Maybe it's something that should come naturally, an innate skill that shouldn't have to be taught. But the act of forgiving, it seems, takes a little work. Maybe even some training. That's the idea behind a $10 million grant earmarked for forgiveness research.
The John Marks Templeton Foundation, which sponsors projects that apply scientific methods to religious issues, has launched the Campaign for Forgiveness Research. Psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists are among those who have been given grants. Templeton made a significant contribution to the $10 million grant.
Rarely has forgiveness been treated as these scientists approach it--as human behavior that can be measured, taught or learned. Most Americans consider it an act of divine intervention. In a recent Gallup poll, more than 80 percent said it takes the help of God to show mercy.
This particular group of researchers applies the methods and tools of science to what has always been regarded as a spiritual concern. The problem as they see it is that people are willing to forgive, but they don't know how.
Twenty-nine studies have been approved so far by the foundation, which is based near Philadelphia and was launched by financier Sir John Templeton.
"The essence of forgiveness is always the same," says Robert Enright, who founded the International Forgiveness Institute, a training center in Madison, Wis., five years ago. "You've been hurt by someone. You choose to give up resentment to which you are entitled. You offer benevolence and mercy to someone who does not deserve it."
Distress calls to his institute come from struggling married couples, school officials coping with violent crimes on campus, survivors of incest and other atrocities. He has received funding from Templeton in the past for research that has helped to create a growing field. When he began in 1985, he was one of a small group of scientists trying to reduce the act of forgiveness to a basic formula.
Mercy does not require compromising your standards of justice, Enright says. "Forgiveness and reconciliation aren't necessarily the same thing. You don't have to cave in to the other person. But you can break the cycle of revenge if you are willing to forgive."
All of the projects funded by the new campaign attempt in some way to isolate the active ingredients required for forgiving someone. Though each project is unique, they all include facing up to the fact you've been hurt, giving up the grudge and choosing to show mercy.
At Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., psychologists Carl Thorensen and Fred Luskin are studying whether unresolved anger can be reduced by forgiveness. Luskin is already offering the benefits of his work to the public in a course, "The Art and Science of Forgiveness," which he teaches at Stanford's School of Continuing Education. In it, he shows his students how to view painful experiences from the past in ways that help them to see themselves as survivors, not victims. He'd like to see similar courses offered as early as grammar school.
"I got into this field because I didn't know how to forgive," says Luskin, who, as a new graduate, was working as a licensed therapist when he realized he had a problem. A friend had betrayed him, and he couldn't get over it. "My guess is, forgiveness is difficult in our culture because we're prone to react with anger," he says, "less prone to react with understanding."
Empathy is probably the hardest step in forgiving, but Luskin and other experts in the field say it is essential. It seems to work best when it starts in reverse, according to Everett Worthington, a marriage and family counselor in Virginia who has developed a step-by-step guide to forgiveness.
"If we reflect on a time when we did something wrong and another person forgave us," he says, "we can see how good it felt when we were released. We forgive, not just for ourselves but as a gift. It is something we can give to another."
Later, he says, people begin to doubt that anything has changed.
"They still get angry when they think about what happened," Worthington says. "Or they feel lousy every time they think about it. They start to invalidate the treatment.
"I tell them to commit publicly to forgive. They write a certificate of forgiveness, or tell a trusted friend. And perhaps they tell the person who offended them, when it is the right time."
Thomas Bradbury, a psychologist on the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles, is measuring the role of forgiveness in divorce prevention. Bradbury worked as a marriage counselor before he joined the UCLA faculty. He says most couples call for help when their marriage is already past repairing, so he teaches newlyweds skills that could help prevent divorce.
"I want to teach young couples how to avoid the negatives and keep communication lines open."
In marriage, he says, "forgiveness involves understanding what we've done wrong and how to fix it. It demands a lot of both people."