In the life cycle, the person’s disposition to forgive grows with age. Studies have demonstrated that young children are generally the least willing to forgive and older adults more willing.
For example, researcher Enright (1989) found that chronological age and reasoning about forgiveness was correlated strongly in a sample of American children, adolescents and adults. Similar patterns were noted in a study of French adolescents. In both groups, adults were seen as individuals who could forgive in a variety of transgressions.
Why is this? Researchers have drawn on the theories of moral developmental expert Lawrence Kohlberg to explain this process. In his view of how moral development proceeds, Kohlberg reasons that in early stages of moral development children forgive only when the offended one has obtained revenge or the transgressor has made restitution. In the middle stage, the person forgives because religious, social or moral pressures evoke compliance. At the higher stages, people forgive because it promotes a harmonious society and is an expression of unconditional love.
The personality characteristics of the forgiving individual have also been studied.
Forgiving people report less depression, anxiety and hostility than their non-forgiving counterparts. When people feel less hostile in a chronic way, they tend to have fewer cardiovascular problems, fewer heart attacks and to feel less shame. They do not get or stay as agitated. They ruminate less and are less narcissistic and exploitive and more empathic.
Distilling these characteristics to its essence, the capacity to forgive has been found to relate strongly with the qualities of agreeableness and emotional stability.
Forgiveness is a process
Forgiveness is an act of the heart, a movement to let go of the pain, the resentment, and the outrage that has been carried as a burden. It has many stages-grief, rage, sorrow, fear and confusion.
Depending upon the nature of the hurt and the relationship with the offender, you will experience many feelings in the process of forgiving. For you see, forgiveness is not primarily for others, but for us.
Forgiveness is essential to our physical well-being. Psychosomatic medicine which investigates and treats the effects of beliefs and emotions on the body reminds us that. Harbored resentments, grievances, hostile feelings toward another if not released can literally make us physically ill.
In his groundbreaking work on the ingredients that make persons prime candidates for heart disease and heart attacks, Dr. Redman Williams at Duke Medical Center identified hostility and cynicism as two of the prime ingredients. My clinical work collaborates that finding. I have worked with people clinically who held onto resentments and grievances toward family members for so long that they became emotionally and physically ill.
Look what happens to us physically when we do not forgive. The body manufactures masses of “high voltage” chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. When too many of these high-voltage chemicals hold up in the blood stream, a person becomes a rapidly ticking time bomb, a prime candidate for some specific ills such as a vascular tension headache.
The heart begins to pound like a sledgehammer in the chest, the muscles in the neck and shoulders begin to constrict; abdominal pains develop. If the situation continues unchecked, gastric ulcers, gastritis or irritable bowel syndrome can result.
With forgiveness, on the other hand, the anger and resentment dissolves. The body stops pouring high-voltage chemicals into the bloodstream. The healing begins.
Forgiving is also important because it frees us of the role of victim. Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, tells of a woman in his congregation who came to see him. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support her and three young children.
“‘Since my husband walked out on us,’ she says, ‘every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he is living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?’”
Kushner answers, “I am not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive him because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter, angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You are not hurting him by holding on to resenting him, but you are hurting yourself.”
As this example makes clear, forgiveness is not condoning negative behavior, someone else’s or your own. It is not pretending every thing is just fine when it is not, or assuming an attitude of superiority or self-righteousness.