The Benefits Of Letting Bygones Be Bygones

Forgiving someone who's done you wrong can be challenging, but learning how to do it can benefit your mind and body. Frederic Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Project writes about this in his book, Forgive For Good. He joins host Michel Martin to talk about why learning to forgive is worth it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll talk about some of the stories that caught your attention this week. It's BackTalk, and that's coming up in just a few minutes. But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of our program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. For Christians, this is the season of Lent, where believers focus on repentance for sins. And as part of that, they're often told to forgive and forget, or bury the hatchet, or just let it go.

But anybody who's experienced a cheating spouse, a parent who played favorites - or a boss who did - knows that forgiveness does not come easily to many, if not most, of us. And every day, we hear about or are faced with acts that seem unforgivable: losing a child to random violence; or losing years of your life for a crime you didn't commit. And yet every major religious tradition extols the benefits and importance of forgiveness.

So how to put the ideal together with the difficulty of doing it? Our next guest has spent a lot of time thinking about that. He's also studied the mental and physical benefits of forgiveness. His name is Frederic Luskin. He is the director of Stanford's Forgiveness Project. He's also the author of a number of books, including "Forgive For Good." Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

FREDERIC LUSKIN: Oh, you're welcome.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in this subject?

LUSKIN: A couple of things. One is - and most profoundly - is, I had been badly hurt and it was really, really hard to move through that. And my own struggle was such that I knew that there had to be a better way. And none of the psychological techniques that I used worked. And it was only when kind of somebody hinted at me that you might want to try forgiving this, that I made any peace. So part of it was personal, and then my doctoral dissertation - to get my Ph.D. - was one of the first studies ever done on forgiveness.

MARTIN: I was going to mention that you have a doctorate in counseling and health psychology. And so I wanted to ask if forgiveness is something that can be learned. Can you learn how to do it?

LUSKIN: You know, that's the essence of the work that we have done here at Stanford for the past 16, 17 years. You can teach people to forgive. And the better news than that, even, is you can teach skills that were known previously as the virtues. Like, you can create conditions where people could learn them, and then practice applying them.

MARTIN: What is forgiveness?

LUSKIN: That's a tough question to answer. (LAUGHTER) The dictionary definition is kind of releasing the urge to retaliate or hold resentment from an unmerited hurt. In our program, we teach forgiveness as learning how to make peace when you didn't get what you want.

MARTIN: We are talking to you at a time when there have been a number of issues in the news and immediately, people's reaction to them is to say, that's unforgivable. I mean, I'm thinking of the shooting in Newtown; there was a young woman in Chicago who had just performed at the president's inauguration, who was killed not a week later. Many people say, well, I could never get over that. And so I wanted to ask you, are there some things we just cannot get over?

LUSKIN: The answer for certain individuals is, of course, yes. The answer for other individuals is no; there are things they can get over. The problem with saying that something is unforgivable is, it's really painful to imagine that somebody's life essentially stopped at the worst moment of their life. I can't imagine a more harrowing prison. I just feel compelled to help them unstick it.

MARTIN: Some people, though, seem to feel that somehow, forgiveness is the enemy of justice. I remember - for example, after the Los Angeles riots, there was this young man named Reginald Denny, who was driving a truck through south Los Angeles and, you know, was stopped. He had nothing to do with the violence. He happened to be there and was, you know, badly beaten. He thankfully, survived. But there were people who, when he said, look, you know what? I forgive these people - who were mad at him. And I just wanted to ask you, is there something in our culture that says forgiveness should be withheld? Or - do you see what I'm asking?

LUSKIN: Yeah. And I was going to ask you a question right back. Have you ever had to forgive something, and were you successful?

MARTIN: Oh. Only every day.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Only because I wish to be forgiven - because I'm sure that every day, I've done something for which I would wish to be forgiven, if for no other reason. I hope that doesn't sound too transactional, but...

LUSKIN: No. And if you've ever had to confront anything that was really painful, you know how hard it is to forgive. And one of the reasons it's so hard to forgive is because - well, I'll just go back to my own life. When I was betrayed, in order to get to forgiveness, I had to sit with how painful it was, how much I had been harmed, and how vulnerable I was in this world. And those are very difficult experiences to hold. And forgiveness only comes after wrestling with that. And so it's that forgiveness is a gift that we can give to ourselves that lightens our burden, but it only comes when we have struggled.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking about forgiveness with Frederic Luskin. He is the director of Stanford's Forgiveness Project. We've been talking a lot about - kind of interpersonal situations, but you've also worked with people in Northern Ireland who lost loved ones in the violence that that, you know, region faced for decades. And I wanted to ask you to talk a little bit about that. I mean, we don't necessarily talk about it that much but we have kind of deep-rooted conflicts in this country that still kind of manifest themselves in different ways.

LUSKIN: I know exactly what you're asking. And we've also done work with some of the people who had family members murdered after 9/11's attack. And I recently have completed a project with people who had been victimized - if that's the right word - in Sierra Leone, as a consequence of their civil war. So I have dealt with some international situations.

