- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Forgiveness has many faces and can take many forms. Ceremonial rituals of the Roman Catholic Church involve a penitent in the priest’s confessional being forgiven for sins he committed.

More contemporary rituals make forgiveness an academic pursuit. Washington psychiatrist Dr. Carlotta Miles views forgiveness as an individual process best achieved over time in a therapeutic setting.

Many religions have forgiveness at the very heart of their belief system, while expressing its value in different ways. For Catholics, God does the forgiving with the priest as intermediary, says Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center that, in the past, has sponsored a specially funded Forgiveness Project relating to international, rather than interpersonal, conflicts.

“You are supposed to confess your sins and ask for forgiveness and do penance and try to make reparations for the evil you have done,” he explains. “I think that model works for society, also. To ask the victim of a rape to simply forgive her rapist, or ask a family to forgive the person who killed someone in their family — if they can do this, God bless them. They are better people than I am. It takes a special grace from God to be able to do that. For society at large, we need structures that help us get to that point.”

People in olden times had to confess to the community-at-large, and penance could be wearing sackcloth and ashes, he adds.

“Unburdening oneself from a hurt experience is a kind of liberation,” he says, expressing a view common among nearly all authorities on forgiveness modes. “If you can’t forgive, the anger stays with you, and you continue to allow that person to have power over you.”

The Catholic confessional ritual, he says, “calls the sinner to conversion because you confess, and you are sorry, but then you promise not to do it again. It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.” Likewise, he says, “we have to be very careful when we go to someone and say, ‘You have to forgive the person who hurt you.’ We don’t want to victimize the victim.”

Palo Alto, Calif., psychologist Fred Luskin, author of “Forgive for Good” and “Forgive for Love,” acknowledges that scientific research shows how learning to forgive — like many other positive emotions — can make a person healthier by having a favorable impact on the cardiovascular system.

“But no research has been done yet on what it is to be forgiven because it is harder to research,” he notes. “The one doing the forgiving has the latitude.

“Work we and a few other scientists have done,” he continues in a telephone interview, “has shown through secular methodology that you can teach something that had been confined to the religious universe. … It actually may not matter if there is a spiritual or secular quality. It may be the same thing through different portals or definitions.”

This has led him to recommend nine steps to forgiveness, beginning with knowing how you feel about what has happened and being able to talk about what is wrong (www.learningtoforgive.com/steps.htm).

Many ministers attend his training sessions, he says, and he often is invited to give seminars in church settings. Research he has done in the past 10 years is integrated into an undergraduate semester course he teaches at Stanford University titled “Mind Body Spirit.” He also has done pilot training groups “to show that forgiveness and other positive qualities can be taught in a way that makes people more productive at work.”

His own religious beliefs, he says, are “a kind of Northern California eclecticism: mediation practice and reading Buddhist things. I was really taken by Christ’s forgiveness; that really informed my desire to teach this [subject].”

Academic work done this past decade was spurred in large part by grant money from the Philadelphia-based John Templeton Foundation, says professor June Tangney of George Mason University’s department of psychology. (The foundation encourages interdisciplinary multifaith investigations of many kinds.) Psychologists like herself previously “had steered away” from the area of “virtues, because, it was thought, how could you prove anything or make that a science?”

Since then, she and her peers have created data she believes are as valid as any other in the field of psychology. In essence, she says, “there are many ways to go through the forgiveness process. Initially, it means acknowledging the harm and not downplaying it.” Her own specialty is self-forgiveness, “because of my interest in shame and guilt, which are not as straightforward across the cultures. But people [everywhere] are pretty clear about forgiveness. And kids get it.”

“There are just so many areas of forgiveness,” says Dr. Miles, who practices in the District. Some, she says, “are supposed to teach you something on this Earth like how to be humble. But if it is romance or business — like how to go on living after tragedy and how to deal with grief and how to let yourself be helpless and know you can’t control everything and everybody: Those are therapeutic tasks. … It’s about learning who you are, what is inside of you, and getting rid of ghosts from the past.”

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