To Be Angry Is Human, To Forgive Is HealthfulGrudges harm holders in ways researchers are just beginning to learn. By Elizabeth Large, The Baltimore Sun January 27, 2005 To forgive is human. It's just very hard. People are wired to respond with anger, hold grudges and seek revenge; and in spite of the teachings of Christianity and other religions, victims of wrongdoing usually do all three. The brother who tormented you when you were little. The spouse who cheated. The terrorists who changed our country forever on 9/11. Why should you forgive them? Researchers and academics may have an answer, even for those who don't believe that the act of forgiveness is good for the soul. In recent years, scientists have gotten interested in the health benefits of forgiveness. Their studies have shown the serious mental, emotional and physical consequences of an unforgiving heart. Psychotherapists have found forgiveness to be a useful tool in reconciling couples and families. In some studies, it's been linked to a lessening of chronic back pain and depression; in others, to reduced levels of stress hormones. Scientists have found that forgiveness is one of several coping mechanisms that help people with HIV/AIDS live longer, or at least more satisfying, lives. In 1997, research consisted of only 58 empirical studies. Since then, more than 1,200 scientific papers have been published on the subject. "The topic of forgiveness is hot right now," says psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, author of "How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To" (HarperCollins, 2004). "Conferences are being held. Articles are being written. Forgiveness is being plucked out of the spiritual and theological realm and put into the psychological and physical." Like acupuncture, meditation and other alternative healing strategies, forgiveness only recently has become a respectable topic of scientific studies. In 1990, psychologist Fred DiBlasio, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, submitted an article to an international scientific journal on his research. The journal was willing to publish it if he would agree to change the word "forgiveness" to "forgetting." "It was too spiritual for them," says DiBlasio. But forgiveness, of course, isn't the same thing as forgetting. He didn't make the change. In his clinical practice, DiBlasio has found that using forgiveness can speed up therapy. Shanae and Fred Murray had one three-hour session with him, and three years later the Pikesville, Md., couple still characterize it as life-changing. The Murrays came to him with a 13-year-old problem, the sort of problem that doesn't seem so serious unless you're caught in the middle of it. Shanae was constantly inviting guests over without telling her husband about it. Fred hated not being consulted, and he didn't want to be a good host. The underlying conflict was quietly destroying their marriage. "It was eating at me," says Fred, who is an only child. As he talked in the session, he realized his feelings could in part be traced back to the time he served in Vietnam. "I had seen so much death, I wanted to be alone. At home, I would close the doors. I didn't realize what I was doing." He's reclusive, she's outgoing As the session progressed, Fred came to understand why Shanae continually put him in unwanted social situations. When she was growing up, there were always lots of people around. After church every Sunday, her mother would invite friends over. "As a little girl in a large, poor family Shanae (one of seven children), took care of the whole family. When her husband saw she was the person who brought people together, he could see it wasn't just against him," explains DiBlasio. "Talking it through releases you," says Fred. "When you forgive someone, you forgive yourself. You release some baggage." "Everything is forgivable," adds Shanae. "It doesn't mean you have to forget." Some patients might not be comfortable with the concept of a forgiveness session, of working toward one person saying the words "I forgive you." The Murrays found it particularly helpful because it fit so well with their religious beliefs. "Most studies show that people who don't have profound faith have a more difficult time forgiving," says Everett Worthington, executive director of the Virginia-based foundation A Campaign for Forgiveness Research. The author of many books and articles on the subject, Worthington found his own faith tested on New Year's Eve in 1995 when an intruder murdered his mother. "I'm not an uber-forgiver," he says. "I once held a grudge against a professor who gave me a B for 10 years." But to start the process, he tried to empathize with the assailant: the fear he must have felt when Worthington's mother walked in on him during the robbery; the fact that all the mirrors in the house had been smashed after the attack, suggesting to the psychologist that the murderer couldn't bear his own reflection. Still, it wasn't until later, when Worthington was talking to his brother, that he had an epiphany. He had pointed to a baseball bat nearby and raged, "I wish he were here right now." "Whose heart was darker?" he says now. "I was a 48-year-old forgiveness expert and a Christian. I knew I could be forgiven. Who am I to hold this grudge against this kid?" Even though the assailant was never caught, Worthington says he has been able to move on.