Today, we remember the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11th. In church today, the message was one of forgiveness. There are many religious and spiritual arguments for the importance of forgiveness that I won't go into. Psychologists also have explored this concept, and have discovered how forgiveness (and its converse, unforgiveness) influences an individual's mental and physical health.
Forgiveness is defined in many ways, but all of these definitions add up to one thing: forgiveness is something a wronged person offers to the one (or ones) who perpetrated the wrongdoing. It is generally viewed as a process that the forgiver works toward through many emotions and behaviors. Forgiveness is also often viewed as a personality trait; some people are simply more forgiving than others.
A lot of evidence suggests that being in a state of unforgiveness is damaging to both your mental and physical health (read one of many reviews here). Conversely, forgiveness is associated with better mental and physical health. Forgiveness is something you do, in part for the other person, but also for yourself. Refusing to forgive and continuing to hold a grudge is, for lack of a better word, toxic to your well-being.
This is because, in refusing to forgive, we often dwell on the wrongdoing. Psychologists refer to this constant dwelling on the negative as "rumination", and refer to rumination about perceived wrongdoing as "vengeful rumination". Research on rumination in general finds negative effects. Rumination is negatively correlated with sleep quality (abstract), as well as alcohol misuse, disordered eating, and self-harm (full paper). It makes focusing attention and problem solving difficult, because ruminators tend to be less confident in their problem solving abilities (full paper), and also because rumination uses working memory that could be devoted to the problem (full paper). Ruminators generate more biased interpretations of negative events, are more pessimistic about the future, and are poorer at solving interpersonal problems, as well (full paper).
Rumination is also associated with poor physical health. High ruminators show physiological stress markers, such as increased salivary cortisol (full paper here and abstract here) and immune system activity (full paper). People who ruminate also take longer for their heart rate and blood pressure to return to normal after being made to feel angry, which can put them at risk for organ damage over time (full paper).
Forgiveness is not "letting someone off the hook". It is not the same as condoning or absolving someone of wrong-doing. The old adage of "forgive and forget" doesn't necessarily lead to better outcomes, mainly because of the forgetting part. It is good to forgive, but not necessarily good to forget. Forgetting means failing to learn a lesson - a lesson that may be very important for you later on. This leaves the "forgiver" in a rather difficult position; one in which he or she must remember the wrongdoing without holding a grudge.
How, then, do you forgive? And how do you think about the act in such a way, that you can find forgiveness without simply ruminating on the event? Rumination has one key component - it is dwelling on the negative without trying to find a solution for the negative. You're stuck in the mud and simply spinning your wheels without really getting anywhere. Reflection, on the other hand, involves thinking through an event and trying to find closure. Reflective thought leads to a change in the thinker.
The review I linked to above (linked again here) discussed some of the reflection “forgivers” engage in. One cognitive process is empathy, in which the forgiver puts him- or herself in the other’s shoes, and attempts to experience the same emotional state. Not only do “trait forgivers” experience more empathy, but people who are randomly assigned to engage in empathy are also able to experience forgiveness. This provides some evidence that anyone, even people who are not naturally empathetic, can use this experience to forgive.
Forgivers are more generous in their appraisals of the one(s) to be forgiven, seeing them as more likable or having more likable traits. They are also better at understanding another person’s explanation for the behavior. In essence, they try to see the situation from the other person’s point-of-view. You don’t have to accept another person’s explanation, but rather, try to understand where they’re coming from. At the very least, this understanding can aid in finding a solution or determining a path to reconciliation. People often have a very self-centered view of the world in that they have difficulty recognizing that other people do not see things in the same way or have the same knowledge (a good blog post for another day).
Of course, one thing that may make forgiveness such a difficult process in the case of 9/11 is the severity of the wrong as well as the fact that the group responsible has such different worldviews. In a previous blog entry, I talked about stereotypes and ingroup/outgroup, all of which is definitely relevant here. Our tendency to dehumanize the outgroup makes forgiveness complicated, because forgiveness is a between-human experience. Forgiveness in this case is not impossible, but would have to involve an even greater degree of understanding and attempts to characterize the other group’s point-of-view.
Forgiveness is a process. Even 10 years later, the emotions are still very raw, but we can still continue moving forward.