Excerpt from “Q&A on Forgiveness with Dr. Fred Luskin” from Virtues for Life
Dr. Frederic Luskin is director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project of Palo Alto, California, the largest interpersonal forgiveness training research project ever conducted. Dr. Luskin holds a Ph.D. in Counseling and Health Psychology from Stanford University. He serves as a Senior Consultant in Health Promotion at Stanford University and is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. He is author of the books, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness and Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship.
Stacey: What is forgiveness and what is it not?
Dr. Luskin: The dictionary definition says forgiveness is giving up any thought of revenge or harm even when it might be justified. My own definition of forgiveness is that it’s learning to make peace when you didn’t get something that you wanted in life. Another definition, which we use to teach people, is that there are other ways of dealing with life when it turns out different than you wanted than staying bitter. Those are the two that I work with.
Also, forgiveness is not reconciliation. You don’t have to rejoin a relationship. It’s not the same as justice. For example, you can sue your ex-husband for child support, but you don’t have to hate him. It also doesn’t mean that you condone what somebody did because forgiveness means you don’t think they did something right, you just don’t have to have a hostile reaction to it.
Stacey: What makes forgiving someone who has wronged us so hard for so many?
Dr. Luskin: Part of it is cultural. We live in a world where most people hold onto their grudges so that becomes normal. Another part of it is that very rarely have people been taught how to forgive. The third one is that biologically we have a negativity bias. Our mind tends to dwell more on things that are wrong than are right. But these three things don’t fully answer the question to me, but are hints as to why.
Stacey: In your book, Forgive for Good, you say that forgiveness is rarely discussed and less often practiced as a response to hurt, what do you think is the reason for that?
Dr. Luskin: Very rarely do friends call each other up and say, “Hey, I hope you’ve dealt with your parents by forgiving them,” or “I hope when your husband made that mistake, you were kind to him.” You don’t get that kind of communication as much as, “I hope you told the jerk off.” Most of the time we are so busy helping each other be right and better than other people that we forget there are alternatives.
Stacey: What makes people so fixated on the person who wronged them that it’s as if it happened yesterday instead of years ago?
Dr. Luskin: There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that we talk about what happened to us a lot and so that tends to make it more present. If you bring up painful things, then you’re bringing them up, it’s not like anybody is doing this for you. Second, is biology. If you’ve been harmed, you want to make sure it doesn’t happen again, so you are vigilant, guarded, protected. Third, is our nervous system, which reacts to the stress caused by saying, “I hate my mother.” And when it does, it makes us feel bad, so we again blame our mother for something, so we’ve got to cut that cycle. Since most people don’t cut the cycle, they don’t grow out of that kind of blame and repetitive experience.
Stacey: You say, also in your book, that people rent out space in their minds to the hurt, or grievance as you call it, and that by understanding how a grievance is created, people emerge ready to heal and forgive. So how is a grievance created?
Dr. Luskin: A grievance is created when we take a normal life event that is painful, make it very personal as opposed to something that just happened, and then exaggerate how personal it is. Then we practice this pattern over and over, and forget that there are other ways of looking at the same situation. So let’s say that your parents abused you. You can say for 10 years that they were terrible and it was awful, or you can say it was really painful, and I wish that it didn’t happen, or you can say I feel sorry for my parents because they never had the ability to love their own children. You can change your grievance at any time but people don’t, so they over practice one way of looking at it, thinking that’s the only way and get stuck.
Stacey: Is everything forgivable even the murder of a loved one?
Dr. Luskin: Yes, everything is forgivable because there are some people who have forgiven everything or anything. So in some sense the answer to this is, of course. And, in another sense, everything is not always forgivable for every person and that’s different. In a theoretical human sense, of course, people have forgiven the Holocaust. So people forgive the Holocaust like you can forgive your mother-in-law. Not everybody forgives everything that has happened to them.
We have worked with people who have had immediate family members murdered. We’ve worked with people who had family members killed in 9/11. I’ve known people who have forgiven about as bad as it gets. I know human beings are capable of it, and that is a conviction that I carry with me in all the work that I do