Forgiveness – A Skill That Can Be Learned

©2008 Ramona K. Silipo. All rights reserved.

FORGIVE FOR GOOD, by Fred Luskin, subtitled, ‘A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness,’ is a striking combination research report, case study and handbook. The material is groundbreaking, fascinating and instantly accessible.

In the courses he teaches, Fred Luskin, Ph.D., Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, is absolutely authoritative and professional, without for a moment being dry and academic. His book breathes the same directness and expertise, written in a crisp, homely, very personal style. When the book was published, Dr. Luskin told me that, after he first submitted the manuscript, an editor handed it back to him with voluminous changes, putting everything into ‘proper’ English, taking the life out of it. Fortunately for the reader, he stood his ground and insisted that his own voice remain.

The ease of reading is crucial, because the material can be difficult. Most of us grew up hearing ‘forgive and forget,’ which in our minds connected the act of forgiveness with allowing ourselves to be hurt again and again. To forgive someone, we gathered, meant to ‘overcome’ the hurt, to ‘forget’ and be reconciled to the person who hurt us.

But Dr. Luskin’s work leads us in a different direction. Forgiveness is not condoning unkindness, or forgetting pain, not excusing bad behaviour, denying or minimizing your hurt. Shame, guilt, redemption, reconciliation— those things we learned about in Sunday school, are not necessarily connected with forgiveness. In fact, holding on to those ideas can actually prevent us from moving into a healthier state of mind and body.

His research and practice as a psychologist show that forgiveness is for the forgiver, not the offender. It is, essentially, a decision not to let past pain continue to hurt in your present and future life. It is taking back your personal power, taking responsibility for your emotions. Most important, forgiveness is about healing yourself and not about the people who hurt you. What’s more, and most promising, Luskin’s research shows that forgiveness is skill, one that can be learned just like tying your shoes or doing sums.

The book, throughout, is sprinkled with real life examples drawn from Luskin’s active counselling practice and his own life. His story of how he ‘got into’ studying and teaching forgiveness is at once a self-revealing recount of deep hurt, and an effective lesson in learning how to move past the pain and stop giving it room in one’s life.

Part One of Forgive for Good sets out the elements of grievance, blame and our tendency to take things personally that were never meant that way. The fine art of nursing a grudge is examined, as are the physical, emotional and psychological implications of doing so.

Moving to Part Two, the elements of forgiveness are presented, along with the medical evidence and a dramatic example of the effectiveness of deciding to forgive. In chapter seven, ‘The Science of Forgiveness,’ Luskin distills key research from a number of scientific studies which show that forgiveness improves physical as well as emotional and mental health. Then he gets specific and, in addition to detailing his earlier research, tells us about his work, aptly named HOPE, with mothers from Northern Ireland who lost sons, and a second programme for both men and women who lost family members in ‘the troubles.’

The positive results of the Northern Ireland programmes were deeply gratifying, and, Luskin admits, surprising even to him. He was not confident that his methods could work with people so deeply wounded. But, he concludes, ‘I marvel at the implications of these results. They demonstrate the incredible power of human beings to heal from even the most blatant of horrors. They reinforce my belief that people can learn to forgive.’

Part Three of Forgive for Good is a clear, practicable handbook on the process of forgiveness developed by Dr. Luskin. He is sublimely articulate and complete; the exposition of the material is logical, specific and practical. By working the exercises and techniques in the book, the reader can virtually complete the course Dr. Luskin teaches.

To cite one example, PERT (don’t be misled by the cute acronyms; this is serious work)– Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique. Through it, he says, ‘We gain tremendous confidence when we are suddenly faced with a painful situation or memory and are able to sustain our positive focus. Practising PERT helps us stay calm so we can make good decisions.’ Then Luskin gives detailed, simple instructions for the technique, which is essentially a relaxation and refocusing process that can be learned in less than half an hour.

The final chapter summarizes the process with ‘Nine Steps to Forgiveness.’ The first step is to know what happened, how you feel about it and be able to articulate it.’ Other steps include making a clear decision to do what you need to do to feel better; to give up expecting things from people that they do not choose to give you; and to understand your goal.

Luskin says, ‘What you are after is peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the peace and understanding that come from blaming less that which has hurt you [and] taking the experience less personally.’

Ironically, the final manuscript was ready for publication ten days after the September eleventh debacle in 2001. Luskin’s ‘Note to the Reader’ at the back of the book is alone worth the price of a copy. In part:

To help make sense of the relative importance of forgiveness at this time, think about the balance of a scale. . . On one end, there is vengeance and on the other forgiveness. At first the forgiveness end is up in the air, as it carries little weight against the strong desire for retaliation. . . Forgiveness, not forgetting, not condoning and not reconciling with offenders, is one of the powerful tools that we can use.

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