a virtue. And a virtue classically is a, is something that is a positive character trait, a positive character strength that people have, in which they do something that's good. In positive psychology, we look at this nowadays as what it is called a eudaimonic virtue and that's just a Greek term that means it's good for ourselves but it's also good for other people. It just kind of takes that traditional Greek eudaimony and shifts a little bit, but-- but it's a, a goodness of character, a character strength that not only is good for me but is also good for other people.
RS: How important is the sense of trustworthiness in forgiveness?
EW: So there are a number of terms that are very related to forgiveness. So one of those is reconciliation. Reconciliation is being able to restore trust between two people, once that trust has been broached. So I can forgive someone but I don't trust them at all. That's because they're not trustworthy. They've hurt me again and again and again. I forgive them because that happens inside me. But trust is a relationship quality. It's about whether as we relate to each other we can rely on the other person to be trustworthy. And so trust is not really 100 percent related to forgiveness or reconciliation either because that's restoration of trust. Not 100 percent related to forgiveness.
RS: So you can still forgive but not trust.
EW: Right. You can forgive and not have any trust, you can forgive and not reconcile, or you can forgive and have trust, forgive and reconcile. So those are two independent experiences although they tend to be related to some degree, it's a lesser degree than we might think.
RS: Empathy and forgiveness?
EW: So empathy or you know, feeling with another person and seeing things from their perspective is highly related to forgiveness. There've been probably 15, 20, studies that have shown strong connections between empathy and forgiveness. But sometimes in a very terrible crime against a person or injury to a person, people are just like I can not empathize with that. And in those cases sympathy tends to be some, an emotion that people can get at even if they can't get at empathy. So that, I can never get into the frame of somebody who would do something so terrible but I can feel sorry for them. I can have a positive feeling toward them. I can feel compassion toward them and want to help them. And that turns out to be then able to be, to generate more forgiveness.
RS: Are there some offenses in your mind that are so heinous they never ought to be forgiven?
EW: In my mind, I think all offenses are forgivable. And, and I think that often it's very wise to be able to forgive them because if I hold on to unforgiveness, then the other person doesn't even know what's going on in me. But I'm making myself ill. I'm putting myself at cardiovascular risk and immune system dysfunction risk, mental health risks, relationship risk, and spiritual risk, and I'm not hurting them at all. In fact maybe they hate me so much that they're, they would be glad if they knew I was suffering. So because forgiveness goes on inside of me, I think just from a point of view of what's good for me, forgiveness is an experience that you know I would want to pursue. Now that doesn't mean that I need to reconcile with them. If they're not going to be trustworthy, we may never reconcile, we may never. I may never trust them and they may never trust me. You know, but that is a relational quality not an internal quality. So I have seen people that say, I am so angry and vengeful toward this person but that energizes me and allows me to channel it into doing something good. And my response internally and externally I'll support them but internally I think you know, if you weren't using up a lot of your energy trying to cope with your negative emotions, think how much good you could do then, you know, you could really do good because you still can get that motivation to do good to repair things but you wouldn't be tying up a lot of your own energy coping with hate and revenge, fantasies, and things like that.
RS: What you would say to a person who survived genocide?
EW: So cases come up like let's say Elie Wiesel, the famous Nazi hunter who became a public intellectual. And not so he, he was very eloquent at that saying why Jewish people should never forget the Holocaust and people who are not Jewish should never forget so that this doesn't happen again. And so somebody might ask, what would I say to him. And first I would say well, you know he has a different worldview and value system. So I'm not going to say that his value system is incorrect. So as a Jewish person who wrote the sunflower and told a story about you know his unwillingness to offer forgiveness to a man he called Carl, a Nazi soldier. From a Jewish perspective, forgiveness is really in a different place than, say, a Christian perspective. A Christian perspective, Jesus says we are to forgive. Judaism, forgiveness, you know if you take a kind of a Maimonides approach to forgiveness, really, you know somebody does something wrong, forgiveness is not central. It's about returning. It's about returning to the path of God. And in order to do that from a Jewish theological perspective, people have to-- the offender has to do things like apologize, like show that they, you know, would never do this again. They have to ask for forgiveness. They have to go away and experience some kind of event in their life and without the social pressure of the now show that they would respond in a different way. And then if they ask for forgiveness according to Maimonides, this person doesn't have to forgive but can forgive. And so, that's a different religious perspective. I don't want to say that that perspective is incorrect, that perspective has been well held by bazillions of people over the centuries. And so you know, I understand where someone like Elie Wiesel might be coming from, to some degree that I'm capable of not having gone through the things he went through personally. And so I don't want you to know I would not tell him he was doing something wrong.
