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Power of Forgiveness and Reconciliation
(as published in the Canadian journal, Conflict Resolution Today) 

by: Sandra Lewis

...it is in giving that we receive
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned

~St. Francis of Assisi
 

GRAHAM Snyder is, by his own admission, not a dynamic speaker. And yet when he walked to the podium as keynote speaker for Conflict Resolution Network Canada's conference in Winnipeg, a respectful and anticipatory silence descended upon the packed room. And for the 45 minutes or so that he took to tell his story, no one stirred, no one left, no papers were shuffled, no chairs scraped, no coughs, no whispers. While the rest of the conference was filled with many interesting experts discussing everything from community mediation to conflict resolution in postwar Bosnia, Graham's talk was different: it was deeply personal, it was gripping, and it was hard to imagine.

Graham's son, Dan, was killed as the result of a car accident in 2003, at the age of 25. Dan had just been accepted into the permanent roster of the Atlanta Thrashers hockey club, fulfilling his dream of being in the regular NHL. His best friend and teammate, Dany Heatley, was driving the car too fast as they returned from a 'Meet the Players' event organized by the team. 

"Dan had overcome every obstacle in his short life. Why this? Why now? How could my family cope or find blessings in this tragedy?" Graham told the audience. "And I began to realize, in those dark days, that we can't choose what happens to us, only how we will respond. We chose forgiveness and reconciliation," he said. "And it's so powerful... this one act of forgiveness has reinforced its healing strength over and over in our lives." 

The value of forgiveness is, perhaps surprisingly, not something that has interested social scientists historically. Prior to 1985, only five studies had been done on the subject. Then in 1986, Lewis Smedes, professor emeritus of theology and ethics in California, published his book Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve, which inspired a wave of forgiveness research. Eight years later the International Forgiveness Institute was established in Madison, Wisconsin. And in 1997, the Templeton Foundation sponsored "The Science of Forgiveness," a research symposium during which more than 130 scientists were invited to submit proposals for funding. By 1998, dozens of studies had been completed, and the Campaign for Forgiveness Research was launched to raise additional funds. Co-chairs of the campaign included Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter.

As the forgiveness project wrote on its website:

"The need to understand the power and place of forgiveness in our world was defined on September 11, 2001. It is urgent that we examine the steps that lead to justice and strengthen society. Now more than ever, we need to understand how forgiveness improves the human condition." [1]

Wherever there is conflict, there is the potential for forgiveness, so the studies covered everything from adolescents who have been physically and emotionally abused, to Vietnam vets with PTSD, from families of suicide victims to people living with HIV/AIDS. International studies looked at the role of forgiveness in Northern Ireland [2], the results of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and, in Rwanda, whether forgiveness groups could promote healing between Hutus and Tutsis.

What did their research show? Well, they discovered that forgiveness can be an incredibly healing process, when it's done in certain ways. And that it can backfire or simply be ineffective, when it's coerced or done without laying the right groundwork. For instance, the study on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded:

"the TRC portrayed itself as a body promoting a restorative approach to justice among victims. The evidence shows that most victims continued to demand some form of accountability from perpetrators. The TRC is widely viewed as a mechanism that successfully promoted forgiveness and reconciliation. Analyses question the willingness of the majority of victims to forgive perpetrators and offer criticisms from a variety of groups, including religious leaders, of the TRC's model of unconditional forgiveness. While the project found many positive ways that the TRC had contributed to reconciliation, it also suggested the need to reconceptualize the meaning and relationship of forgiveness and reconciliation in a transitional justice process." [3]

But other studies showed that when forgiveness is done properly, it can have beneficial results on not only relationships, but also personal health and happiness. One research project conducted by Charlotte VanOyen Witvliet at Hope College, called Embodied Forgiveness: Empirical Studies of Cognitive, Emotional and Physical Dimensions of Forgiveness-related Responses, concluded that forgiveness strategies created a significant variance in measures of PTSD, anxiety, depression, hostility and physical health complaints:

"These findings suggest that researchers and clinicians serving combat veterans should continue to evaluate the relevance of forgiveness and religious coping to veterans' mental and physical health." [4]

A second study by the same researcher measured immediate physiological effects when participants rehearsed hurtful memories and grudges and found that:

"Unforgiving thoughts prompted more aversive emotion, and significantly higher electromyogram, skin conductance, heart rate, and blood pressure changes from baseline. The effects persisted after imagery into the recovery periods. Forgiveness thoughts prompted greater perceived control and comparatively lower physiological stress responses."


                                                Forgiveness can be taught... it is not therapy...

There have been many other forgiveness projects since then, including one at Stanford University. Its studies have indicated that forgiveness can be taught, that it decreases mental and physical symptoms of stress and that it will increase the willingness to forgive in the future. The director of the project was Frederic Luskin, Ph.D. a senior fellow at the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation and an Associate Professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.

 "It is not therapy. It is teaching people how to learn this kind of skill," he said. "We can teach people to forgive and that will improve their well-being." [5]

 The Woodstock Theological Center conducted a multi-year project investigating "Forgiveness in Conflict Resolution: Reality and Utility". That project ended more than a decade ago with the publication of the book, Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace. Among the subjects studied:

"truth commissions and facilitated small-group reconciliation as well as the ambiguous role of religious communities in both perpetuating conflict and promoting cultures of forgiveness. It also helped identify what the book calls "transactions of forgiveness," such as acknowledgments of political atrocity and gestures of forbearance from revenge (of the kind offered by South Africa's Nelson Mandela and South Koreas Kim Dae Jung during the political transitions in those countries)." [6]

"Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heal that has crushed it."
~Mark Twain

 In teaching forgiveness, studies show that it is important to make a distinction: forgiving is not forgetting. It is not condoning an act or becoming friendly with the perpetrator. In Graham Snyder's case, he is not only friends with Dany Heatley, but also a great supporter of his. But that result is not always possible, or even desirable. 

At the end of Graham's talk at the CRNC's plenary that morning, he was approached by a woman named Wilma Derksen. We don't know of what they spoke, but we can guess. Wilma Derksen had been on a healing journey of her own since her 13-year-old daughter, Candace, was abducted and killed in Winnipeg, Manitoba more than 30 years ago. She and her husband made a decision at that time: learning how to forgive would be preferable to a lifetime seeking vengeance. That decision motivated her to begin a program called 'Victim's Voice' at Stony Mountain Prison in Manitoba. It set up meetings between victims and offenders, where victims could ask the questions that sometimes never really get asked during a trial. She herself had been denied even that; the person who killed her daughter has never been caught. 

Still, forgiveness, she says, is a key component in the healing process. She describes forgiveness as letting go of the need to retaliate, letting go of the need to hurt back and letting go of revenge. 

"We have to let go of that and learn to trust again," she explains." [6]

What's remarkable about many stories of forgiveness are the rewards it seems to bring the victims. The Snyders say that for every kindness they have shown, it has come back a hundredfold. Graham says, "We are not walking alone on this journey. We have received phone calls and letters from people who have suffered similar losses around the world telling us how our story has changed their outlook. We have met so many wonderful people along this path."

As William Shakespeare said nearly 500 hundred years ago, (and a favourite quote of Graham Snyder's):

The quality of mercy is not strain'd, 
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd; 
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes..