On New Year’s Eve in 1995, Frances McNeill, a 78-year-old woman who lived alone in Knoxville, Tennessee, went to bed early. Outside, someone watched the house lights flick off. Figuring its inhabitants were gone for the night, he made his move.
McNeill awoke to the sound of the intruder rummaging through her bookshelves and drawers. She walked out of her bedroom and crept up behind him. He swiveled around, raised his crowbar high above his head, and bludgeoned McNeill to death. Afterward, he raped her with a wine bottle.
The next morning, McNeill’s son, Mike, discovered her body on the blood-stained carpet. Mike frantically called his older brother, Everett Worthington, who drove over to the house right away.
For the next 24 hours, the brothers seethed with rage.
“It was a traumatic scene and terrible to walk through the house I was raised and see the evidence of all this violence,” said Worthington, who recalled the incident recently. “At one point, I pointed to a baseball bat and thought, 'I wish that guy was here so I could beat his brains out.'”
Worthington, who was (and remains) a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, had at that point been actively researching the psychology of forgiveness for several years. He was studying how people forgive and how forgiveness can work alongside justice.
"I thought, ‘Oh man, here is a guy who has written a book about forgiveness, has taught about this,’” Worthington said of himself. Surely, he thought, an expert on forgiveness could find a way to make peace with even the most heinous perpetrator.
He decided he was going to try to forgive the killer.
Mind you, Worthington does not forgive easily. He says he once had a professor who gave him a B and it took him “10 years and a religious experience to forgive that guy.” But he knew from his research that carrying around the anger over his mother’s homicide would be worse than the painful process of absolution.
To do it, Worthington used his own, five-step “REACH” method of forgiveness. First, you “recall” the incident, including all the hurt. “Empathize” with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the “altruistic gift” of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, “commit” yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, “hold” onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.
What helped on the empathy front, Worthington says, was that after the intruder killed McNeill, he ran from room to room, smashing all of the mirrors with the crowbar—even in the rooms he didn’t search. Worthington took it as a sign that he couldn’t look at himself.
“I started thinking about this from the point of view of someone who is keyed up and think they have perfect crime, and this woman is looking at them right in the face, and he has the means right in his hand,” Worthington said. (It’s worth noting that no one has been convicted in the murder, and the case against the leading suspect was dropped. I’m using male pronouns, but this might have been a woman.)
After that first, agonizing 24 hours following his mother’s death came another 20 or so during which Worthington says he went through all five REACH steps. He forgave his mother’s murderer completely. He says it was important to do so right away.
“I was emotionally aroused, and that magnified all the emotional experiences I was having,” he said. “So when I had the experience of working through and forgiving this person, it gave it a little extra power. If I had done it two days later, when I was calmed down, probably it wouldn't have had as much effect.”
Talking about the “benefits of forgiveness” can feel slightly self-serving, like donating to charity only so you can tell people about it later. But one reason why people might avoid forgiving is that it feels like the offender gets away with something—especially if he or she never apologized. In that sense, at least, it’s worth considering what’s in it for the forgiver. And as it turns out, there’s a lot.
First, there’s a sizable and immediate mental-health boost. Worthington says that an eight-hour forgiveness workshop can reduce subjects’ depression and anxiety levels as much as several months of psychotherapy would.
But beyond that, forgiving people are markedly physically healthier than unforgiving ones. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that participants who considered themselves more forgiving had better health across five measures: physical symptoms, the number of medications used, sleep quality, fatigue, and medical complaints. The study authors found that this was because the process of forgiveness tamped down negative emotions and stress.
“The victim relinquishes ideas of revenge, and feels less hostile, angry, or upset about the experience,” the authors wrote.
In 2011, a group of researchers asked 68 married couples to rehash a recent fight, and they recorded the discussion on video. The participants then watched the videos back and described how conciliatorily they behaved toward their partners, using phrases like “I tried to comfort my partner,” or conversely, “I wanted to keep as much distance between us as possible.” The scientists found that the more peaceable the "victims" of each fight were (the ones accused of not doing their fair share of the chores, say, or of invading the other’s privacy), the lower their blood pressure readings were. Their partners’ blood pressure was lower, too. In other words, both granting and receiving forgiveness seemingly brought down the tension level of the entire marriage. Importantly, it didn’t matter whether the instigator of the fight had tried to make amends: “The power to grant forgiveness (and its benefits) rests with victims,” the authors concluded.
This replicated past research, from 2001, showing that when study subjects were told to mentally rehearse a hurtful memory in a resentful way, versus an empathetic and forgiving way, they had faster heart rates and larger blood pressure changes. They also showed more tension in their facial muscles.
When someone holds a grudge, their body courses with high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. When cortisol surges at chronically high levels for long periods of time, Worthington says, it can reduce brain size, sex drive, and digestive ability.
Perhaps most surprisingly, though, forgiveness can also help with things that have nothing to do with physical or mental health.
In a study recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, 46 participants were divided into two groups: One set were asked to write about a time when someone wronged them and they forgave the person, and the other group was asked about a time when they did not forgive the offender. Afterward, all of the subjects were led outside to gaze upon a large hill. The “unforgiving” group thought the hill was about 5 degrees steeper than the forgiving group did. Then, all the participants were asked to jump up and down. The forgiving group jumped seven centimeters higher, on average.
The experiments showed how a grudge can weigh a person down—literally—says Ryan Fehr, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington and an author of the study.
“If you’re primed with having a heavy burden, it makes you feel heavy,” he said. “The metaphor becomes real life.”
For all its merits, forgiveness isn’t a cure-all, and it’s not always the best thing to do, Fehr said. “If you have someone who is really unrepentant and keeps offending you over time, maybe not.”
There’s some evidence, for example, that forgiving a romantic partner’s offenses can drag down a person’s self-respect if the partner hasn’t made amends and the infraction was severe. (This is called, fittingly, “the doormat effect.”) And forgiveness is not always the valorous high-road that it might seem. When the psychologists Sarah Stanton and Eli Finkel tired out a set of participants by making them take a difficult test, they found that they were less forgiving of a hypothetical severe transgression (their partners cheating) but more forgiving of a minor one (their partners not calling when they said they would.) Sometimes people are just “too tired to take offense at their partner's bad behavior,” they write. But it’s unclear whether this type of “eh, whatever” relationship is a truly healthy one.
To Worthington, forgiveness is worth doing even when the target is a person whom it’s difficult to emotionally acquit—and sometimes, that person is ourselves.
Mike, the brother who discovered Worthington’s mother’s body, was never quite the same after she died. He suffered from extreme PTSD, and he asked Worthington for help with his flashbacks and other symptoms. Worthington tried to help—he recommended counseling and the like—but Mike never seemed to want to go through with it. “I tried to help him, but we had too many adolescent conflicts left over in our relationship,” Worthington said.
In 2005, Mike killed himself. Worthington then faced, as he describes it, the even more Herculean task of getting over his own self-blame. “I had struggles with God, like, ‘How did this happen?’”
Worthington worked on his relationship with God, and he tried to make what he calls “social repairs.” In a suicide note, Mike had mentioned financial problems, so Worthington helped Mike’s widow with them. It took three long years, he says, but Worthington was eventually able to forgive himself.
“I couldn't bring my brother back to life, but there's a pay-it-forward that you do,” he said. “I try to help other people avoid the problems I went through. I felt like, as much as you can put anything like that behind you, I was able to put it behind me.”