DISPATCH FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR

Forgive and Forget: Maybe Easier Said Than Done

Kenneth Lay, former Enron Corp. chairman, died Wednesday. He was convicted of inflating stock prices and misleading investors leading up to the company's 2001 filing for bankruptcy protection; he was to be sentenced this fall.
Kenneth Lay, former Enron Corp. chairman, died Wednesday. He was convicted of inflating stock prices and misleading investors leading up to the company's 2001 filing for bankruptcy protection; he was to be sentenced this fall. (By Pat Sullivan -- AP)

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By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006

Jan Molinell lost $300,000 when Enron collapsed.

A former Enron Corp. employee in Florida, Molinell closely followed the trials of Kenneth L. Lay and other Enron executives -- half-fearing that Lay's political ties to the White House would allow him to escape scot-free, and half-wondering whether an angry former employee would put out "a contract" on his life.

When Lay was found guilty of conspiracy and fraud, Molinell cheered. Then, last Wednesday, before Lay could be sentenced to prison, he died.

"I feel cheated that he didn't have to do some sort of suffering," said Molinell, 63, of Longwood, Fla. "Even last year, he rented a yacht for his wife's birthday to the tune of $200,000. For a birthday party !"

"I can speak for a lot of ex-employees and retirees," she added. "It is almost like he got away with something again."

Lay's death has uncovered a world of hurt and anger among many victims of Houston-based Enron's demise. And it brings to the fore an unusual challenge for those interested in the psychological nature of pain and forgiveness: What happens to victims when wrongdoers die before they are punished?

An explosion of research into the nature of forgiveness in recent years has proved that letting bitterness go is generally correlated with better mental health -- but not always. And while most religious traditions have long sung the praises of forgiveness, there are important differences among faiths on what can and cannot be forgiven.

Forgiveness often turns out to be embedded in larger worldviews. Democrats generally found it easy to forgive President Bill Clinton during the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal -- in part because the other side kept hollering that the offense was unforgivable, according to a study by Robert Eisinger at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.

Studies have also found that Jews are more likely than Christians to endorse the idea that certain offenses are unpardonable, partly because Jews have a history of being persecuted.

Theologically, said Adam Cohen, a psychologist at Arizona State University, forgiveness is especially central to Christianity and to Buddhism, which calls for compassion even toward "someone who is murdering you."

Many experts on forgiveness empathize with people who worked at Enron. Theologian Donald Shriver said he felt similarly angry when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, on trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague, died of a heart attack in March. It's what people do with such feelings that matter: Suffering prompts some victims to turn inward and nurse their hurt, while some turn outward on heroic missions to keep others from suffering.

When wrongs are repented, as in the case of South Africa's apartheid government, remorse can be a powerful force for reconciliation. But Lay died publicly unrepentant. "Forgiveness is a practical effort among the living to remedy alienation and hurt and injustice," Shriver said. "Without repentance, forgiveness becomes cheap."


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