In the early 1950’s I mentioned to my Jesuit superiors that I would like to study clinical psychology. Their response (I paraphrase a bit) went something like this: “Good grief! Psychologists are terrible people! They hate the church and we hate them! Besides, priests know all that stuff anyway. What is your second choice?” I spent many of the next 30 years happily studying biblical languages and the theology of the Hebrew Bible.
With some persistence, I brought up the subject to superiors again in the mid-80’s and thus finally began the serious study of clinical psychology. Chastened perhaps by my earlier conversation, I resolved to be a psychologist who would be “more secular than thou.” Moreover, I had been offended too often by clergy who knew some psychology and a fair amount of pastoral theology and served up the two as a sort of purée.
My resolve was fairly easy to keep as long as I was doing studies. When I started to see patients, however, the resolve began to melt. Somewhere between the 50’s and the 80’s, psychology had changed. If it had not “gotten religion,” it had at least discovered that religion, as a therapeutic contribution, could be subjected to serious study, research and consequent usefulness.
There was another reason for abandoning my inchoate conversion to secular psychotherapy. There were places where it simply did not work. Dealing first with married couples and then later with priests and religious, I became acquainted with a dour phenomenon. At some point in the therapy, it would become clear that no further progress was to be made until there was some letting go of past hurts. All too often, at that point a certain sour glaze would flow over the face of the patient; there would be a visible tightening of cheek muscles caused by clenching teeth. I would find myself confronted by a mighty army of ancient resentments drawn in battle array. Not infrequently, progress in therapy would stop at that point. I sometimes felt myself overwhelmed by a less than professional chagrin.
My first introduction to the new role of forgiveness in psychotherapy came from a popularly written book, The Unburdened Heart, by Mariah Burton Nelson  (2000). I chanced to hear a radio interview in which Ms. Nelson told the story of her abuse as a teenager and her bootless searches for a guru who would help her heal. Failing to find one, Ms. Nelson turned to wide reading and research and discovered forgiveness.
The interview was on a radio call-in show, and Ms. Nelson’s remarks were met with a barrage of angry phone calls. “How dare you tell me to forgive?” Ms. Nelson remained gently calm and pointed out that she was not telling anybody to do anything. Ms. Nelson then told the story of an earlier lecture appearance. Given the same hostile question, Ms. Nelson gave the same defusing answer, that she was not in the habit of commanding persons. There was a moment of silence at this. Then a teenage feminine voice spoke out loudly, “She is not telling us to forgive. She is only saying that if we do not, our hearts will never open!”
Nor would I ever tell anyone that they must forgive. It is a complicated decision, and certainly forgiveness must never include permission to the offender to hurt us again. Finally, I point out that as the therapist sees it, the good from forgiveness accrues principally to the forgiver, not to the one forgiven.
Traveling Mercies (2000), by Anne Lamott , is a spiritual autobiography like no other in my reading. Coming from a background of street drugs, alcohol and otherwise inappropriate living, Ms. Lamott writes a book of humor, pathos and awesome encounters with God. In reading it, I found that one of her phrases stirred me to remember an episode from my own early childhood. She writes, “It is in the family where we learn forgiveness.”
With grandparents named Sheehan, Kiely, Houlihan and Finn, the family environment in which I grew up was not unacquainted with the bleak skill of cherishing resentments. But that environment also had its therapeutic moments. For example: one particular morning early in my first-grade year, amid the moderately controlled chaos of a morning breakfast for five grade-school children, my mother and I had an escalating argument. Rockets were dispatched and missiles hurled in return. By the time the smoke had cleared, as I recall, I was going to be able to vote before I would again be permitted a favorite indulgence: reading the morning “funny papers.” “Mickey Finn” would have to continue his noble battle against criminals without my cheering support.
I crossed the street to the primary school (this was the 40’s) and plotted the scorched-earth policy that I would institute on my return home. At recess, the tools of victory fell into my hands. Returning to the house and a waiting mother who had prepared my Rockwellian lunch, I entered the kitchen and began my own “shock and awe” campaign. I told my mother that at recess I had met a second grader who also read Mickey Finn. He promised to keep me abreast of daily developments. So there!
