Forgiveness gets a bad rap: It's seen as akin to giving in, backing down, capitulation. In reality, the opposite is true, says Megan Feldman Bettencourt in her book Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World: Forgiveness is hard. That, the Denver-based author says, is the real reason we don't forgive — because it takes time and effort, a sustained act of emotional will.
But the effort, too, comes with rewards. Anger and bitterness are bad for your health; people who practice forgiveness not only tend to lead healthier, happier, fuller lives — they live longer, too. Triumph of the Heart comes out today, and Bettencourt will be talking about the book at the Tattered Cover Colfax on Wednesday, August 12; in advance of that appearance, we talked with Bettencourt about "forgiveness": what she learned and where it took her, and how the process started close to home.
Westword: Where did the idea come from to write this book?
Megan Feldman Bettencourt: I'm actually a grudge-holder by nature, so I never imagined I would write a book about forgiveness. Then I met Azim Khamisa: His son was killed, and he had forgiven his son's killer — and not only forgiven him, but reached out to the killer's family and became close friends with them, and together they started an organization devoted to violence prevention work with at-risk youth.
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At the time I met him I was going through kind of a pity party, dealing with a lot less severe things, and he got me thinking about the idea of forgiveness. So I started researching and found that over the last twenty years there have been a lot of studies that show the health benefits of forgiveness, and the damage that anger does to our health. Once I found that out, I wanted to see how people go about the process of forgiveness, and I looked at it in a lot of different situations, from petty arguments and martial strife to murder and genocide.
What did you end up finding out?
The first thing I found out, much to my chagrin, was that if we want to lead happy and somewhat healthy lives, we have to develop forgiveness as a skill. We have to be able to forgive. So how do you do that? Exploring that question took me to a half dozen states — and to Rwanda for a month — and I met some of the most extraordinary people.
One of the questions I explored was how to foster forgiveness in groups and communities, and some of the organizations I looked at who are part of that are right here in Colorado. One is Colorado Youth at Risk, which actually is a very unique mentoring organization; they do an annual retreat with a forgiveness ceremony, and the results are amazing. Another is Rachel’s Challenge, which was founded in the wake of the Columbine school shooting by the family of Rachel Scott, the first victim, and dedicated to fostering kindness and compassion in schools.
Or the woman I profiled in Rwanda — she's is the exact same age I am, we found out; we were born within six weeks of each other — she was one of about 50 survivors of a massacre of 300 men women and children. What’s unbelievable is that was just the beginning of that ordeal. She endured attacks of soldiers, sexual assault, and was then enslaved by a member of her own family as a sex slave. Just unbelievable. So just listening to what she went through and, even though it took years, that she was able to heal and forgive.
How was she able to forgive?
It took a lot. I don’t want to make it seem easy. It took her years, and she really wanted to — she had an intention to forgive. She s a very spiritual person. She happens to be Christian, devoutly so, and so forgiveness was one of her principles. She also read about how holding onto resentment can damage your health, and she was going through that herself, having these acute attacks of PTSD. She did a lot of journaling, prayed a lot, and she kept setting that intention: to deal with it and let go.
Most of us, particularly in this country, we haven’t experienced all of that. But many of us have experienced sexual assault, or hurt, or disappointment or betrayal. What I took from her story is that it takes feeling your feelings and grieving. If it’s an attack or betrayal by a loved one, that doesn’t happen right away.
How have you applied those lessons to your own life?
As I went along and interviewed all these people in all these different places, and talked to experts and reviewed the studies, the whole time I was actually collecting forgiveness techniques. The ones I try to use most often, that I find most helpful, is, 1) the practice of mindfulness. It's a Buddhist principle that's come into the secular mainstream, this idea of mindfulness, of staying in the present moment, so when I’m obsessing about something that’s happened in the past, just noticing that I'm doing that and coming back to the present moment. There are a lot of reasons why that works.
Also, compassion: just practicing compassion for myself and others. People who are self-compassionate, who let themselves make mistakes, tend to do better at work and are more highly rated by their relationship partners. People who are hard on themselves tend to be hard on other people. I try to be kind to myself and kind to other people, and reminding myself when someone cuts me off on the freeway or something like that, just reminding myself that I don’t know what’s going on, what that situation is, and just reminding myself to be compassionate and understanding.
One of the expert psychologists I talked to – Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project – one thing he talks about is reexamining what he calls your grievance story, and what that means is realizing that sometimes the story-line at the core of our anger and resentment isn’t necessarily true. So making a habit of checking that out: Is that person really trying to ruin my day, or are they just in a bad mood? A big contributor to forgiveness is not taking it personally, and developing empathy. As much as we can develop empathy, it becomes much easier to forgive.
What do you most want people to know?
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One point that’s important is how misunderstood forgiveness is. I had always associated forgiveness with condoning or excusing a behavior, or if you forgave something then you couldn’t seek justice, or file charges, or sue. That’s not the case. Just because you forgive, it doesn’t mean you have to excuse.
Follow me — and tell me what to write about! — on Twitter @jefotte