I have been thinking a lot recently about the concept of forgiveness, probably because, truth be told, I am not very good at it. If resentment really is “like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” as Nelson Mandela has been said to caution (Durando, 2013), then I’m pretty sure I should be dead by now. On the contrary, in popular culture, forgiveness is everywhere. Countless self-help books, magazine articles, and afternoon talk shows all purport to have found the secret to forgiveness, as if it were the Holy Grail. Similarly, researchers from various disciplines of psychology have shown us the benefits of forgiveness, including overall psychological well-being and better interpersonal relationships (e.g., Webb, Colburn, Heisler, Call, & Chickering, 2008), and have even studied treatment interventions specifically designed to foster forgiveness (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). Psychology is of course not alone in the study of forgiveness, as religion, philosophy, and science have all wrestled with this idea since the time of the ancient Greeks (Hughes, 2015).
In particular, psychologists have weighed in on the forgiveness front through attempting to identify situational and dispositional predictors as well as positive outcomes of forgiveness. For example, clinical and counseling psychologists have explored the implications of forgiveness for patient well-being (e.g., Freedman, Enright, & Knutson, 2005; Wade, Worthington, & Meyer, 2005). Developmental scholars have studied intrapersonal changes in the ability to forgive throughout the lifespan (e.g., Allemand, 2008; Enright & the Human Development Study Group, 1994). Social psychologists have studied how attributions (Struthers, Eaton, Santelli, Uchiyama, & Shirvani, 2008), perspective taking (Takaku, 2001), justice (Karremans & Van Lange, 2005), and other aspects of the situation facilitate forgiveness.
Personality theorists have explored the role that various dispositions, such as the Big Five (McCullough & Hoyt, 2002), play in forgiveness. Organizational scholars have examined how aspects of the organizational context, such as relative hierarchical status (Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2001) and justice climate (Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2006; Tripp & Bies, 2009), influence forgiveness. Lastly, relationship experts have explored the dynamics of forgiveness within marriage (Fincham & Beach, 2002; Fincham, Paleari, & Regalia, 2002) and family contexts (Hoyt, Fincham, McCullough, Maio, & Davila, 2005). As a result, an overwhelming body of forgiveness literature has amassed from a plethora of psychological fronts, so much so that you would think we would all be experts on forgiveness by now. Nevertheless, as a society, as individuals, and perhaps as a profession, we still struggle with the same question that first set researchers out on the path of studying forgiveness: How and why do people forgive, especially when they have every right to be angry?
There are certain iconic and heroic individuals in recent history who just seem to get this forgiveness thing more than the rest of us. Moreover, these individuals forgive in the face of terrible human atrocities. Consider, for example, Nelson Mandela, who on February 11, 1990, was freed from nearly 30 years in prison for speaking out against the South African apartheid government. Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail at the brutal Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town. Here, he was confined to a small cell without a bed or plumbing and forced to do hard labor in a lime quarry. As a Black political prisoner, he received less rations and fewer privileges than the other inmates. Not only was Mandela denied basic human rights by the government entrusted to protect them, but he was also severely punished for wanting those rights. Yet Mandela, who had every right to emerge from prison violently angry, mistrustful, and hungry for vengeance, put aside resentment to negotiate the end of apartheid in South Africa with the very people who were once his enemies (Nelson Mandela Foundation, 2015).
Mandela went on to become the first Black President of South Africa. As President, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate human rights and political violations committed by both supporters and opponents of apartheid rule (Nelson Mandela Foundation, 2015). The TRC helped victims find peace and forgiveness following apartheid (Tutu, 2000). For example, one unnamed young girl witnessed the police, under apartheid, ambush her family’s car and kill them in a gruesome manner, then set the car on fire. When, at a TRC hearing, the young girl, now a teenager, was asked if she would be able to forgive the people who did this to her family, she answered, “We would like to forgive, but we would just like to know who to forgive” (The Forgiveness Project, 2010). Nelson Mandela inspired a divided nation with deep and painful wounds to forgive and reconcile. Moreover, he inspired the world, as we all watched in awe and wondered, if we were so wronged, would we be able to transcend our situation and truly forgive?