My mother gently guided me to a chair and sat opposite me. She called me by a pet name and said: “I have had a lot of time to think while you were at school. I concluded that I ought to work harder on my temper, and that you should work harder at not being quite so fresh. Shall we both work on these things and forget the punishment? What do you think?” Of course I melted tearfully into her arms. More than 60 years later I feel that warm embrace, although I have not always lived that lesson.
Certainly the family is a wonderful place to learn forgiveness. Can it be learned elsewhere?
Forgiveness and the 12 Steps
One place is in the quiet of one’s chamber, but applying the wisdom of the first three of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: (1) I am powerless to lose my resentments; (2) There is one who can; (3) I ask the Lord to do just that.
The wisdom of the 12 steps comes to us in both oral and written traditions. The written ones are the books authored, in large measure, by Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Other written sources are books authored by the persons who founded later 12-step groups that deal with other problems.
The oral tradition is that wisdom, and much else, rephrased in simple, blunt, eloquent language aims straight at the heart. That the written tradition is profound is hardly surprising. William James, in his study The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), retells the mystical biographies and autobiographies gathered by his generous colleague Starbuck. James’s contribution was largely in noting the idea of surrender as the pivotal dynamic in true conversion. With the partial contribution of some mediating religious literature, Bill W. codified the work of James into the 12 steps.
And the oral tradition? It arises like most oral religious traditions: So-and-So heard this from So-and-So who heard it from So-and-So...who, finally, heard it from Muhammad, from Moses, from Bill W. (I sometimes suspect that lesser gurus also made ancillary contributions; the ultimate source of a particular piece of wisdom may have been an obscure psychotherapist.)
Does either of these traditions speak of forgiveness? The oral traditions speak often of forgiveness’s evil twin, resentment. In one of the memorable dicta of the oral tradition it is said, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other guy to die.” Another states, “What you need for an A.A. meeting are two alcoholics, a pot of coffee and some resentments.”
Why do the 12-step groups struggle so purposefully against resentment? Is it simply a part of that progress that looks longingly to a distant perfection? I do not think so. The 12-step tradition is aware of the corrosive nature of resentment. It eats away at inner peace. Sooner or later the recovering addict indulges in alcohol, other drugs or inappropriate sexual activity in an effort to soothe the gnawing pain that resentment brings always with it. The early A.A. secondary literature is rife with observations that “resentment is something we addicts cannot tolerate!”
Who Can Tolerate Resentment?
Current scholarly literature is rich in studies showing the awful price paid for non-forgiveness. The bibliographies of Ms. Nelson’s book, a second popular book by Robert Enright called Forgiveness Is a Choice (2001)  and a scholarly book by Enright and Richard Fitzgibbons, Helping the Client Forgive (2000) , are lengthy. Article after article demonstrates the physical and psychological havoc that non-forgiveness wreaks. (Ms. Nelson’s book and the books of Enright and Fitzgibbons present their own protocols for attaining the power to forgive. The protocols are excellent, but their length precludes discussion in this essay.)
Augustine once preached that Christians should remind themselves that when they pray the Our Father they urge God to forgive them exactly as they forgive others. (Could the physical and psychological havoc that non-forgiveness wreaks be an answer to that prayer?)
Cardiovascular damage (remember the heart that will not open?), pulmonary problems, anxieties and obsessions have all been shown to be statistically related to the bearing of resentments. Is it any wonder that the therapist reminds the patient that psychologically we are called to forgive, not for the good of the offender, but in our own best interest?
A Final Thought
The renowned Argentinian writer Jorge Borges has something to say about the essence of forgiveness. In one of his stories reprinted in In Praise of Darkness (1974) , he talks about a strange meeting that takes place between Cain and Abel. They meet in some realm beyond space and time long removed from their last encounter. Cain sees Abel first and is frightened, but when Abel approaches, he does not seem angry, so Cain has the courage to invite him to the meal cooking on the campfire. Conversation is desultory. After some long minutes, Abel looks up. “I vaguely recollect,” he says, “there was a difficulty between you and me. I cannot remember exactly, though. Did I kill you or did you kill me?”
Cain sighs with relief at this gift and says, “Have you really forgotten? Then perhaps I can now forget.” “Oh, you must forget,” is the sweet rejoinder. “For as long as you remember, the sin lives!”
Some rabbinic sages used to speak of “the God who forgets” sin. That God-like trait may seem far beyond the vast majority of us when we are holding grudges. Still, in one of the most optimistic givens of the Christian faith, we are told, “With grace all is possible.”