Forgiveness: Why is it so hard?

AEON Magazine, London, Melbourne, New York – “Science is discovering what religion has always known: forgiveness is good for us. But that doesn’t make it any easier.”

That’s the opening of an article for AEON Magazine titled “Letting Go” by California writer Amy Westervelt, who writes on health issues primarily for The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.  In this article, she documents the science proving that forgiveness is healthy, but struggles to figure out why is it so hard.

After studying and interviewing forgiveness experts like Dr. Robert Enright, Professor Frederic Luskin, and Oprah Winfrey’s favorite life coach, Iyanla Vanzant, here is some of what Westervelt concluded about why forgiveness is so hard:

Forgiveness is a relatively new academic research area, studied in earnest only since Dr. Enright began publishing on the subject in the 1980s. The first batch of studies were medical in focus. Forgiveness was widely correlated with a range of physical benefits, including better sleep, lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, Hard workeven increased life expectancy; really, every benefit you’d expect from reduced stress.

The late Kathleen Lawler, while working as a researcher in the psychology department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, studied the effects of both hostility and forgiveness on the body’s systems fairly extensively. ‘Forgiveness is aptly described as “a change of heart”,’ she wrote, in summarising a series of studies focused on the impact of forgiveness on heart health. Meanwhile, Duke University researchers found a strong correlation between improved immune system function and forgiveness in HIV-positive patients, and between forgiveness and improved mortality rates across the general population. . . .

Dr. Enright has established himself as ‘the father of forgiveness’, creating a therapeutic protocol for how to practise it that was officially sanctioned by the American Psychology Association and the United Nations. He thought the Catholic Church could be doing more to Being Humanemphasise its deep history in the subject, and spreading the gospel of forgiveness to the masses, and said so in a speech at the Vatican. . . .

While researchers have spent the past 20 years proving the physical and mental benefits of forgiveness, it’s the step-by-step forgiveness guides they’ve developed that might turn out to be academia’s most important contribution to the subject.

Like Vanzant’s pop-psych version, the protocols that Enright and Luskin have developed offer specific steps towards forgiveness rooted in decades of research and clinical experience. While the various approaches differ, all include practical guidance and the basics are consistent: feel the feelings you need to feel, express them, then leave them in the past where they can no longer have power over you.

What all of the researchers and pop-psych proponents of forgiveness agree on is that it takes practice and that it is hard work. Vanzant compares it to pulling out a tooth without Novocaine. Luskin described it as re-training the brain. ‘You can get upset about anything – you can also get un-upset about anything, it’s just a matter of learning how,’ he said.

Forgiveness works, and that’s what makes it so damn hard. Time does not heal all wounds. This too shall not pass. Letting go of hurt and anger is a grind, and forgiveness only works if you practise it regularly, and are prepared to fail often without giving up. But the pay-off is so huge it just might be worth it.

Read the full article “Letting Go” and watch a related video–a classic Iranian documentary that draws a forceful, poetic appeal for dignity from the harrowing images of leprosy.

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