When I hear stories of people who’ve forgiven those who’ve harmed them—people like Nelson Mandela, who forgave his South African jailers, or Scarlett Lewis, who forgave Adam Lanza for killing her son at Sandy Hook Elementary School—I can’t help but be moved by the nobility of their actions. They seem superhuman in their ability to rise above their own loss and heartache in order to forgive what others consider “unforgivable.”
Many of us under the same circumstances would be unable to make that emotional shift. Even when faced with minor slights—like a husband forgetting our birthday or a friend not inviting us to a party—we hold onto grudges, refusing to soften our anger, even plotting revenge. Is there any reason to consider forgiveness as a better option than punishing those who’ve wronged us? And, if so, how do we go about it?
These questions are at the center of a new book, Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World, by journalist Megan Feldman Bettencourt. Bringing us stories of people who’ve forgiven others—sometimes under extraordinary circumstances—as well as outlining for us the research on forgiveness, Bettencourt has written an engaging, yet thorough book that explains what forgiveness really means and inspires readers to embrace forgiveness as a way to heal their own lives.
Many people have misconceptions about forgiveness—including Bettencourt, she confesses, before writing her book—thinking it’s a sign of weakness, that it leaves wrongdoers off the hook, or that it makes one vulnerable to future victimhood. Bettencourt dispels this view, showing us how forgiveness frees the wronged victim more than the perpetrator, allowing a victim to move on with life feeling greater ease and safety, and often gaining a sense of empowerment and purpose.
Researchers who study forgiveness have found that it provides many health benefits to those who practice it, alleviating “everything from high blood pressure and heart problems to pain and mood disorders.” And while one may think that forgiveness is something only the very highly evolved can accomplish, experts have found that “forgiveness may be just as inherent, just as evolutionarily hardwired into human nature, as aggression and revenge.”
In other words, anyone can forgive, if given the right encouragement, though Bettencourt emphasizes that nobody should be pushed into forgiveness, either, “as if there were a tidy, scheduled way to grieve or a deadline.” Pushing for forgiveness when a victim is not ready, she writes, does more harm than good, and can make them feel inadequate or re-victimized.
Still, forgiveness can be an adaptive response to being harmed and in many cases can help heal communities as well as individuals by increasing trust and cooperation over time. But whether one strives for forgiveness—or gives into alternatives like anger and revenge—depends on many environmental circumstances. Some of those include the closeness of the relationship between a victim and a transgressor, whether the transgressor has apologized, and if a transgressor is unlikely to hurt you again, all of which make forgiveness easier. It’s nearly impossible to forgive unless there is a sense of safety and remorse from a perpetrator.
Yet, forgiveness is also possible without that, if someone commits to forgiving—by recognizing how not forgiving prolongs one’s own suffering. As Bettencourt writes, “The more we generate empathy for offenders without excusing their actions, or hold someone accountable instead of just complaining, the less prone our brains, and lives, will be to the corrosive effects of resentment.”
Bettencourt takes us on a tour through many forms of forgiveness—including self-forgiveness—by interviewing people who’ve struggled through it. In one instance, she interviews a woman whose alcoholism almost ended her marriage and learns how a 12 step AA program helped this woman to forgive herself and make amends to others. She interviews people who’ve been abused and neglected by their parents, to try to understand how they forgive when trust has been shattered. And, she interviews parents whose children were murdered, yet who somehow find a way to move through grief to forgiving the killer.
Through these interviews, she learns that forgiveness is a process, and that it doesn’t always go in any linear fashion. Still, there are certain steps many victims take, including having empathy for the offender, reinterpreting wrongs as less personal, understanding our common humanity, and finding a sense of purpose for moving forward. Bettencourt weaves in research findings from the likes of Robert Enright, Michael McCullough, and Fred Luskin—all leading researchers on forgiveness—to support the importance of these and other pathways to forgiveness.
She also recounts her own struggle to forgive herself for bullying another girl when she was younger. Eventually, Bettencourt learns that the importance of a well-done apology—one that includes acknowledging an offense, explaining why you offended (without excusing the offense), showing remorse, and trying to make reparation—is paramount to the forgiveness process, for both victim and perpetrator.
Though much of the book is focused on incredible stories of forgiveness, Bettencourt sees the possibility of encouraging more forgiveness in everyday life—for example in our relationships. She argues that you can nurture the “forgiveness instinct” if you become more self-aware of your role in conflicts, find ways to acknowledge and move through small ruptures in your relationship while maintaining intimate connection, and seek compromises when conflicts arise. Coupled with the ability to truly apologize when necessary, these skills can help relationships survive difficult challenges and pave the way for forgiveness—even through betrayals like infidelity or in divorce situations. And, as with all forms of forgiveness, this can lead to tremendous healing and peace.
Bettencourt endorses mindfulness meditation as a way to help pave the path to everyday forgiveness, because it enhances the parts of the brain researchers affiliate with empathy, problem-solving, and positive mood. As Bettencourt discovered herself when practicing mindfulness, “I was less likely to be reactionary, whether about a higher-than-expected tax liability or the person next to me at Starbuck talking loudly on the phone.” In addition, many of the people she interviewed mentioned “spirituality” or belief in “something bigger than themselves, whether it was helping neighbors in crisis or being an example of survival and resilience for others” in deciding to forgive, which suggests that such beliefs may augment the path to forgiveness.
Some of the stories of forgiveness in the book are incredibly moving, such as the stories of people who survived the Rwandan genocide and forgave their attackers. Others are closer to home, such as stories of people who were bullied at school. Several of the people who learned to forgive ended up doing work in the forgiveness field, wanting to help other survivors to heal and to spread love within a community. “The expression ‘Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself’ is merely a starting point,” writes Bettencourt. “When followed through to its fullest expression, forgiveness can be a gift that benefits everyone.”
Because we are creatures impacted by our environment, Bettencourt argues that we could do a lot more to promote forgiveness in our social institutions. She highlights the work of several programs within in juvenile justice or in schools that use restorative practices to lessen violence and conflict, giving kids the tools they need to foster understanding and empathy—the foundation for forgiveness. According to Michael McCullough, whom she quotes, “Restorative practices are an ideal way to shape our environment so that it brings out humans’ hardwired tendencies toward forgiveness, apology, and collaboration.”
Finally, Bettencourt looks at how forgiveness has helped with peace efforts around the world—in places like Northern Ireland, the Gaza Strip, and Rwanda. It’s hard to read about those who’ve suffered in these conflicts and not to laud their extraordinary efforts. Bettencourt challenges readers to consider these examples of forgiveness as inspiration for working toward forgiveness in our own lives—in ways both large and small.
“It takes courage and great strength to forgive,” she writes. “It might even be the hardest thing you ever do, but it will bring a new sense of liberation that nothing else could ever touch.”
And it might just make the world a more peaceful place to boot.