Triumph of the Heart

A father’s journey illuminates the ways in which forgiveness can be one of life’s most transformative acts—if we only allow ourselves to embrace it.

By Megan Feldman Bettencourt, published on June 30, 2015 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Illustration by Gerard DuBois

Azim Khamisa was standing in the kitchen of his La Jolla, California, townhouse in his nightshirt when his phone rang. The international investment banker had returned from a business trip to Mexico the night before and was enjoying a relaxing Sunday morning. The words he heard on the call, from a man who said he was a police detective, didn’t make any sense: “Your son... shot... dead...”

Azim was sure it was a mistake. His only son, Tariq, was just 20 years old, a good kid and a college student who delivered pizza to earn spending money. Azim hurried the detective off the phone and dialed his son’s number, but got no answer. He next called Tariq’s fiancée, Jennifer. Crying so hard that she could barely speak, she confirmed the news. The truth suddenly registered throughout Azim’s body, and his knees buckled. He fell backward, hitting his head on the refrigerator. As the phone crashed to the floor, he was enveloped by a shattering, all-encompassing pain that he would forever describe as “a nuclear bomb detonating” in his heart.

Soon after, a close friend arrived to comfort him. They sat in a daze at Azim’s dining room table. Nearby a picture of a skier on a snowy mountain evoked memories of teaching little Tariq to ski. A detective came and said witnesses reported four teens running from his son’s car after what seemed like a botched robbery. Tariq, felled by a single bullet that tore through his heart and lungs, drowned in his own blood. The police were still searching for the suspects. 

After the investigator left, Azim’s friend shook his head. “I hope they find those bastards and fry them.” Azim was silent for a while. Then he said, “I don’t feel that way. There were victims at both ends of that gun.” When he heard himself say this, the words rang true. He felt as if they came from God.

Azim himself was one of the victims. Like most people who lose a child, he fell into deep grief. In one sense, though, he was different from other grieving parents. He was determined to forgive the young man who killed his son.

Tony Hicks, 14 years old at the time of the crime, was eventually convicted of Tariq’s murder. He was born in South Central Los Angeles to a teenage single mother who had sent him to live with his grandfather in San Diego, where crime was lower and Tony could grow up more safely. The grandfather, a city planner named Ples Felix, was a stickler for routine and good habits. At first, Tony seemed to flourish under this discipline, and his grades improved. But when he entered his teens he began smoking marijuana and ditching school. By age 14 he was hanging out with a gang called the Black Mob. They nicknamed him Bone.

On January 22, 1995, Tony and his friends decided to call in a pizza order and then rob the deliveryman.The plan went awry as soon as Tariq Khamisa showed up with the delivery. Tony and the gang’s 18-year-old ringleader, Antoine “Q-Tip” Pittman, demanded the pizza without paying for it. When Tariq refused, Tony drew a stolen nine-millimeter semiautomatic handgun from his waistband. As Tariq clambered into his white 80s-model Volkswagen, Q-Tip shouted, “Bust him, Bone!” Tony aimed and squeezed. The car rolled to a stop. The boys ran. 

As the blood drained from Tariq’s body, a father and grandfather were unknowingly being drawn into a future that they never could have imagined.

Azim would eventually apply his business mind to the study of sociology, obsessively poring over the dire statistics of America’s street wars. He concluded that Tariq and Tony were victims of a cycle of violence for which every American, himself included, was responsible. He resolved to change the status quo. He also sensed that if he didn’t reach out to the killer’s family and forgive them—maybe even invite them to join his crusade—he’d be a victim of his anguish forever.

Azim founded a nonprofit group dedicated to ending youth violence and invited Tony’s grandfather to join him. Today, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation teaches the virtues of nonviolence to young people nationwide and raises $1.5 million annually for educational, mentoring, and community-service programs. The centerpiece of the program features Azim and Ples sharing their story at school assemblies. Educators who have opened their doors to the duo say their visits lead to reduced discipline problems and gang activity.

Tariq’s mother, Almas, has also found solace in participating in TKF’s assemblies. “It was painful to talk about losing my son,” she told me. “But the reaction I got was healing. Students would come up and hug me, write letters, and say, ‘I promise I will never hold a gun or join a gang.’ That meant a lot to me.” Azim also leads two-day workshops worldwide with individuals, therapists, and community groups, entitled Forgiveness: The Crown Jewel of Personal Freedom.

A Fortunate Victim?

The moment I heard Azim’s story, I wanted to meet him. As a skeptic and a natural grudge-holder, I was troubled by his decision to forgive Tony, whom he visited in prison and to whom he continues to write regularly. I couldn’t understand why he forgave, or how. Yet I was also intrigued. In my career as a journalist, I gravitated to gritty subjects like war, poverty, and addiction. Long fascinated by the ways in which people overcome extreme challenges, I saw that Azim had found a redemptive, healing power in forgiveness.Selfishly, perhaps, I wondered if it could help me. 

