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 (This interview originally aired on Feb. 22, 2013 on Tell Me More).

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. At some point, just about all of us have been told to forgive and forget or bury the hatchet, just let it go. And yet there are times we've all said that something is just unforgiveable.

Today, we're going to examine both of those ideas and we'll start with the obvious, just how hard it can be to forgive a cheating spouse or a parent who played favorites or a bad boss. 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 unforgiveable and yet every major religious tradition extols the benefits and importance of forgiveness.

So we wondered how to put together the ideal with the difficulty of doing it? And it turns out that our next guest has spent a lot of time thinking about that and he's also studied the mental and physical benefits of forgiveness. Frederic Luskin is the director of Stanford's Forgiveness Project. He's also the author of several books, including "Forgive for Good." I spoke with him earlier this year and I started by asking him how he got interested in this subject.

FREDERICK 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. 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: Are there some things we just can not get over?

LUSKIN: The answer for certain individuals is, of course, yes. The answer for other individuals is no; there are things that 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 that 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. 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. 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: 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: 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? Well, 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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