Forgiveness Is Good For Your Health

Psychological studies are showing that it is better to forgive than to be forgiven.

The story is so haunting it's almost hard to believe. Amy Biehl, an idealistic California college student, wins a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to South Africa to assist the anti-apartheid movement; she goes there, and is murdered by a black mob during a riot. After years of grief, her parents Linda and Peter quit their trendy upper-middle-class California jobs and move to South Africa to try to complete the work their daughter started.

Eventually Amy's parents meet two of their daughter's killers, who are now full of remorse. The two young men, who have been pardoned, try to atone for their crime by doing public service for a foundation the Biehls established in Amy's name. Amy's parents forgive the two killers and they become friends, so much so that the young men address Amy's mother as "mom."

Hard to fathom? Few among us could be so forgiving, despite what religions teach. Amy Biehl must have been an exceptional person to inspire her parents to transform their lives in her memory. Her parents must be exceptional as well, to be capable of such acts. But exceptional though they are, their experience is an unusually dramatic example of a rule that applies to everyone: that forgiveness is good not just for the person who is forgiven, but also for the person who forgives.


Traditionally, we think of forgiveness as a blessing extended to the transgressor, easing his or her conscience; the person who does the forgiving is seen as engaged in a gallant self-sacrifice. In this traditional view, the forgiven person benefits while the forgiver gains nothing. But what if forgiveness is just as important for the person who forgives as for the person forgiven? What if it's in your self-interest to forgive, because you will be better off?

Consider that once the murder happened, Amy Biehl was gone: nothing could bring her back. Her parents might have allowed their lives to be burned up in hatred for the people who committed the crime and for the place where it happened. Instead, they forgave. The sorrow of their loss will never go away. But otherwise, forgiving Amy's killers left the Biehls better off.

Today, rather than having their lives subsumed in bitterness, Amy's parents are leading important, constructive lives as part of the great South African reconciliation effort. They keep Amy's spirit alive as a living memory, and they feel hope rather than anger. Strictly from the standpoint of their own self-interest, the Biehls are better off than if they had refused to forgive.

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Gregg Easterbrook
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