1. Archive

The merits of getting mad, getting even

(ran SP, NP, TP, HE, editions)

Forgiveness isn't always easy, but it's simple, right?

Not really, as it turns out. A number of psychotherapists and academic psychologists have championed the healing power of forgiveness. But the trend also has bred a group of unrepentant critics.

On one side is the "forgiveness movement," a two-decade effort to study the health effects of forgiving. Proponents of therapeutic forgiveness, especially psychologist Robert D. Enright of the University of Wisconsin, have proposed that injured parties can learn to forgive their offenders _ with or without an apology from them. Studies show that forgiving those who trespass against us can reduce stress-promoting anger and improve mental, emotional and physical health.

On the other side are critics of the movement, such as Jeffrie G. Murphy, a professor of law, philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University. Murphy and other contrarians aren't against forgiveness itself, but against a theory of forgiveness that they see as, well, unforgiving. Murphy has no doubt that, for some people, forgiveness brings healing and allows them to move on.

"But sometimes," he said "getting mad and getting even brings closure."

Murphy is the author of Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits (2003), and co-editor, with Sharon Lamb, of Before Forgiving, a 2002 collection of articles that look critically at the role of forgiveness in psychotherapy. Also voicing misgivings is psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, whose new book, How Can I Forgive You?, offers a strategy for unloading the anger without forgiving.

Lamb, a professor of psychology at St. Michael's College in Col

chester, Vt., said one result of the recent emphasis on forgiveness in psychotherapy is that people feel pressured to forgive and feel as if they're bad people if they can't or won't.

Forgiveness can

be liberating

One Connecticut psychotherapist, who asked that her name not be used, found herself consumed by anger and violent revenge fantasies when she discovered that her husband had been having sex with prostitutes _ sometimes in the couple's home while she was away with the children. She was not only betrayed but infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

"I thought, "I don't want to live with this anger,' " she said. "I felt that all my thoughts were being crowded out by anger." Following the writings of Enright, other psychotherapists and even some Buddhist teachers, she was able to forgive her husband and let go of much of her anger.

"It can be liberating," she said of forgiveness, but she added that the process of liberation was gradual and that it's still going on several years after her divorce. She said she can still feel some anger well up in certain dealings with her ex-husband.

As a therapist, she said, she better understands the power of forgiveness and the importance of not trying to push patients into forgiving. As a result of her own experience, she said, "I think I have more tolerance for people to be angry for a very long time."

The very meaning of the word "forgiveness" is a matter of debate. Spring rejects the idea that the injured party alone can engage in forgiveness. "I view (forgiveness) as a transaction that requires as much of the offender as it does of the hurt party," she said. "It is not something done in the heart or mind of the hurt party alone. It must be earned by the offender."

Spring said the healing power of forgiveness comes through the release of toxic anger. She proposes an alternative that she calls acceptance, in which the injured party makes sense of the pain, stops obsessing about the injury, sees the offense in terms of the offender's shortcomings and moves on. In her opinion, this strategy provides the same health benefits as forgiveness.

All of these authors and therapists warn against make-believe mercy. Spring speaks of "cheap forgiveness," in which the injured person quickly pardons his or her offender for a variety of reasons, but mainly to avoid conflict or rejection. Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, a Sudbury, Mass., psychiatrist and author of a recently published book, Dare to Forgive, said nothing is worse than hypocritical forgiveness in which someone says, "I'm not angry at you anymore," through clenched teeth.

Enright calls it "pseudo forgiving," and he said it underscores the need for training in forgiveness.

Enright said he has done studies to support his views, while his critics have been offering subjective opinions without evidence. But Murphy said Enright asks too much of science, which cannot settle the question of whether forgiveness is good or bad. True enough, said Enright, but if science shows an outcome of reduced anger from forgiveness, "I think we can use common sense and say we'd prefer that to its opposite."