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To Err May Be Human; To Forgive is Good for You

May 22, 2001


To Err May Be Human, But to Forgive Is Good for You


Dr. Robert Karen had some misgivings when he began researching a book on forgiveness seven years ago.

"I thought the topic was kind of square," he said. "It seemed like an issue that was moralistic and sappy and all about religion and being nice."

But as he listened to his patients and his friends talk about their experiences, Dr. Karen, a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan, discovered that he had stumbled into an area of extraordinary psychological depth.

"I realized that I was working with a subject that is everywhere, that tells us everything we need to know about our characters and how grown-up emotionally we are," he recalled.

In writing "The Forgiving Self: The Road From Resentment to Connection" (Doubleday), Dr. Karen found himself traversing a landscape of anger and loss, love and resentment. It was familiar territory: his 1994 book, "Becoming Attached," explored bonds between parent and infant, and the legacy in later life of "insecure" attachments in childhood.

That project led Dr. Karen, then a writer, to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. He received his degree from City University of New York in 1992.

Q. Most people think about forgiveness as a virtue, even if they have trouble being forgiving themselves. But is it always a good thing to forgive?

A. We aren't saints and we aren't meant to be. Forgiveness that comes out of a sense that "I should forgive because it's right," or forgiveness that is compliant or automatic is worse than no forgiveness at all, because it covers something over and leaves people less connected than they were before.

One of the misconceptions about forgiveness is that if you are a nice person, you just do it. What gets overlooked is that forgiveness usually entails an important internal process, and that this process can go on for a long time and needs to be respected.

Q. You write about forgiveness as a process that involves not only the injured person, but also the person who did the injuring. Why is that?

A. Forgiveness too often gets framed as an issue of a victim and a wrongdoer. There are certainly many cases of that. But in most people's lives I think forgiveness is an issue whenever two people are in conflict. Who needs to forgive and who needs to apologize is often a tossup. In most situations, everyone shares the blame, to some extent.

Q. Is it possible to forgive when you are still very angry?

A. I think one of the great causes of grudges is unexpressed anger. It's really tragic for any two people when anger is replaced by silence. That's when you get the festering resentments, the subjects that are being avoided. When it gets bad enough, in a marriage for instance, you can have people who say they're just bored with each other. But boredom is often the sign of a silent grudge. The alternative, in my mind, is that we enjoy our anger.

Q. What does "enjoying our anger" mean, exactly?

A. Anger is not just about destructiveness. Through anger we voice our protests. And without protests, there is just silence and grudge. The trick is to have your passions -- which are often quite murderous -- and yet hold onto this other idea, that this person to whom I'm attributing the worst deeds and motives is someone I care about.

So while I'm telling him how much I wanted to strangle him, I'm also going to try to remember that there's probably more to the story than meets my rageful eye. Maybe I played a part in this, maybe I'm reading it wrong. That's what it means to be able to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence, which is one of the hallmarks of maturity and of the capacity for forgiveness.

Q. But some ways of expressing anger are more constructive than others, aren't they?

A. I think it's hard for people to get anger right. People have very poor models of how to be angry in a warm, creative, connected way. We've been brought up, so many of us, to think it's a bad thing. So anger gets suppressed and only comes out when it's explosive. And we have this tendency to just let ourselves go: screaming, denouncing, humiliating, impugning character. But anger doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to plunge into our worst inner places.

Q. There's been quite a bit of research over the last few years on the health benefits of forgiveness. Do you think that forgiving makes people healthier?

A. It's probably true that being a good forgiver correlates with lower blood pressure and less internal wear-and-tear. There's plenty of evidence that our emotions affect our physical well-being. But talking about it this way bothers me because it suggests that the only reward to leading a healthy emotional life is that you live longer.

Also, linking forgiveness with physical health can be confusing to people. What's healthy is finding a way to embody and live through our secure and loving selves. But being able to live more through that part of yourself is not something you just decide to do. It develops out of a real struggle with your own psychology. It's not like, "Well, I'm going to be more forgiving now because my blood pressure is too high."

Q. Are there some situations where it's better not to forgive?

A. I think there is a big difference between forgiving and welcoming someone back into your life. You can recognize that this is a person whom I love and whom I've cared about tremendously and I really want the best for him, but I can't live with what he does. I can't stay married to him, because it's too hurtful and he doesn't seem to get it.

There's a wonderful Nina Simone song called "Don't Smoke in Bed." She's leaving the guy a Dear John letter and she ends it with, don't smoke in bed, honey, I don't want you to hurt yourself. And at the same time she was leaving.

Q. People like to think that they are angry for good reason. But don't the roots of anger sometimes go further back than the immediate situation?

A. We all have these inner dramas, which have been discussed in psychoanalysis as transference or repetition, where we experience ourselves as a child with a parent. You become this powerful parent and I become this powerful child. And all it takes is your being critical or using the wrong tone to put me in that place I've never fully worked out of. And a lot of the fury we feel toward other people has to do with rekindling those inner dramas.

Q. How do the emotions of childhood play out in adult conflicts?

A. There's an example in the book of a woman who needed to go to a clinic to get tested for breast cancer and she asked her husband to come with her, but in a way that made it sound like it didn't matter one way or the other. He had a very busy day, and was also very angry with her about something that happened earlier. So he conveniently overlooked the importance of being with his wife when she was having her cancer test.

She was crushed, absolutely crushed. And was crushed in the way a child feels when a parent just doesn't care, which was how she felt about her mother, that her mother was interested in everyone else but her. I think there was legitimate cause for anger. But all the neglect and deprivation of her childhood came pouring out at her husband not accompanying her to the clinic.

Q. A common theme in our culture these days is revenge. Is there ever a time when getting even is the right thing to do?

A. All I can say is that I certainly have it in me to want revenge. I would hope that in most cases I wouldn't act on it. But there are some cases where you could act on it, and if the crime was vile enough there's nothing anyone can say about it. I think of a case for instance, where someone murders a child. It's much easier to understand the revenge motive than it is to understand the will to forgive in a case like that.

Q. What if someone finds it impossible to forgive, no matter how much he wants to?

A. If you can't find it in your heart to forgive, it's better not to, and see where that takes you, than to force yourself into an unnatural type of forgiveness. There are cases where you never forgive and you don't want to forgive but it doesn't really interfere with your life.

But if it becomes this gnawing resentment that lives with you, then you've never gotten over being a victim. And in that way not forgiving can be a horrible thing for the person who doesn't forgive.

Q. But forgiveness doesn't come instantly, does it?

A. Usually, it takes a long time before we discover the love of someone who has hurt us. First comes anger, and very often a sense of persecution. We go through all the typical, horrible stuff to which human nature and human psychology are prone.

But I think eventually, if we are lucky, we do get over our resentments. Even though this bad thing happened, or we don't have this person in our lives anymore. We look back with a warmth that recognizes what was good and what remains good and we want to hold onto.

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