Many Learn Forgiveness Transforms

By Halter, Deborah | National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 2005 | Go to article overview

Many Learn Forgiveness Transforms


Halter, Deborah, National Catholic Reporter


Holding a grudge has been likened to taking poison and hoping the enemy will die. The thing is, life doesn't work that way. This was a hard lesson for Aqeela Sherrills and Calvin Hodges of the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where Sherrills was a Crip and Hodges was a Blood.

After years of anger following his molestation as a child, Sherrills read the work of African-American novelist James Baldwin, whose literature explored themes of sexual identity. Baldwin touched a nerve in Sherrills, who for the first time was able to "stop blaming and start forgiving."

Soon after, Sherrills joined the African Brothers Collective on neutral ground in Watts to reconcile with the Bloods, acknowledging "we all had the same problems, no matter which side of the tracks we were from."

Hodges, too, had traveled a violent path, and his forgiveness of the Crips left him a changed man. "The more you communicate," he said, "the more difficult it is to commit violence, because you're no longer isolated or wearing a mask."

Sherrills' and Hodges' journeys are just one story among many of The Forgiveness Project, an independent organization promoting conflict resolution and reconciliation. The goal of the group--whose patrons include South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and British actor Emma Thompson--is to build an armamentarium against media glorification of violence. Their weapons are the "quieter, less publicized stories ... of people who have discovered that the only way to move on in life is to lay aside hatred and blame."

Sherrills and Hodges learned that while forgiveness indeed benefits the one who is forgiven, it also cleanses and transforms the one who forgives.

Ex-members of the Crips and the Bloods are not the only ones who profess the benefits of forgiveness. Preventive medicine guru Dr. Dean Ornish said in a recent Newsweek article that in a way, "the most selfish thing you can do for yourself is to forgive other people."

His point of view is consistent with the Christian tradition. Jesus taught us to forgive our enemies "70 times seven" times, and the Lord's Prayer petitions for two-way forgiveness: "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us."

This prayer shows an "acceptance of the unconditional mercy of God through Jesus Christ," says Dr. Christina M Puchalski, founder and director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health. In The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, she writes, "As we are forgiven by God, so do we also forgive others." This process marks not only the acceptance of God's mercy but also the first stage of self-love and acceptance, the basic building block of healthy human relationships. "There is no limit to our forgiving others because there is no limit to God's forgiveness."

Studies are beginning to show that those who are able to forgive enjoy better interpersonal and social support, as well as lower cardiovascular risks and increased survival rates from several types of cancer. Unforgiving persons, on the other hand, are shown to suffer anxiety, paranoia, heart disease, depression, and other psychosomatic symptoms, bearing out claims that forgiveness is, in fact, in the forgiver's best interest.

Biology of forgiveness

Forgiveness now ranks among the top research topics in clinical psychology, with more than 1,200 published studies compared to only five just two decades ago. A hefty number of studies are coming from the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, funded by the John Templeton Foundation and 14 partners who have contributed $7 million to 46 studies under this umbrella.

Authors participating in these studies are searching for "insight into the biology of forgiveness" by exploring the methods and effects of forgiveness. Their studies include diverse populations--at-risk adolescents, Vietnam veterans, substance abusers, elderly people facing end-of-life issues, domestic violence victims, survivors of suicide victims, physically disabled persons and HIV/AIDS patients. …

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