Forgiveness may be the path to healing
By Sandi Dolbee
RELIGION & ETHICS EDITOR
April 15, 2001
Betty Burke's voice is fragile, worn thin by the grief of a teen-age grandson killed by another kid's bullet.
The question hangs in the air. Burke has leaned on her church in these sorrowful weeks since Randy Gordon's death at Santana High School.
"Just in my prayers," she begins. "But I haven't been able to say it."
Randy was one of two lives lost in the March 5 attack on the Santee campus. Eleven other students and two adults were wounded. Their accused assailant, a student, remains in custody.
In the coming weeks and months, or perhaps longer, each of those touched by this tragedy, as well as those injured in the shootings March 22 at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, will face the forgiveness question. Some will walk away from it. And some will find a way to embrace it.
Fred Luskin hopes they will do the latter.
Luskin is a Stanford University researcher who believes that forgiveness is good for you. Literally. Emotionally and physically, Luskin's studies show, people are healthier if they learn to forgive.
"In four studies, people showed less anger, less hurt, less depression when they showed more forgiveness," says Luskin, a psychologist who heads up the Stanford Forgiveness Project.
His project is twofold: It not only measures the effects of forgiveness but it also trains people in how to do it. Toward that end, he was in San Diego recently leading workshops on forgiveness and spiritual health.
"The goal is to bring as much healing as you can -- to yourself and to the world," he says.
"A no-brainer" Others who deal with matters of the body and the soul are not surprised by Luskin's findings.
"If you can imagine the opposite of forgiveness, it's anger, it's bitterness, it's hatred," says Dr. Larry Dossey, a physician and author of "Healing Words" and other books about the relationship between spiritual and physical well-being.
"To me, the forgiveness connection to healing is really kind of a no-brainer," says Dossey, who lives in New Mexico.
The Rev. Phil Herrington cites reports about how people who don't forgive and who harbor bitterness end up physically ill from it. "When you swallow your anger, it is going to show up somewhere," he says.
Herrington has preached on forgiveness a lot over his lifetime in the ministry. He's seen grief a lot, too. Besides being pastor at Pathways Community Church in Santee and a chaplain to the Sheriff's Department, he also presided over Randy Gordon's memorial service last month.
His role model for forgiveness is Jesus, who forgave right up until the end, asking God as he died on the cross on Good Friday to forgive those who put him there.
Herrington's favorite biblical story on the subject is in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It's about a sinning woman's gratitude to Jesus for having been forgiven. In that story, Jesus says this, "the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."
In having been forgiven, Herrington seeks the courage -- and the love -- to forgive others. "I think that's the kind of response we need," he says.
Still, as Betty Burke is finding, these things take time.
"What I say is that six months to a year down the road, if you find yourself negative or bitter ...... that's when I would start thinking about forgiveness," says Luskin.
Dossey is likewise reluctant to assign a firm deadline. "We dishonor these parents and these surviving kids in the school by trying to lock them into certain time sequences and durations," says Dossey.
Three steps Forgiveness is a process, just like grieving. The first step, says Luskin, is this: "Don't rush it."
People shouldn't forgive something until they've allowed themselves to fully feel the hurt. He explains: "Life has pain. I think it's more important to learn how to grow from pain and become a stronger person."
Luskin's second step is to realize that forgiveness is about you -- not the offender. "You do this to heal your own life."
Others also say that while it might be nice for the offender to repent, it's not a requirement. Remember: You're the one who is suffering by holding that grudge.
"One of the goals of forgiveness is for me to be free," says Herrington, the pastor. " ...... The person who is forgiven finds freedom, but I think the person who is the forgiver finds even more freedom."
Luskin's final step is this: Learn not to dwell on pain inflicted by others. "You have to stop renting out so much of your mind to things that hurt you," he says. "Look for beauty and people's niceness."
There is another thing about forgiveness -- don't confuse it with justice.
Take the Santana High shootings. Says Herrington: "Yes, there's forgiveness and you say, 'I forgive you Andy' (accused assailant Charles "Andy" Williams), but Andy still has to pay for what Andy did."
Forgiveness doesn't mean you condone bad action. "It means you can still seek justice," says Luskin. "What it means is that you eliminate the mental and emotional disturbances (you are feeling)."
Luskin predicts there will be more how-to classes like the ones he leads. And not just in forgiveness -- but in such topics as optimism and compassion. "I think as a culture some of us realize that we've made anger too available and I don't think we've made the alternatives available enough, he explains.
Faith factors Luskin is compiling his findings in a book, "Forgive for Good," that is due out in December. And while his training program is secular, he acknowledges that forgiveness is a thread woven through faith from East to West.
In the West, it is rooted in Scripture and framed in the example of God's mercy. In the East, it's often seen as part of the human bond.
Buddhism's one-with-everything philosophy, for example, believes that not to forgive is to be out of harmony. We are all connected, says the Rev. Thich Hang Hien of the Van Hanh Temple in Santee. "You don't blame, and you don't slight others, and you don't hate them," he said.
We must forgive, Hang Hien adds, because "if we hate him or try to take revenge against him, we would be like him."
In his teachings, the internationally known Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, who last year established a monastery just outside of Escondido, speaks about forgiveness as having an eternal impact.
"If we are not able to heal the wounds within us, we will transmit the wounds to future generations, and they will continue to suffer like we have," he once said.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister who led a nation toward racial equality, saw forgiveness as a lifestyle. "Forgiveness is not an occasional act," he said, "it is a permanent attitude."
Pastor Herrington believes that Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the year for Christians, is a good time to address this subject.
"Easter is the centerpiece of Christian faith," he says. Accordingly, Easter is the route in which Christians receive forgiveness. Jesus died for their sins and in his Resurrection, they receive new life. "The reason I forgive other people is because Jesus has forgiven me," is how Herrington puts it.
In the end, forgiveness is a choice.
Grieving grandmother Betty Burke is working on it. "I haven't got to that point yet," she says. "But I do think it will come."