The Northern Ireland thing came about because both sides - the Catholics and the Protestants - used the unnecessary murders as reasons to maintain their contempt for the other side. And it was in some level, an inescapable circle. And the person that I worked with, who suggested this to me, was a back-channel diplomat in part of that peace process there. And he suggested that we do a demonstration project to show that people who had had family members murdered - from both sides - could forgive; so that we could demonstrate that it was possible to get past that, at a small level, so it didn't have to be held in perpetuity to keep violence going. And it seems to me that that piece is essential, if we want to make peace between tribes or groups that have been at war with each other.

MARTIN: What is the benefit of forgiveness, if I can put it in such a crass way?

LUSKIN: Well, individually, you get some relief from - at some level - existential torment of, why did this happen to me; and how am I going to possibly go on, when I've been hurt or victimized? So there's some existential relief from that. On a physiologic level, your blood pressure tends to go down. You probably experience less physical pain and - you know, on emotional level you have less stress, anxiety, anger and emotional disturbance.

MARTIN: I noted at the beginning of our conversation that just about every religious tradition that I know of, endorses forgiveness or speaks about the importance of forgiveness. But many people just say, well, that's fine, but I still don't know how to do it. How do you do forgiveness?

LUSKIN: One of the reasons that religious traditions all endorse it is, it's very easy to be nice to people when they're nice to you. It's very hard to be nice to people when they're not nice to you. So if one is trying to live a religious or spiritual life, the basic injunction is to be kind or, you know, do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. And if you're holding resentments against other members of the species, or other members of God's family, it's really hard to follow that religious injunction because the resentment or the bitterness gets in the way.

What was the second - oh, how do you do...

MARTIN: Well, the question I was going to ask - how do you do it?

LUSKIN: I can just give you the simplest hook, which is part of it is managing the stress of being upset. Part of it is changing the narrative and story that we tell. So we teach people to change from a victim's story to a more heroic or empowered story. Part of it is looking for the good in life, not just focusing on what's been painful or difficult. And part of it is challenging some of the ways that we think about life that make our day-to-day experience more troublesome.

MARTIN: Look, you know, the news is filled with sadness. But it seems like right now, the stories that we're talking about - so many of them really are about revenge and forgiveness. How do you think - or how would you want people to relate to those stories? Because many people hear those stories, and they kind of find a certain - kind of a location of their own pain in it.

LUSKIN: You know, revenge, forgiveness - they're both hard-wired into our brain structure. The question is, which do you use to your advantage? Forgiveness is designed for us to be able to coexist. And each of us, at some level, has been wounded deeply by somebody. And if we didn't have a mechanism to wipe that slate clean and move forward with open-heartedness - as Desmond Tutu said, without forgiveness there is no future. And the longer the time is past the hurt, the more imperative forgiveness becomes so that we can continue on together.

MARTIN: For somebody who's listening to our conversation now; who is troubled, perhaps, by an inability to forgive; what do you recommend?

LUSKIN: Well, the first thing is to really acknowledge - if you're in physical danger, either stop the physical danger or get away. I mean, that's the first commandment - you know, be safe. After that, if the harm is there, then one has to grieve the experience and the loss and the wound. I mean, you just have to be willing to pay the dues. There comes a point when the grief in and of itself becomes suffocating or limiting and painful, and that's when you want to look to alternatives. And because of our nervous systems, which are hard-wired - one of the things that I didn't get a chance to respond to you - we have a bias to protect ourselves neurologically, so we're going to be harsh and protective.

One of the things that is missing in most of our repertoires are the positive, emotional kind of lenses that help us soften some of our more stress or harsh things - forgiveness, compassion, gentleness. It is essential, to be a full human being, to want to practice those. And I would suggest to anybody, if they're in a situation which has hurt them - and it's not just totally raw from the minute, but that they want to move ahead - that they look for either counseling or books or religious advice, anything, on some of the more positive ways to respond; of which, forgiveness is a very salient one.

MARTIN: Before we let you go - finally, I wanted to ask, thinking about the work that you've done; thinking about all the work that is yet to do; do you feel hopeful, or not? Let's just say, as a country, are we getting anywhere?

LUSKIN: I think we are getting somewhere. I know my own work, and I can just speak for that. When I started this, you know, a little more than 15 years ago, there's no way I would've been on your show. And there's no way I would have been invited to some of the places that I'm invited to now. So I do feel hopeful. I think that the openness of our culture to, say, meditation and practices that quiet the mind, is a positive sign. But will human beings change completely? That's a harder thing to say.

MARTIN: Well, we'll have to forgive them for that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Frederic Luskin serves as director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects. That's actually a series of workshops and research projects that investigates the effectiveness of his forgiveness methods in a variety of situations. He's also the author of "Forgive For Good," among other works. Thank you so much for joining us.

LUSKIN: Oh, you're very welcome. Thank you.

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