RS: Does that mean there's no universal sense of forgiveness?
EW: My belief is that forgiveness is something universally available to people but certainly not all people will take advantage of that. And that's just like any good, you know, people will come down on different positions about that good, forgiveness is one of those goods that somebody might say well I value justice more and, and opposed justice to forgiveness, I think it's a false opposition to do that, I-- justice I look at a societal and social. Forgiveness happens inside me. And so I believe I could forgive the young man who killed my mom but if he got caught and brought to the justice system he would face social and societal justice whether I forgave him over there I didn't, so there's, to me, those are independent. But I can see how people feel, you know, I prefer to get justice. That's the way I want to reduce my injustice gap rather than to forgive.
RS: The role of prayer in forgiveness?
EW: Prayer is that something that you know is of course you know a way of communicating with the sacred and if, if you have a belief system that accounts for you know, God or a higher power, and being able to work inside of you then I think prayer has a way of opening those internal doors and activating the spirit in a way that can maybe help people move toward forgiveness. But you know again if you think about other things and I, you know I mean I'm a committed Christian so I do believe in prayer, but I'm trying to explain this from a point of view that's a secular point of view. There are many other ways that people calm themselves and get past the revenge motivations, the anger, the-- so they may have a mindfulness approach or meditation approach or just deep breathing or whatever it takes. And can get a lot of the barriers out of the way to forgiveness by other ways besides prayer. You know I happen to believe there's a spiritual connection that happens with prayer too. But that's my value system.
RS: Children and forgiveness?
EW: One of the things that I think research on forgiveness has shown so far is that children are not very able to forgive. Now I'm talking about young children that really haven't developed mentally to the place where they can experience real empathy and understanding and perspective-taking. So, I think much of the research shows that the best approach with children, you can teach them about forgiveness and you can do what developmental psychologists would call scaffolding their behavior. You can teach them to apologize or to say I forgive you, but that shouldn't be confused with the way that an adolescent, even an early adolescent might forgive. You know the mental development, the emotional development, of a middle school or early adolescent is really quite different than a early child or early childhood person. So I think my advice to parents would be teach your kids how to apologize, how to make good apologies, sincere apologies, teach your kids how to accept those apologies gracefully and not you know put the other person down and how to offer forgiveness. And that readies the kid for when they move into that 10 or 11-year-old transition and they start thinking about things, that are that really ready for them to be able to really forgive.
RS: Societal forgiveness?
EW: So there are many different types of forgiveness. One of those is like divine forgiveness, like experiencing forgiveness from God. Another aspect is self-forgiveness, where I feel like I've done wrong, I feel self-condemnation. I can forgive myself. And then there's experience from the kind of a victim standpoint that's like, forgiveness, emotional forgiveness, and decisional forgiveness. But there are also societal ways of forgiving. So for example, Bill Clinton you know in a number of cases offered apologies on behalf of the United States government to people that had been wronged, people groups who had been wronged. Well, he can do that because he is a representative of the United States. I can't really do the same thing. I have no authority to do that. And in the same way a leader could say you know as a society we are going to forgive X, and make a societal statement. Now, there will always be people who disagree with that societally, but still that could be an official position of a society if an authorized leader makes a statement on behalf of this society. So that's called societal forgiveness. And Robert Enright has written a wonderful paper. He and colleagues have written a number of wonderful papers on societal forgiveness.
RS: Who apologizes for slavery?
