For­give­ness not just a virtue; hu­man­ity needs it to sur­vive

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - Fs­tock­man@globe.com. Fol­low her on Twit­ter fs­tock­man.

Lord

knows Stacey Jack­son had ev­ery right to nurse a grudge against the world. Her son, Jerry Brown, died in a car wreck just six weeks into his ca­reer with the Dal­las Cow­boys. Other moth­ers might have cursed the man re­spon­si­ble for his death. Josh Brent, the Cow­boys’ de­fen­sive tackle be­hind the wheel that night, had a his­tory of driv­ing drunk. But in­stead, Stacey hugged Josh and in­vited him to sit with her fam­ily at her son’s funeral.

“I know he is hurt­ing just as much as we are,” she told CNN. “Him and Jerry were like brothers.”

This ex­tra­or­di­nary act of for­give­ness was echoed a week later by Rob­bie Parker, whose 6-year-old daugh­ter, Em­i­lie, was shot to death in New­town, Conn. In an in­ter­view aired on na­tional tele­vi­sion, Rob­bie sent tear­ful con­do­lences to the fam­ily of the shooter.

“I can’t imag­ine how hard this ex­pe­ri­ence must be for you,” he said. “Our love and sup­port goes out to you as well.”

For­give­ness lies at the heart of Chris­tian­ity. Je­sus taught the im­por­tance of ob­tain­ing for­give­ness for our sins — and of for­giv­ing each other. But the roots of for­give­ness are uni­ver­sal. Nearly ev­ery lan­guage in the world has a word for it. One Na­tive Amer­i­can tongue even has a spe­cial verb tense to con­vey that an of­fender has been par­doned, that an up­side-down world has re­turned to nor­mal again.

Ac­cord­ing to Michael McCul­lough, a pro­fes­sor of psychology at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami, the in­stinct for for­give­ness and vengeance trace back to our ear­li­est days of be­com­ing hu­man. His book, “Be­yond Re­venge,” ex­plains why we thirst for the chance to strike back at those who do us harm.

In a world with­out gov­ern­ments or po­lice, the only pro­tec­tion from vi­o­lence was the cer­tainty of re­venge. A rep­u­ta­tion for retri­bu­tion was nec­es­sary for sur­vival. That’s the rea­son that peo­ple who are abused or hu­mil­i­ated in front of wit­nesses are far more likely to strike back. Re­venge is so nat­u­ral that even chim­panzees prac­tice it, find­ing ways to pun­ish chimps that have wronged them in the past. The phi­los­o­phy of “an eye for an eye” devel­oped over mil­len­nia; those who lived by it were more likely to sur­vive a vi­o­lent world and pass on their genes.

But if we are hard-wired for vendetta, so too are we are en­dowed with the ca­pac­ity to for­give. So­cial groups, which are marked by daily con­flicts, would not have sur­vived very long if ag­grieved par­ties wiped out ev­ery­body who of­fended them. Re­venge spawns more harm and more vengeance, a de­struc­tive cy­cle that can threaten an en­tire fam­ily or clan.

In the Balkans, blood feuds be­tween tribes can be stopped by rit­u­als in which the fam­ily that fired the first shot crawls to­ward the fam­ily that suf­fered the first vic­tim. In Kenya, a trans­gres­sor in the Maa­sai tribe can pay a cow or goat to ad­mit fault and set­tle a wrong. In Jewish tra­di­tion, an of­fender who sin­cerely asks for­give­ness three times no longer car­ries the bur­den of the bad act.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery so­ci­ety that has been stud­ied, McCul­lough said, has tools for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Evo­lu­tion pro­grammed us to for­give. Maybe that’s why it makes us feel bet­ter.

“It is stress­ful to hold a grudge,” said Everett L. Worthington Jr., a psy­chol­o­gist who de­voted his ca­reer to study­ing for­give­ness af­ter his mother was mur­dered. “Ex­cess cor­ti­sol can shrink the brain, dam­age sex life, cause stom­ach prob­lems.”

For­give­ness feels right be­cause it is the glue that has held hu­man so­ci­ety to­gether since the be­gin­ning of time. With­out it, we could not have sur­vived as a species.

And maybe this is why dur­ing this sea­son so many of us will bow our heads at a ta­ble, sur­rounded by fam­ily and friends who may have — at one time or an­other — done us wrong, and pray: “Give us this day our daily bread, and for­give us our tres­passes as we for­give those who tres­pass against us.”

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