Sunday, September 6, 2009

Forgiveness Has a Satisfying Quality

Are there wrongs that are unforgiveable: the Nazi death camps during the holocaust, the victims of Bernie Madoff, families who lost loved ones on 9/11, a horrific car accident where a drunk driver killed eight members of the University of Wyoming cross-country team?

If you had family members or loved ones die in one of these three occurrences, could you forgive those responsible? In the case of the cross-country team accident, one mother has forgiven the driver; one father can not.

From the mother: “I can’t live my life with hate and anger in my heart; I just can’t.” From the father: “If I forgive him, then my son died for nothing.” Both of these parents now work on committees against drunk drivers and give talks to groups and students.

But the mother has gone one step further. She and the drunk driver who killed her son speak together. They speak across the entire country. The driver shares the fact that every day he realizes what he is responsible for. The two embrace onstage and sometimes shock and anger other parents in the audience. Again, some agree with what the mother is doing; others do not. But the mother says she can’t deal with this without forgiving him.

The driver comes up for parole in a couple of years. Both the mother and father whose children died in this accident disagree as to whether he should go free. The mother wants the boy to have a life, a family; the father is angry that the driver will probably get to, but his son won’t get any of that. “It’s just not in my heart to forgive,” says the father. He can’t do it. They have come to opposite conclusions.

My daughter was killed by an impaired driver. We know it was either alcohol or drugs, but since he was never caught, to this day and probably forever, we never will know the truth. I tell people that I believe he will do it again someday to someone else, get caught and eventually get his just rewards. That is all I want to believe. I am glad I did not have to look him in the eyes at a court trial. I do not know his face, so it doesn’t haunt me. Although that part of my closure has always eluded me, I believe I am personally better off this way. There is no forgiveness and no revenge in me to deal with.

Human beings are driven by two different impulses at the same time. Revenge and forgiveness are like two sides of the coin. Revenge is a universal feature of human nature, and we also know that there is a natural default compacity to forgive that also exists in every human mind on the planet, according to Professor Michael McCoulough from the University of Miami. We are taught that revenge is like a disease but in his recent book, he argues otherwise. The brain system that produces revenge is the same system used when looking for something to eat when we’re hungry. It’s the desire to satisfy a craving.

Forgiveness is part of the brain associated with empathy, he adds. “Forgiveness is born in part from the experience of someone else’s pain. It doesn’t feel good to seek revenge on people you feel sorry for. When someone harms us we get upset emotionally and physically. We might hunger for revenge, but forgiveness is better for our health. If you want to feel better, revenge can do that only in the short term, but it’s kind of like junk food in terms of happiness. In the long term what forgiveness does is restore valuable relationships and that has a long term, satisfying quality to it.”

Look inside yourself and try to understand how you would react if it was you in any of these circumstances and see if forgiveness is the path you would choose


  1. What if the person responsible for your child's death doesn't care about receiving your forgiveness and if that person shows no remorse? It makes it so much more difficult to forgive.

    It is now 8 months since Daniel died and I pray that I will find it in my heart to forgive, for my own peace and healing but right now, it looks nearly impossible.

  2. This is such a hard question.. and honestly, I don't think we can say what we would do until we're there. There wasn't "blame" perse in the death of our son. I like to hope that if need be, i would be a forgiving person.. Of course, I also thought if I ever lost a child, I'd just stay in bed for 3 weeks and I didn't even spend a DAY in my bed!!

    I just dont' think we can fathom those situations.. In addition, I believe that forgiveness in those situations is offered through the grace of God and thinking through the situaion, i"m relying on MY strength and not the strength of the Lord.