The article first appeared in the Dallas Morning News. It is reprinted here by permission of the newspaper and the author.

We watched images of planes slamming into the World Trade Center over and over. With each explosive blast of fire and smoke, the heat within our souls increased. Who were these monsters? Since that Tuesday morning, the rage that many felt has been transformed into hatred for the faceless people who would cravenly attack. At best, we want justice. At worst, revenge.

Forgiveness has literally become the f-word. Most people block out the thought of it and shush anyone who hints that we should ever forgive. Yet, for many religious and nonreligious people, forgiveness is a moral imperative. But while their principles command them to forgive, their principles collide with their emotions.

Some people deal with this conflict by saying, "I will forgive." But willing to forgive does not eliminate their angry and sometimes hate-filled feelings. Others believe that forgiveness is inappropriate because they think that it is somehow opposed to justice.

In our hearts, we know that no adequate justice will ever be meted out. No punishment could make up for the hurt, damage, and chaos. Even complete justice will leave a gap between what we believe ought to happen and what really happens. That gap is filled with raw emotions that could damage our physical and mental health. Justice balances the social books. Something else must balance the emotional books.

We could forbear, eventually deciding simply to let go of hatred and move on with life. We could work for justice. We could someday seek to understand the perpetrators. Doing these things can reduce hatred and anger. So can forgiveness. Eventually. Forgiving replaces bitterness, anger, and hatred with positive emotions, such as empathy, sympathy, or compassion for the perpetrators or even (dare I say it?) someday loving our enemies altruistically.

Everett L. Worthington, Jr. is Executive Director of A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and author of the forthcoming book, "Five Steps to Forgiveness" (Crown Publishers, October 2001).
Because forgiving involves changing emotions, it usually takes a long time. Trauma first disorganizes our worldview. It obliterates our sense of security, causes loss, and blasts apart our fragile belief that life can be just. We generally spend years trying to reorganize our life. We repeat to ourselves and to others a story of what happened. We ask why. We ask what we should do and whether we could have prevented the tragedy. Obsessive thinking is natural in dealing with trauma and grief.

Reducing unforgiveness is vital as we retell the story. Because we are rehearsing a new worldview, we can fill it with hatred or see ourselves as people who can forgive or forbear. Our self-concept hangs in the balance.

Believing that we should forgive does not make forgiveness easier. Forgiveness in traumatic events is hard fought and not always fully won. To forgive big events, we can follow five steps to reach forgiveness:

  • Recall the hurt as objectively as possible.
  • Empathize(ital) with the people who inflicted the harm. If empathy is not possible, perhaps we can sympathize with the perpetrators. Those positive emotions eventually chip away at negative emotions until the burden of unforgiveness is removed.

  • We make an Altruistic gesture by recalling our own shortcomings and realizing that others have forgiven us.

  • We make a public Commitment to forgive. Perhaps that commitment is a small amount of forgiveness, which we hope will then grow. But it is important to acknowledge that it is our intention to forgive.

  • We Hold(ital) onto the forgiveness when anger arises again such as when we see the images replayed on television or shown in newspapers.

    Not everyone must forgive every transgression. Many in America will never forgive this event. But if a person's beliefs dictate it, then that person needs to patiently try to forgive. If we want to forgive, we can do so by repeating the REACH steps until new positive emotions have taken root within the soul. If we let hatred persist, we harm our soul far more than the perpetrators did.
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