The Forgiveness Teacher’s Toughest Test
Everett Worthington taught others how to forgive. One night, he had to become his own best pupil.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of Spirituality & Health.
The call came on New Year’s day, 1996. My brother’s voice was shaky. “I have some bad news,” he said. “Mama’s been murdered.”
In the next five minutes, Mike sketched for me what he saw when he and his step-son, David, walked into the scene. That night, my brother, sister, and I talked about it. Mama had been beaten to death with a crowbar, her body assaulted with a wine bottle. Rage bubbled up in me like lava. I heard myself saying, “I’d like to have that murderer alone in a room with just a baseball bat. I’d beat his brains out.”
That night about 3:00 a.m., I fought the bed covers, imagining the scenes of violence, my thoughts overflowing with hatred and revenge. Ironically, only days before I had finished writing a book, To Forgive Is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past. Finally my own book brought me up short. Did I really believe, as we had written, that empathy was a key to forgiving? Could I empathize with the person who had murdered my mother? Or was that book just for other people?
I didn’t know who did it, and never would find out. But that night, I tried to picture the crime scene. I imagined how a pair of youths might feel as they stood in the dark street preparing to rob the house. Perhaps they had been caught at robbery previously. They would have been keyed up. The house was dark, no car in the driveway. No one’s home, they must have thought. Perhaps one said, “They’re at a New Year’s Eve party.” They couldn’t know that Mama didn’t drive.
A quick rap of the crowbar and they were in, hastily emptying drawers, dumping the contents on the floor. I imagined their shock when her voice came from behind. “What are you doing in here?” Oh, no, one must have thought, I’ve been seen. I’ll go to jail. She’s ruining my life. He lashed out with his crowbar, slamming my mother three times. Panicked, the youths went crazy, trashing the house, both for having their plans ruined and for the shame of having murdered.
I felt I understood better what had happened. Whoever murdered my mom did a terrible thing. Nothing will change that. Through empathy, however, I saw that he had lashed out in fear, panic, guilt, and anger. I thought of when I had talked about beating him to death with a baseball bat. I was willing to do what he did, only with more forethought, more naked malice than he.
“Whose heart is darker?” I almost said aloud. When I saw the evil that I was capable of plotting, I was humbled. I saw my own guilt over plotting revenge. As a Christian, I believed that even as I confessed it, I would receive Divine forgiveness for my evil intent. I felt that forgiveness flood me. I knew that the youth, too, needed forgiveness. How could I withhold what the youth needed?
So, I forgave him, and I have since felt peace.
People sometimes find it hard to believe I could forgive so quickly. In fact, though I wish such rapid forgiveness were always available, forgiveness more often takes time. Time to feel empathy with the person who harms us, and more time to get to the point where we’re ready to forgive. I only know that in the over-two years since that night, I haven't felt the hostility or desire for revenge that I have sometimes felt for people who have inflicted lesser hurts on me.
Forgiveness did not shorten my grief. For over a year afterward, I would periodically be overcome with sorrow. The blessing was that I did not have to deal with my own hatred and bitterness.
Today, my colleagues and I have taught the steps I went through, the Pyramid of Forgiveness, to hundreds of people. Our controlled studies suggest that people who spend six to eight hours applying the Pyramid generally are able to forgive.
Scientists who study forgiveness see many benefits. It reduces hostility, and people able to let go of hostility tend to have fewer cardiovascular problems, fewer heart attacks, and to feel less stress. They don't become — or stay — as agitated. We also know that reducing chronic stress leads to better immune system functioning and a boost in mood.
Walk with me up the Pyramid Model of Forgiveness. The steps spell out the acrostic REACH. Think of a person who has hurt you and apply the steps to REACH forgiveness. If the wound is traumatic, you might want the support of a friend or counselor as you move up the steps.
Recall the Hurt.
When we are hurt, we often try to protect ourselves by denying our hurt. We think, often correctly, that if we don't think about it, it won't bother us. But if unforgiveness keeps intruding into your happiness or gnawing ulcers in your gut, consider forgiving. Recall the hurt as objectively as possible. Don't rail against the person who hurt you, waste time wishing for an apology that will never be offered, or dwell on your victimization. Instead, admit that a wrong was done to you and set your sights on its repair.
Empathy involves seeing things from another person’s point of view, feeling that person’s feelings, and identifying with the pressures that made the person hurt you. When I imagined the experiences of the youths who murdered my mother, I did not condone their acts. Empathy put a human face on suffering. To empathize with your offender’s experience, write a brief letter to yourself as if you were the other person. How would he or she explain the harmful acts?
Altruistic gift of forgiveness.
Empathy can prepare you for forgiving, but to give that gift of forgiveness, consider yourself. Have you ever harmed or offended a friend, a parent, or a partner who later forgave you? Think about your guilt. Then consider the way you felt when you were forgiven. Most people say, “I felt free. The chains were broken.” Forgiveness can unshackle people from their interpersonal guilt. By recalling your own guilt and the gratitude over being forgiven, you can develop the desire to give that gift of freedom to the person who hurt you.
Commit to forgive.
When you forgive, you can eventually doubt that you have forgiven. When people remember a previous injury or offense, they often interpret it as evidence that they must not have forgiven. If you make your forgiveness tangible, you are less likely to doubt it later. Tell a friend, partner, or counselor that you have forgiven the person who hurt you. Write a “certificate of forgiveness,” stating that you have, as of today, forgiven.
Holding onto forgiveness.
When you have doubts about whether you have forgiven, remind yourself of the Pyramid, refer to your certificate of forgiveness, and tell yourself that a painful memory does not disqualify the hard work of forgiveness that you have done. Instead of trying to stop thoughts of unforgiveness, think positively about the forgiveness you have experienced. If you continue to doubt your forgiveness, work back through the Pyramid.
Few wounds we experience are as deep as the murder of one's mother. Yet, whether you are slighted at a party, passed over for promotion, or rejected by a loved one, you can systematically REACH for forgiveness by walking up the Pyramid of Forgiveness.