Time magazine has called Dr. Robert Enright “the forgiveness trailblazer” because of his groundbreaking scientific discoveries related to how forgiveness favorably impacts both emotional and physical health. Now the doctor (a Ph.D., not a physcian) is working with medical specialists in Europe to discover if forgiveness can improve the health of patients with multiple myeloma–a cancer of cells in the immune system.
Dr. Enright will provide an update on his latest forgiveness challenge at the 17th Annual Fall Cancer Conference sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, at the Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin.
Advances in Multidisciplinary Cancer Care 2018 is the title of the day-long conference that will focus on “Unique Challenges Faced by Young Adults With Cancer.” Dr. Enright’s presentation begins at 2:00 pm and is entitled “Forgiveness as a Strengthening of Emotional Health in Cancer Patients and Their Families.”
While the conference is designed primarily for individuals who are involved in cancer treatment and education of cancer patients and their families, conference organizers are also encouraging patients, caregivers and community members to attend. For registration information, visit the 17th Annual Fall Cancer Conference website.
Forgiveness therapy for cancer patients is not a new endeavor for Dr. Enright. He and his colleagues completed a clinical trial nearly 10 years ago with cancer patients who were receiving end-of-life hospice care. That study found that as the patients’ physical health decreased, measures of emotional health increased if they completed forgiveness therapy.
Next, they completed a clinical trial with patients in cardiac units, where they observed a physical benefit to forgiveness: cardiac health measures, such as blood flow to the heart, increased in the patients on the intervention. Forgiveness therapy, then, has shown both palliative and physical benefits in medical settings.
“So now we’re working with physicians in Europe in regards to multiple myeloma,” Enright says. He explained that multiple myeloma is a cancer of cells in the immune system, that stress is known to compromise the immune system, and that forgiveness therapy has been demonstrated to reduce stress.
Interestingly, case studies in patients with low-grade multiple myeloma have already found disease stabilization if patients complete forgiveness therapy. Could forgiveness – a relatively inexpensive, non-drug-based intervention – become a part of some patients’ treatment plans? Enright and medical colleagues think the answer may be yes, and they are currently developing a clinical trial to understand if forgiveness improves myeloma patient health through measurable biological markers.
“That’s why next we need to do a clinical trial, for cause and effect,” Enright says. “The physicians will measure markers of immune system strength, and then I would bring the hope and anxiety scales to measure the psychological markers.”
Yes, and this is sometimes called group forgiveness. Group forgiveness is different from one person forgiving another. In the latter, a person can change feeling, thoughts, and behaviors toward an offending other. Groups do not have feeling and thoughts (individuals within groups have the feeling and thoughts). So, only actions are part of group forgiveness such as proclamations of forgiveness or establishing norms within the group to try to be kind toward the other group as justice is pursued.
Here is the abstract of a journal article on this issue:
Montreal, Canada– A just-released study by PsychTests.com indicates that an unwillingness to forgive others is associated with some rather unscrupulous traits, including a propensity for manipulation and vindictiveness.
Collecting data from nearly 1,000 people who took their Integrity and Work Ethics Test, researchers at PsychTests discovered that those who are unwilling to forgive others exhibit an uncharacteristically high propensity for:
Schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misery of others)
Cynical view of humanity
Disdain for weakness in others
Disdain for gullible people
Sense of Entitlement
ON THE FLIP-SIDE
People who exhibit a willingness to show mercy and to forgive, the study revealed, also possess other commendable traits, including:
Willingness to practice discretion
“You don’t have to forgive someone who has wronged you — that is your prerogative. But it’s important to understand that forgiveness is a release, a form of catharsis,” explains Dr. Ilona Jerabek, president and CEO of PsychTests.
“When you truly forgive someone, you are essentially giving yourself the freedom to release all the negative energy you have been holding onto — the sadness, the sense of betrayal, the anger, the bitterness, the desire for vengeance,” according to Dr. Jerabek.
“Holding on to these feelings for too long will sap your sense of joy and peace of mind,” Dr. Jerabek adds.“It’s a waste of emotional energy, and serves no purpose but to remind you of the past.The only way to let go of the pain is to learn to forgive.”
About PsychTests AIM Inc.
Since its founding in 1996, PsychTests has become a pre-eminent provider of psychological assessment products and services to human resource personnel, executive and life coaches, therapists and counselors, sport psychologists, and academic researchers.
Recently, I have been hearing people say that forgiveness is transcendence. By this they seem to mean that as people forgive, then the past injustices do not affect them any more. They have risenabove the pain, the anguish, the sadness, and the anger. They have moved on.
