I asked the late writer and noted AIDS activist Larry Kramer, in our last interview, whether he had forgiven Dr. Anthony Fauci—years after accusing the nation’s best-known infectious disease expert of “murder,” holding him personally and publicly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of gay men, among the estimated 32.7 million people worldwide to die in the ongoing 40-year-old HIV pandemic.
Kramer dismissed the notion of forgiveness. “It’s much too Christian a concept,” he said, “and I don’t believe in God.”
As it happens, however, forgiveness isn’t only for Christians, and it doesn’t even have to involve God.
It’s also not typically a one-time proposition where you simply put aside the hurt or offense, brush off your feelings, and move on as though nothing happened.
“Forgiveness is a choice one makes over and over again,” writes Beata Souders, an optimal performance coach, positive psychology expert, flow and motivation science researcher. She adds, “Forgiveness is a complex process of change, and although beneficial cannot be accomplished by simple means. It requires sustained effort and commitment.”
Psychologist Everett Worthington is the world’s leading forgiveness researcher and professor emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author or editor of books including The Power of Forgiving and Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free From the Past.
Worthington’s credibility on the subject of forgiveness is far beyond merely academic. The man practices what he preaches—and demonstrates in his own life the power of forgiveness for the injured party.
In an interview with Psychology Today contributor Jamie D. Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, Worthington said, “My mother was brutally murdered in 1996 and I forgave the young man who did it. Then when my brother committed suicide in 2005, I applied the same model to self-forgiveness, which also has been one of my recent foci.”
Worthington says there are “two separate types of forgiveness.” The first, decisional forgiveness, “is a decision to treat the other person as a valued and valuable person.” It’s about making a deliberate choice not to put aside all the good things in a relationship that came before the hurt or letdown, and not to close off the good things that can still lie ahead.
The second type of forgiveness is what Worthington calls emotional forgiveness. This is the process of eliminating the negative, unforgiving emotions that can linger long after choosing to forgive someone—the bitterness, resentment, hostility, hate, anger, or fear of being hurt again. “We can will ourselves to make a decision to act differently toward the offender,” says Worthington. “But emotional forgiveness is usually more difficult. It is all about spending time trying to empathize, sympathize, experience compassion toward, or even love the person who harmed us.”
Clinical psychologist Lyn Worsley, director of The Resilience Centre in Epping, U.K., says that resilient adults show characteristics of forgiveness. She notes that we benefit from forgiving those who wrong us by freeing ourselves of the weight of the unforgiving emotions Worthington mentioned.
To powerfully underscore the point, Worsley quotes Nelson Mandela’s response to former President Bill Clinton when Clinton asked how he had been able to forgive his jailers. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for daring to speak out and organize against South Africa's racist apartheid government. “When I walked out of the gate,” said Mandela, “I knew that if I continued to hate these people, I was still in prison.” Mandela triumphed over his oppressors by refusing to allow hatred to consume him, waste his energy, and squander the extraordinary resilience that sustained him to become the nation's first Black president and a globally revered moral leader.
To be resilient, we must make the conscious choice not to tell the story of our being wronged from the perspective of a helpless victim, not even as an indignant and angry survivor. “There is another way,” says Worsley, “and that is to be proactive in response to the trauma.” Forgiveness, she makes clear, “is not doing nothing, because that will end up with either an eventual victim or survivor reaction."
Instead, we need to move toward a positive future "regardless of the hurt inside," as Worsley says. Forgiveness helps take the sting out of the hurt by channeling energy away from the negative emotions and redirecting it toward more positive ends. “When we forgive others,” Worsley says, “there is a sense of a burden being lifted.”
Worsley suggests the steps of Worthington’s “REACH” acronym to help us reach a place where we can forgive someone who has hurt us:
- R = Recall the hurt; visualize the event or the circumstance.
- E = Empathize with the perpetrator. Understand his/her point of view.
- A = Altruistic gift of forgiveness. This must be given without self-interest.
- C = Commit yourself to forgive publicly.
- H = Hold on to the forgiveness.
Worthington himself is hardly pollyannaish about forgiveness—and he certainly knows about the subject from his own experience, to say nothing of his many years spent studying it. “Forgiveness is often difficult,” he said, “and when we are tested and rise to the challenge, it strengthens us. That strengthening helps us bounce back in the wake of disasters and traumas. Forgiveness can help us become more resilient.”
Our resilience allows us to be in control of which emotions we choose—yes, it's a choice—to define our relationship going forward with the one who wronged us. If the one who trespassed against you is an important person to you, someone with whom you share personal history and would like to enjoy making future memories together, consider the past and potential future goodness from the relationship. Weigh it in the balance against the hurt and letdown of the injury. Consider, deeply, what was going on for the one who hurt you. Look at the situation from their point of view. Could they have been acting out of a place of fear, grief, panic, or unhealed trauma when they hurt you?
No matter what conclusions you draw about the backstory of their hurtful words or behavior, it's up to you to write your own forgiveness story. Will it be one of wrongs inflicted upon you, bitterness, grudges, and estrangement? Or will it be the tale of a journey along which you progress toward a level of self-awareness and grace that can even allow you to recognize the common humanity of the one who hurt you—and to rise above the hurt and pain? Only you can decide.