Similarly, the novel Unbroken tells the true story of a former Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini, who became a lieutenant in the United States army during World War II (Hillenbrand, 2010). While on a search mission, Zamperini’s plane crashed over the ocean 850 miles south of Oahu, killing eight of the 11 passengers on board. Zamperini was one of three survivors left adrift at sea for 47 days with little food or water. These men survived off of rainwater and raw fish caught in the ocean. They were forced to face starvation, shark attacks, and Japanese bombers. At last, their raft finally drifted to land and the two surviving men thought they were saved. Unfortunately, rather than a miracle, this land turned out to be a nightmare, for they had drifted onto the Marshall Islands and were captured by the Japanese. They were held in captivity, severely beaten, and mistreated until the end of the war in August 1945 (CBS Interactive, Inc., 2014; Hillenbrand, 2010).
Zamperini reported that, while a prisoner of war, he was especially tormented by one particular prison guard named Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe, who was later included in General Douglas MacArthur‘s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. When Zamperini first returned home, after being released from captivity, he had nightmares about the “Bird” and was consumed with fantasies of revenge. However, he said all that changed when he became a Christian Evangelist and learned the importance of forgiveness. Zamperini even traveled back to Japan to tell his ex-prison guards in person that he had forgiven them. Yet, there remained one prison guard Zamperini never came face-to-face with again. Although Zamperini wanted to meet with the “Bird” to tell his former torturer he had forgiven him, the “Bird” refused to meet with Zamperini. What happened to this reportedly violent and sadistic ex-prison guard? When the war ended, the “Bird” took refuge in a cave until being pardoned and then went on to become very wealthy—selling, of all things, life insurance (CBS Interactive, Inc., 2014; Hillenbrand, 2010).
Zamperini was wronged, terribly so, over and over again, for many years. The fact that his primary torturer was pardoned, never held accountable for his actions, and free to walk the streets as a wealthy man, feels simply unjust. However, in a CBS special that interviewed the “Bird” and Zamperini separately, Zamperini was the one seen carrying the Olympic torch with a wide smile on his face, appearing genuinely happy, full of life, and at peace. On the other hand, the “Bird” was seen walking alone down a grey street, appearing lifeless, lonely, and haunted (CBS Interactive, Inc., 2014). Did forgiveness save Mandela and Zamperini from a life filled with rage and fantasies of revenge, a life defined by their perpetrators and the horrible acts committed against them, or did it just let very bad people off the hook?
In life and in death, Mandela and Zamperini personify forgiveness, resilience, compassion, and acceptance. Both of these men seemed so free and unburdened by the past and is this not how we all want to feel in some way? If Mandela could forgive his country for such a flagrant abuse of power, for all the years of racism and oppression, and Zamperini could forgive his prison guards for torture (not to mention life itself for putting him on that plane that crashed in the first place), then surely I should be able to forgive just about anything. Yet forgiveness, so revered in the abstract, tends to be difficult to execute in everyday life, when we feel hurt, betrayed, and wronged. The just world theory suggests it is a natural human inclination to want to believe the world is a fair place (Lerner & Miller, 1977). Sometimes, our anger, our withholding of forgiveness, is the only recourse we feel we have to set the world back on a just path when a perceived wrong has been committed.
It was within this context of considering the role of forgiveness in my own personal life that the now infamous Hoffman Report (Hoffman et al., 2015) was brought to light. In this review, evidence for “the secret coordination between several APA leaders and the Department of Defense that resulted in the lack of a clear and consistent anti-torture stance, limited guide for military psychologists in the field, a failure to uphold an appropriate conflict-of-interest policy with regards to the PENS Task Force on military interrogation, and a lack of appropriate checks and balances that could have revealed these significant problems” emerged (American Psychological Association, 2015, p. 1). Furthermore, some American Psychological Association (APA) members and other critics were “privately and publically discounted for raising concerns” (APA, 2015, p. 1). The contents within the Hoffman Report have shaken the foundation upon which our trust in the APA is built and have led to strong reactions and further reviews and committees. Since the release of the Hoffman Report, it has been reported that APA has spent somewhere around $4 million in related costs (as reported by APA Council of Representatives).