At 33, I was struggling to earn a living and had recently gone through what felt like Breakup Number 1,001. I was bitter and angry. Part of me felt entitled to my cynicism and resentment, but I also worried what I might become if I remained mired in it.

I met Azim at the restaurant at the La Jolla Sheraton, where he’s a regular. Dressed in a suit and tie, he rose to shake my hand, and a warm smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. He was the first crime victim I’d met who called himself fortunate. 

Illustration by Gerard DuBois

“I met a man the other day who said it took him 20 years to acknowledge that his son had died, to come out of denial,” he said. “I’m lucky that I made the choice that I did.” Azim’s choice to forgive, and to found his organization, came not from his rational mind, he told me, but from his soul. “I went to good schools, but my degrees were useless when Tariq died,” he said. “The intellect can only solve so many things. But there are no problems that the soul cannot solve.”

Azim, who was born to a Sufi Muslim family in Kenya, told me that his longtime meditation practice was key to his ability to forgive his son’s killer and remain focused on his mission. It’s a commitment he shares with Ples, who also meditates daily.

“I have a very full life now,” Azim told me. “I kind of like this life better. Not that I don’t want my son back—I’d give my eyetooth for that. But I wouldn’t be doing this had he not died. So is this a tragedy, or is it mysteriously meaningful? It’s a bit of both.”

On my last day in La Jolla, Azim insisted on giving me a meditation lesson. As he sat on a velvet cushion in his townhouse and beamed the sort of radiant peacefulness that I associated with Buddhist monks, I closed my eyes and did my best to follow his instructions to breathe deeply and let thoughts pass by like waves in an ocean. Then, to my horror, he said, “Now bring in the image of your ex-boyfriend.” 

I did that. 

“Set the intention that you want to release and forgive him, to wish him well in his life. To set him free and to also set you free.” 
I tried, but it didn’t work. I still felt like tripping my ex, or spitting in his face. 

Losing Resentment

I wanted to know more, seeking answers that Azim couldn’t give: What was the difference between being forgiving and being a pushover? Could only certain people forgive? Was there scientific proof that forgiveness is beneficial for our mental and physical health?

And so I set out on an adventure that took me to a half-dozen states and the heart of Africa. I interviewed therapists, read studies, and talked to people who had forgiven abusive parents and cheating spouses. In Rwanda, I met genocide survivors who told of forgiving the people who killed their families and perpetrators who were still trying to redeem themselves. I studied the strategies that facilitate the seeking and granting of forgiveness in schools, communities, and families. Along the way, I revisited some dark chapters of my past and tried various practices to strengthen my own powers of forgiveness, ultimately altering my life in ways I never expected. 

It turns out that forgiveness—fortunately—isn’t what I thought it was.

Over the past 25 years, researchers have pulled forgiveness from the realm of preaching and prophesy into the more critical light of academic study. The change began in the 1980s when a handful of Christian psychologists wondered if clinical studies would bear out the Bible’s teachings on the virtue of forgiveness. This school of thought grew to encompass a larger, more diverse group of social scientists, cardiologists, neuroscientists, and molecular biologists. 

Two bodies of research seemed particularly relevant: The first examines the detrimental physical and psychological effects of stress and anger; there seems to be truth in Nelson Mandela’s observation that “resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die.” The second explores the effects of forgiveness—including relief from high blood pressure, heart problems, and mood disorders.

Forgiveness is often, and wrongly, confused with concepts like pardoning and condoning. Generally, current theorists define it as replacing negative feelings about an offender with more positive or neutral ones—which neither rules out seeking justice nor requires reconciliation.

My own sense of forgiveness eventually landed closer to Webster’s definition: to give up resentment. This was radically different from the moralistic platitudes I had long associated with the concept. From this vantage point, forgiveness becomes not something we should do to be “good,” but rather a crucial skill in the pursuit of a healthy, fulfilling life. I found some of the most compelling proof in the contributions of an eccentric surgeon and a famed investor.

In the late 1970s, Dr. Dabney Ewin began using hypnosis on burn victims. He had learned the practice from an uncle who used it to manage pain during surgery decades earlier, before anesthesia was widely available. Ewin would instruct a patient to relax, breathe deeply, and close her eyes. He would then have the patient imagine that the burned area felt cool and comfortable. The patients he hypnotized healed faster, recounted Ewin, now in his eighties and retired from the Tulane University School of Medicine.

Ewin later added another unorthodox practice: He talked to his patients about anger and forgiveness. As they described the accident that left them burned, their words were tinged with angry guilt or blame. The doctor concluded that their anger may have been interfering with their ability to heal. “Their attitude affected the healing of their burns,” he said, and this was particularly true of skin graft patients. “With someone who’s real angry, we’d put three or four skin grafts on, but the body would reject them.” Using hypnosis, Ewin helped patients forgive themselves or the person who hurt them.“I’d say, ‘You can still pursue damages through an attorney. You’re entitled to be angry, but for now I’m asking you to abandon your entitlement and let it go, to direct your energy toward healing.... It’s not up to you to get revenge on yourself or someone else.’”