EW: So you know this is, is really important in contemporary times because there are historic wrongs that have happened, like slavery in the United States. So you know, who could possibly apologize for slavery and what difference would it make. Well, you know, there are people who might have authority to apologize for wronging for-- for enslaving people. There still is going to be a lot of individual difference around that because governments speak all the time and state government policies. That doesn't mean I agree with the government policy. So, so individuals especially in a society like the United States where we have freedom to express our own opinions, individuals will disagree, this, if you go beyond say just making an apology for slavery and you say well what about reparations. Well, you know making restitution after a wrong always promotes more forgiveness than not making restitution. But again, not everyone would agree that that is sufficient restitution. This was in South Africa, probably one of the criticisms that happened the most often was the third round of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a reparations consideration. And people criticized the government because they said it wasn't enough. It wasn't you know, not enough people were affected that had been affected negatively. So people disagree about what's enough. So each of those steps, like apology, restitution and reparations or whatever, help some people feel that was sufficient and to be able to forgive more but not everyone.
RS: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
EW: So the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was conceived in different ways. You know, importantly it's to get at the truth because we need to know the things that happen. And so amnesty was offered for people who told the truth and public hearings were made so that everybody could hear this and they were televised. So-- so there were a lot of you know, intents to tell the truth in order hopefully to regain a sense of trust and begin to reconcile. One of the criticisms that got made of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that Desmond Tutu was the head of that commission. And his position was definitely in favor of forgiveness. And so he encouraged people to say I forgive you, or to, or to ask for forgiveness. A lot of people criticized that and they said well, this is not really the truth and forgiveness commission, this is truth and reconciliation and need to forgive you know, but people are being pressured into forgiving. So for some people it gave them an open door to do what they wanted to do and for other people it was it felt coercive. So, so really it was not, it wasn't intended to be I think associated with forgiveness but because of Desmond Tutu's strong leadership, it got taken that way in a number of cases.
RS: Where does the science of forgiveness go? What are you looking forward to?
EW: As I reflect on the science of forgiveness I think a lot of open questions that haven't been answered are the leading edge. I think one of those has to do with interventions. You know we have the Reach Forgiveness model. Bob Enright has a process model of forgiveness. I think we've established those who work, but moving them out to other cultures is an important thing that needs to be done. Using technology better. I think the next step, you know, is to make forgiveness interventions on apps. So that anybody with a cell phone all over the world can access this and have an experience of forgiveness. Can it be delivered on an internet platform in a way that people will use. We have an Internet study, basically what we found is only about a quarter of the people actually progressed through it because it was six hours. People come, they see it, they work an hour, they get tired and they don't go back to it. So can you adapt it to the Internet in a way that it can be used. So interventions, I think, are important questions. Another is, there is a given kind of dose-response relationship between the amount of time people try to forgive and the amount of forgiveness they experience. And so there is this line of prediction, a regression line that predicts the dose, the amount of time that they spent trying to forgive, and the effect. And I think the-- where we want to go now is, can we have the interventions that help, that are more efficient, they get people above the line, they help them forgive faster than and more thoroughly than the ones we have right now. Another open door I think in forgiveness is what about forgiveness in children. We don't know much about that at all. And, mostly because it just hasn't been looked at. So can we study forgiveness in children or health-- we did an edited book in 2015 and we had like 17 different health issues that forgiveness had been related to. There are many more out there that forgiveness is related to, all of those areas of you know looking at different health, health benefits to forgiveness. The context of forgiveness, how is self-forgiveness by an offender related to forgiveness. If you forgive, does that help the person forgive themselves? You know how the interaction is. What about feeling forgiveness from God in that divine forgiveness, does that help people forgive. Does it help people confess and you know, if they feel guilty about what they've done? How are individual, kind of individual experiences of forgiveness, how is that related to society. Here's a really interesting one. What about the political process? Oh my gosh, we seem to have no forgiveness in the political process we're just dividing lines. You know, can we promote more unity?
RS: So politically...
EW: Politically, it seems like we just have wedges drawn between any two people with different views and that this seems to drive people further apart. can forgiveness play a part in helping to find some common ground instead of you know, drawing more and more differences, you know, can we come together more and solve problems more if we're able to forgive some of the offenses and harms that have happened on like, Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere in social media and news.
RS: Are we a forgiving society?
EW: Sometimes I wonder, you know, are we a forgiving society. And I'd say, the jury's mixed on that. You know, they have not come to a unanimous conclusion. I think there are places in society such as that Amish community that forgave. Such as the South Carolina church and individuals that stand out and yet, that certainly doesn't seem like it characterizes the whole society. I think we have like any pluralistic society we have a bell curve, and we have some people that would never forgive, and we have others that will forgive anything. And most of us are somewhere in the middle.