The phone rang. My brother Mike’s voice was shaky on the other end of the line. “Mom’s been murdered.”
That morning, Mike had found our 78- year-old mother, Frances Worthington, bludgeoned to death in the doorway to her bedroom. She had apparently interrupted burglars in mid-robbery.
Rage grew inside of me during the seven hour drive to Tennessee. It swelled as my brother, sister, and I talked about the murder scene. That night I was so angry I couldn’t sleep. Around 3 a.m., I began to consider the irony of my situation. I had studied forgiveness scientifically for seven years, but all day the word “forgiveness” hadn’t even crossed my mind. I wondered, “Could the forgiveness methods I’ve taught other people actually help me?”
By this time in 1996, colleagues and I had helped about 1,000 people experience emotional forgiveness by replacing negative, unforgiving emotions with positive emotions like empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love. The last thing I wanted to do was feel anything positive about the murder, but I knew that my anger would solve nothing. Healing could only come from changing my emotions.
I systematically imagined who the perpetrator was and what he must have experienced. I tried to understand his fear and shame at being caught by my mother, and I tried to extend compassion toward him. My own rage was gradually replaced by empathy; my resentment gave way to emotional forgiveness.
Forgiveness is seldom a once-and-for-alltime event. My emotions were complicated when, in the following weeks, a youth confessed, then retracted, then was not arraigned after a grand jury determined that the evidence in the case had been contaminated.
I struggled with this news, but forgiveness held as I extended my empathy toward overworked and unappreciated police and courts. I replaced resentment toward the system with compassion. Years later, I learned that the youth had been killed in a fight, and I felt sad. If he had committed the murder but hadn’t repented, now he wouldn’t have the chance.
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About The Author
Everett L. Worthington Jr., Ph.D., is a professor in the department of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Humility: The Quiet Virtue (Templeton Foundation Press, 2007).