Some Early Career Psychologists (ECPs) have expressed to me that they feel personally betrayed by an organization that they were led to believe was safe to trust. After all, APA is supposed to look out for human interests, model ethical practices, and do right by its members and society-at-large. Many ECPs may have had qualms about APA before the Hoffman Report, but for the most part there was still trust in the basic integrity of the institution. The disillusionment that these ECPs experienced after reading the events outlined by Hoffman represents a great loss. For some ECPs who already felt disconnected from APA, the Hoffman Report only enhanced their feelings of disconnection from a large amorphous organization that does not seem to support their values.
Through various personal conversations with current and former APA members, it has become clear to me that the Hoffman Report has elicited strong, yet varied, reactions. Some feel strongly that gross wrong doings were done by APA staff and volunteers. From this, they feel betrayed and angry. Others question the accuracy of certain parts of the Hoffman Report and feel that either they or someone they know and respect, was wrongly accused. They feel unfairly attacked and on the defensive. Some feel that underlying the actions outlined in this report were anti-Muslim sentiments and an inadequate attention to diversity, feelings that lead to a lack of safety within the institution. Still others are outraged that, in the upheaval over the Hoffman Report, the memory of those lost on 9/11 seems to have been missing from the discourse. What if that $4 million APA reportedly spent went to the families of those killed on 9/11, they may ask? Although the exact source of the injury varies, it is striking how the Hoffman Report has left such an open wound for so many people.
We are all now left with the question of how to bandage our wounds so they can heal. Do we demand more retribution, perhaps calling for more people identified in the report to step down from leadership positions, even banning them from APA? Do we save our money and leave APA all together? Do we seek vengeance and retribution in an effort to try and make these wrongs right? Will punishing those responsible make the world feel just again? Moreover, how exactly do you identify who is “responsible” when blame can be portioned out in so many ways? The Hoffman Report, in many ways, has left us with more questions than answers.
Still, I dare suggest there remain additional questions that perhaps we need to eventually ask ourselves. When is the time, if such a time exists, for us (you and/or I) to forgive? And who, exactly, are we forgiving? APA leadership at the time the events outlined in the Hoffman Report took place? Hoffman himself for writing it? Those who “knew” or “should have known,” for not acting? Ourselves, perhaps, for our ignorance or blindness? These questions will become increasingly important over the months and years to come. Now that the wool has been removed from our eyes, there is no putting it back—and there are no easy answers. Despite all the research on the positive benefits of forgiveness and the real-life inspiring stories of forgiveness, it is still hard to stomach. If we forgive, will it send a message to the world that we condone, or are in some way complicit with, the actions taken by others involving torture and deception? Do we even have the right to forgive, in light of those who suffered more direct harms? And, if we do forgive, what exactly does this mean in terms of moving forward and for the future of APA?
Forgiveness is a personal choice, one that each of us must make for ourselves. As I contemplate my own ability and willingness to forgive in this context, I ask myself what feels like a very old and familiar question, why and how should I forgive when I feel as if I have every right to be angry? The why part of this question is relatively simple for me to answer for myself: Because I do not want the poor choices of a few to define me as a psychologist or as an APA member. I do not wish to hold on to feelings of anger that only leave me feeling powerless and connected to events and people that I want to move past. The latter part of the question involving how to forgive is where I get stuck. How exactly did Mandela and Zamperini forgive the very individuals and institutions responsible for inflicted them with deep emotional and physical wounds? I honestly do not know the answer to this. I wish I did. I think it has something to do with not wanting to suffer any more.