Forgive and Forget: Maybe Easier Said Than Done

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006; A02

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."

One psychological pioneer disagreed. Forgiveness, even in the absence of a wrongdoer's remorse or punishment, is both possible and beneficial, said Robert Enright at the University of Wisconsin.

Controlled studies show that when victims make an active attempt to forgive -- by recognizing that anger is eating away at them, by trying to see the inherent worth of the people who hurt them and by extracting positive lessons from the experience -- they fare better on various measures of psychological well-being.

One 2003 study by Dutch researchers, however, found that the positive benefits of forgiveness disappeared when people did not have a close relationship with the wrongdoer, suggesting that forgiveness may not be a one-size-fits-all response to unresolved conflict.

No matter what the data say about the virtues of forgiveness, Enright agreed it is not the place of experts to advise anyone to forgive: "People want to string Mr. Lay up by his thumbs, and now that he has died they feel cheated. Some of them will hope he will be resurrected so they can fry him."

Unlike religious injunctions, the psychological approach is not prescriptive. "If being angry works for you, I am not going to take it away from you," said psychologist Fred Luskin. "But if it is not working, maybe we can put forgiveness on your menu of choices."

Lois Black, 66, of Houston, a legal secretary at Enron who lost $150,000 when the company's stock collapsed, is among those still angry at Lay. Every time she lifts heavy furniture for the parties she now organizes to make ends meet, she is reminded of her pain. She is constantly worried that her body will give out.

"He got off easy by dying," she said. "You are gone, boom! You die and you are out of here.

"Of course," she reminded herself thoughtfully, "who knows what is on the other side?"

Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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