If this is all that forgiveness is, then forgiveness is not a moral virtue. A moral virtue, such as justice or patience, is for people. It reaches out to people. It aids and supports people by putting the particular virtue into action and that action points toward people. When I exercise justice, for example, I honor the agreement that is part of a contract into which we both have entered. I am patient by restraining from harsh words when in a long line or when those who are my teammates at work are slowing things down.
Moral virtues are concerned with goodness expressed toward other people.
If forgiveness is part of love—a moral virtue—then it cannot be only about transcending the past because one can transcend that past by being neutral toward those who have been unfair, who were responsible for the hurt. The forgiver need not enter into a direct relationship with the injuring person if he or she continues to cause harm.
Yet, the forgiver wishes the other well, as Lewis Smedes in his 1984 book, Forgive and Forget has said. The forgiver is willing to do good toward the other, if the other changes abusive behavior. Being neutral might be part of the pathway toward forgiving, but it is not its end point.
The end point of forgiving is to express love, as best one can, toward those who have not loved the forgiver. Even if a person cannot develop that love for whatever reason, loving the other nonetheless is the endpoint of true forgiveness. – Robert Enright
Transcending the past might be a consequence of forgiving, but it is not forgiving itself…..if forgiveness is a moral virtue.
Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?
In a 2015 article in Scientific American, it was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.
These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?
Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?
This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?
Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):
Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above.
At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.
After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.
Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.
When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.
My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.
Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study.
One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title, “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges.” Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?
Are we becoming psychologically more compromised with each subsequent generation?
Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overuse.Psychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagers. Anxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.
What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation.
Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?
So that I am not misunderstood, I am not talking only about current adolescents and those in emerging adulthood who are showing mental health disorders. I am talking about entire generations as a whole that may not be as psychologically whole in general as they could be. If this analysis has merit, then it is all the more imperative that we take very seriously the idea of forgiveness education in general, not just for those with diagnosed mental disorders.
Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
A final point is this:Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.
Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.
Forgiveness is full of paradoxes. Consider three examples of these paradoxes:
1) As one is kind to those who are not kind to the person, then the forgiver experiences emotional relief;
2) Rather than seeking justice as part of forgiveness, the person exercises the virtue of mercy and this can be part of the healing process between two people;
3) When emotionally hurting from the injustice the focus is not on the self, but on the other and this promotes healing in the forgiver.
Another paradox is that as forgiveness fosters humility, the lowliness of humility fosters the strength of courage. As one forgives, one begins to practice humility which means lowering oneself from a potential power position to see the self and the other as at least somewhat similar in these: We are both imperfect; we both have hurt others; we are both human and therefore each of us possesses inherent worth. The humility can help one stand firm in courage to persevere in the forgiveness process with all of its paradoxes. After all, if the forgiver sees the inherent worth in both, then there is motivation to acknowledge this worth and see the process of forgiveness through to the end, which requires courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but moving forward even in fear.
Humility and courage each can be misunderstood. There are two extremes to both humility and courage. The first extreme for humility is to have a very lowly—too lowly—view of the self so that people think they deserve to be humiliated, even constantly humiliated. The other extreme of humility is, in trying to see one’s own bounds or limitations, to distort these at too high a level. The quest for humility, in this second case of extremes, leads to a distortion toward one’s own greatness, one’s own specialness above others.
The first extreme of courage is too much fear that leads to a lack of action. The second extreme of courage is a reckless bravado, charging ahead without the ability to do so and therefore to endanger self and others.
Humility requires a middle-ground between self-deprecation and self-inflation to a more realistic view of one’s own (and others’) strengths and weaknesses.
Courage requires a middle-ground between being frozen in fear and being reckless.
As one forgives, the person needs to balance both humility and courage. Genuine humility (without the extremes discussed above) helps the forgiver to see the shared humanity with the forgiven. Genuine courage (without those extremes) helps the forgiver to persevere in the struggle to forgive and to bring justice as its own moral virtue into the process of reconciliation.
Humility, courage, and forgiveness are a team that, together, can lead to inner healing and the offer of reconciliation toward those who have behaved unjustly.
Your insights are very insightful and important. Yes, we agree with you that IFI’s forgiveness curriculum in all or at least many schools would reduce student anger. Once in their mid-teens, many of the adolescents should have their anger reduced and not at a level that might lead to violence. Forgiveness therapy in the prison system also should reduce anger so that it is not a motivator to hurt others. Forgiveness therapy in drug rehabilitation programs and in marriage programs should help reduce stress in those who do this kind of work.
The key issue is not whether or not forgiveness education and forgiveness therapy would work. Instead, that key issue is this: How can we get the attention of the decision makers in schools, prisons, drug rehabilitation units, and marriage counseling centers so that these forgiveness programs are given a chance to be implemented? In our experience, leaders need to see the efficacy of forgiveness for it to move forward. How can we get the attention of the leaders?