When it's better to forget forgiving

Published March 27, 2007

Forgiveness is noble, say the religious leaders. Forgiveness promotes mental health, say the psychotherapists. Forgiveness wards off disease, say the physicians.

But sometimes forgiveness is not an option - or even a good idea - says Jeanne Safer, author of Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better Not to Forgive.

"The whole movement about having to forgive in all circumstances is religion masquerading as psychology," psychotherapist Safer says.

"It's really a Christian notion: Turn the other cheek, we have to extend forgiveness in order to receive salvation, since we are all sinners.

"Only instead of going to hell if you don't forgive, you're going to be depressed forever, or get heart disease."

The pros

But the "forgiveness lobby," as Safer calls it, presents persuasive evidence that ruminating about wrongs done to us can be terribly stressful.

Learning to forgive, in contrast, can lower blood pressure, alleviate back pain and stomach distress, and neutralize anger and negative emotions that fuel depression.

Can you really "learn" to forgive? You can at least learn to try, says Everett L. Worthington Jr., author of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

Worthington divides forgiveness into two types: decisional and emotional.

Decisional forgiveness involves letting go of angry thoughts about the person you feel has wronged you.

"You can tell yourself, 'I am not going to seek revenge,' " Worthington said.

The ultimate goal, he added, is emotional forgiveness, in which negative emotions are replaced with love, compassion and empathy. This forgiveness can only be encouraged, not coerced, but "Emotional forgiveness is where the health action is."

To help achieve it, Worthington has developed a program with the acronym REACH: recalling the hurt objectively, empathizing with the person who wronged you, promoting altruism by recalling a time you were forgiven, committing to forgiveness and holding on to forgiveness.

This is not mere academic theorizing: Worthington said he used the REACH techniques after his elderly mother was beaten to death with a crowbar.

The cons

Not so fast, says Safer. While she's in favor of forgiveness, she's opposed to pressuring people to forgive in every case.

"For my book I interviewed over 50 people," she said. "Some chose not to forgive, and recognizing that they didn't have to forgive was a huge relief."

Safer advocates resolution and attempting to understand the person who wronged you.

Tom Valeo writes about medical and health issues. Write to him in care of Pulse, St. Petersburg Times, Features Department, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail features@sptimes.com.



To read more

- Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better Not to Forgive, Harper Perennial, $13.

- Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Brunner- Routledge, $39.95.