Less than a week after the Boston Marathon bombings, which left 3 people dead and over 280 injured, Cardinal Sean O’Malley emphasized the importance of forgiveness during Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. According to the Boston Globe, Cardinal O’Malley gave the congregation two reasons to consider forgiveness. The first was to avoid the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth mentality.” In that way, forgiveness offered a potential means to avoid further hostilities between groups. In fact, local tensions seemed to be simmering. O’Malley was likely cognizant of this, hoping to help defuse things before they progressed any further.
But the second reason applied more to the emotional health of individuals. For the victims and their families, O’Malley suggested that forgiveness was a potential way around the very human and very understandable desire to feel anger when we are wronged. He told reporters after the Mass:
“Forgiveness does not mean that we do not realize the heinousness of the crime… But, in our hearts, when we are unable to forgive, we make ourselves a victim of our own hatred.”
In this framing of things, forgiveness is both a selfish and a selfless act in that it benefits our own emotional state while simultaneously de-escalating tensions, and even (in its most altruistic form) absolving the guilty party. However, forgiveness is a complex process with a range of factors to consider, including the severity of the transgression, whether the guilty demonstrate remorse, the amount of time passed, and the personality of those aggrieved.
Many religions emphasize forgiveness as being among the most noble of human acts. As Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” For a more secular view, Harris et al. (2006: 716) described forgiveness like this:
“Although no “gold standard” definition of interpersonal forgiveness exists, there is general agreement among theorists and researchers about what forgiveness is not: It is not pardoning (legal term), excusing (implies good reason for offense), condoning (implies justification), denying (implies unwillingness to acknowledge), forgetting (implies failed memory, something outside conscious awareness), or reconciliation.”
Instead, they described forgiveness as a process that increases positive emotions and thoughts toward others and themselves (ex. empathy, hope, compassion) while also reducing the chronic, hyper-aroused stress response accompanied by negative rumination. And there is evidence that forgiveness carries tangible, practical benefits as well (to which Cardinal O’Malley alluded).
In the Harris study, volunteers in the San Francisco Bay area who had experienced some interpersonal transgression were assigned either to a group trained in forgiveness techniques or to a control group. Those who had completed the training sessions experienced significant reductions in anger and perceived stress. Similarly, in another sample of refugees in northern Uganda, those who had undergone an intervention teaching emotional resiliency and forgiveness had lower depression and anxiety scores compared to a control group (Sonderegger et al 2011).
Thus, there do seem to be real positive effects of forgiveness. Obviously, some offenses are more easily forgiven than others. Whether or not this is applicable to the Boston Marathon bombings, or any heinous act, depends on context and the individuals affected, and those emotions deserve respect. If forgiveness happens at all, it seems to be a messy process that will certainly take more than a week or two. In one of the more meaningful things I’ve written here –at least to me– I took an anthropological perspective to describe some of the more extraordinary case studies of apology and forgiveness, in particular those stemming from the Vietnam War (Kim Phuc, the massacre at MyLai). Some of those examples took years, even a millennium, before one side could approach the other with an apology and a hope for forgiveness. While it is not easy, it has been done.
Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War (March 11, 2011)
Patriots’ Day (April 16, 2013)
Harris AH, Luskin F, Norman SB, Standard S, Bruning J, Evans S, Thoresen CE. 2006. Effects of a group forgiveness intervention on forgiveness, perceived stress, and trait-anger. J Clin Psychol. 62(6):715-33. Link