Little Earl and his mom and dad were having a terrible time.
Diagnosed as hyperactive and defiant at school and at home, the
redheaded seven-year-old with a sprinkle of freckles couldn't seem
control his anger. One tumultuous week it got so bad he was
hospitalized for the weekend.
Six months later, Earl was much happier: He had found a new way
to deal with his feelings, his parents' relationship with each other
had improved, and he no longer needed the Ritalin or Prozac he was
being given for hyperactivity. He began to do well in school.
Both he and his parents had found a "third way" to deal with
anger. Rather than denying or venting it, they had learned how to
forgive. And their answer is one that is being explored much more
"Forgiveness has remarkable healing power in the lives of those
who utilize it," says Richard Fitzgibbons, the Philadelphia
psychiatrist who worked with Earl and is one of the pioneers in
introducing forgiveness into the mental-health field.
Whether it be small wrongs, betrayals, or great crimes and
injustices, most people struggle with the resentments and grudges
that can arise from being treated unfairly. And the failure of so
many to deal effectively with them echoes loudly in today's school
violence, high rates of divorce and domestic battering, drug and
alcohol abuse, as well as in criminal acts, ethnic warfare, and
Some see hope in the rediscovered power of forgiveness. They see
its potential not only for personal life, but in community,
and international relations. And many are practicing it. In a
three- part series, the Monitor looks at what some are learning.
"Forgiveness is one of the key ideas in this world. It is not
just some nebulous, vague idea that one can easily dismiss," says
Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the introduction to "Exploring
Forgiveness" (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1998). "It has to do with
uniting people through practical politics. Without forgiveness there
is no future." South Africa is a testament to his words.
Forgiveness is a "hot topic" now in many areas, from academic
research to marital and family counseling to politics and community
life. But it isn't just President Clinton's tribulations that have
brought the issue to the fore. Nor is it a popular fad. (Research
shows that despite considering themselves religious, the majority of
Americans don't think of forgiveness as one of their top options
they are injured.)
In the past 14 years or so, forgiveness has spread from its
acknowledged domain in religious thinking and practice into the
scientific community, where research has shown impressive results,
and some practitioners are developing enthusiasm for its wide
"Long considered the extra mile of mercy toward the offender that
is required from a 'believer,' forgiveness is now being rediscovered
as a creative human faculty for overcoming estrangement," says Lewis
Smedes, professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller
Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., in "Dimensions of
Forgiveness" (Templeton Foundation Press, 1998). Dr. Smedes is the
author of "Forgive and Forget," the 1984 book some say first sparked
the interest among clinicians and the general public.
"Forgiveness is more than a moral imperative, more than a
theological dictum. It is the only means, given our humanness and
imperfections, to overcome hate and condemnation and proceed with
business of growing and loving," says Paul Coleman, a psychologist
Wappinger Falls, N.Y., whose work "was rejuvenated" when he started
planting that seed with his clients.
A pioneer who helped spur this growing interest is Robert Enright,
professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin,
Madison, who created the first research program on forgiveness.
Unhappy with research that didn't directly speak to people's needs,
Dr. Enright found during the mid-1980s that "forgiveness" struck an
immediate chord among his students from various cultures and walks
life, and that there were almost no studies on the subject. …