He would then tell the patient to raise her hand when she felt herself letting the anger go. When the hand went up, Ewin told me, “I’d know that skin graft was gonna take.” Ewin taught other burn doctors these techniques, and has received letters from colleagues around the world thanking him for helping them achieve faster recovery times.

Between 1998 and 2005, billionaire investor and philanthropist John Templeton used some of his fortune to launch the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, a funding initiative for scientists exploring the effects of forgiveness on the body and mind. Templeton’s foundation and a consortium of partners committed $9.4 million to 43 studies on forgiveness and health, jumpstarting the field.

One researcher the campaign supported was Robert Enright, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He devised therapies to help elderly women forgive those who had wronged them in the past, and to help victims of abuse understand their tormentors—without justifying the abusers’ actions. His first study compared women undergoing forgiveness therapy with a control group who underwent therapy for emotional wounds without a forgiveness focus. In findings he published in 1993, Enright reported that the experimental group showed more improvement than the controls, in both emotional and psychological health measures.

Illustration by Gerard DuBois

Enright later helped patients develop empathy toward people who hurt them and taught them to forgive and accept themselves. He also developed a four-phase forgiveness model for therapists to use with patients:

● Uncovering your anger: Examining how you’ve both avoided and dealt with anger. 
● Deciding to forgive: Acknowledging that your attempts to cope have not worked and setting the intention to forgive. 
● Working on forgiveness: Confronting the pain the offense has caused, then working toward developing some level of understanding and compassion for the offender. 
● Release from emotional prison: Acknowledging that others have suffered as well and that you are not alone. The therapist encourages connecting with other victims to find meaning in shared suffering, such as learning a life lesson or growing in strength of character. 

Enright and his colleagues found that their model decreased anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder among drug rehabilitation participants, victims of domestic violence, and terminally ill cancer patients.

A Healthier Choice

The most telling study on the causal relationship between forgiveness and physical health that Enright conducted involved cardiac patients. Published in 2009, the analysis concluded that blood flow to the heart of patients with coronary disease increased after they underwent forgiveness therapy—more than in a control group that received only standard treatment and counseling about diet and exercise. “It wasn’t that they were cured—these were patients with serious heart problems,” Enright says. “But they were at less risk of pain and sudden death.”

Multiple studies have confirmed Enright’s belief in forgiveness therapy, finding elevated mood and increased optimism in subjects, while a lack of forgiving correlates with depression, anxiety, and hostility. “When you don’t forgive, you release all the chemicals of the stress response,” says Fredric Luskin, cofounder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. “Each time you react, adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine enter the body. When it’s a chronic grudge, you could think about it 20 times a day, and those chemicals will limit creativity and problem-solving.” These stress hormones cause the brain to enter what he calls a “no-thinking zone,” and eventually produce feelings of helplessness and victimization. “When you forgive,” he says, “you wipe all of that clean.”

Luskin leads workshops that guide patients through “re-framing” their hurt. This can include considering a range of possible points of view that could have led someone to act a certain way, and acknowledging that most offenses are committed without the intention of hurting anyone personally. If your mother yelled at you, for example, she likely did so not because her goal was to forever damage your self-confidence but because she felt stressed or afraid.

Evolutionary biologists believe the growing body of psychological research indicates that forgiveness may have helped foster our success as a species. While aggression probably aided our ancestors in defeating rival families and tribes, forgiveness can ensure the survival of kin. As the 17th-century French writer François de La Rochefoucauld put it, “We forgive to the extent that we love.”

As humans began living in larger, more complex groups, they depended on cooperation and reciprocity to hunt and gather and to build villages and farms, so they needed a reliable mechanism for promoting reconciliation among nonrelatives. They needed, in a sense, to love—or at least to be able to work with—a larger number of individuals. Forgiveness seems to be exactly that mechanism. 

In other words, we may be hardwired for both revenge and forgiveness—and as rational creatures, we can choose either one. While forgiveness always requires the same process—grieving and letting go—the level of difficulty and the amount of time it takes depends on the severity of the harm and the individual involved. Optimists tend to forgive more easily than pessimists like me, but all of us can learn to forgive, just as we can learn to do, think, or feel almost anything. 

I certainly did.

I eventually did forgive that ex-boyfriend. We’re not best friends today, but we see each other at social events, and there’s a certain amount of respect between us. Embracing forgiveness hasn’t made me a “better” person, and I still have a lot to learn. But the path that started with meeting Azim Khamisa eventually led me to a relationship with the man who became my husband. We now have a 6-month-old son. When he’s old enough, I plan to teach him how to forgive himself and others, not as something he has to do to be good, but as a way to cultivate fulfillment in his life.

Ultimately, forgiveness is about freedom—the freedom to be as happy and as healthy as we can possibly be, no matter what anyone may have done to us or how we let ourselves down. 

Megan Feldman Bettencourt is a journalist and the author of Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World.

Facebook image: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock