The Necessity of Forgiveness in Public Health and Politics

“Man hands on misery to man, / It deepens like a coastal shelf.”

If this is hardly the whole truth of the human experience, as Philip Larkin’s brilliantly misanthropic “This Be the Verse” seems to imply, it certainly captures much of it. Just as exposed flesh is bared at once to caresses and to blows, so too the interleaving of our lives with others’ leaves us open both to the joys of eros, affection, and friendship, and to their hatred, contempt, or anger. Your soul doubtless bears the scars of some past brush with these, love’s dark doubles, just as you have wounded others in your turn, leading us all a further step or two into Larkin’s abyss.

From Rumination or Repression to Forgiveness

We all suffer these wounds, but we respond to them in various and variously helpful ways. You might seek to bury old wrongs in some dark mental crevasse, only to find that they have a way of resurfacing, bursting into consciousness like a mammoth corpse disgorged from thawing permafrost. Or you might cling to the wrong, nursing it vengefully until it becomes an ingrown mental toenail, involuted and festering. These are strategies of misdirection and delay at best; repression or rumination are often the paths of least resistance when we are wronged, but healing requires something different altogether: forgiveness.

Let’s say that, at minimum, “forgiveness” is replacing ill-will toward offenders with good-will. Where previously, in view of how they had hurt you, your thoughts and feelings about them were tinged with bitterness, fury, or even hatred, you now — without forgetting or discounting the grounds for your former ill-will — come to want good things for them, to hope that they will flourish.

Forgiveness and Public Health

Prior empirical research, including randomized trials of forgiveness interventions and longitudinal analyses of observational data, has indicated that becoming more forgiving lowers depression and anxiety, not least by easing the burden of rumination on or repression of past wrongs. Most prior forgiveness interventions, however, have required many sessions with a trained therapist, which makes them hard to disseminate. In a recent randomized trial, we at the Human Flourishing Program examined whether the past 30 years of work in clinical psychology on forgiveness could be distilled into a self-guided workbook, designed to be completed over just a few hours. The public health consequences of such a readily scalable intervention could be profound.

The workbook we studied employed Everett Worthington’s REACH model of forgiveness, an acronym in which each letter stands for a different part of the process:

  • Recall the hurt and let the emotions associated with it surface; do not suppress them;
  • Empathize with the offender, trying to understand their reasons for the action, without condoning the action or invaliding one’s feelings;
  • Acknowledge that forgiveness is an “altruistic gift” made freely and without compulsion, which you yourself have had to ask for in the past;
  • Commit to forgive, to try to replace ill-will with good-will; and
  • Hold on to the forgiveness, realizing that it takes time for emotions to heal and that sometimes the anger will return.


The workbook was developed by selecting the most effective exercises from prior research that could be completed in two to three hours, to help people who want to forgive, but were having trouble doing so. We carried out a waitlist randomized trial to examine the effectiveness of this forgiveness intervention.

The study had about 4,400 participants in five relatively high-conflict countries: Columbia, South Africa, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. In a waitlist randomized trial design, participants are randomly assigned to receive the intervention either right away or after a delay (in this case, of two weeks), with outcomes measured right before the second group gets the workbook.

Happily, the workbook was indeed effective at increasing forgiveness. Those in the “immediate receipt” group reported higher levels of forgiveness after two weeks than those on the waitlist. There was also evidence from the trial that the forgiveness workbook lowered symptoms of depression and anxiety, and that it increased participants’ sense of hope. There was also evidence that it improved various aspects of flourishing — happiness, health, meaning, character, relationships, and even a sense of financial security — as assessed by our flourishing measure.

The availability of this workbook may be profound for public health. As an analogy, the distribution of mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa to prevent malaria is such an impactful public health intervention because the malady is common and severe, and the treatment is inexpensive and easily-disseminated. Struggles with forgiveness also represent a significant public health burden and the REACH forgiveness workbook is likely the closest thing we currently possess to a mosquito net for un-forgiveness: a simple, readily scalable intervention that has been shown to help most people become more forgiving.

If the workbooks were disseminated in clinical, school, religious, and workplace settings, and if local, national, and international efforts were made to promote forgiveness and utilize such resources, more people could forgive and reap the benefits of improved mental health, to say nothing of the intrinsic good of becoming a more loving, generous, and patient. The forgiveness workbook can be downloaded here and freely distributed. We have used it ourselves and have found it very helpful.

What Forgiveness Isn’t

There are of course difficult moral questions around forgiveness that are important in their own right, but also important in thinking about forgiveness in the context of public health. Are there limits to forgiveness? Does forgiveness require seeking reconciliation, no matter how grievous the wrong? Does it require foregoing the pursuit of justice?

While there is certainly not universal consensus, our view is that forgiveness — understood as replacing ill-will towards an offender with good-will — is always both permissible and desirable, as is cultivating the virtue of “forgivingness,” in the sense of a disposition to offer forgiveness. After all, “holding on to resentment is like taking poison and hoping that the one who hurt you will die.”

Important caveats are in order here, though. In particular, forgiveness is distinct from pursuing reconciliation or from foregoing justice. A battered wife might come to forgive her abuser without reviving the marriage within which she suffered, though she will come to hope for his good. So, too, grieving parents might forgive their son’s murderer without calling for the charges against him to be dismissed, though they would no longer seek his punishment out of a desire for vengeance or retribution, but perhaps instead from a desire — tempered by clemency and forbearance — for his rehabilitation, for the protection of other potential victims, or for the deterrence of other potential killers. And while forgiveness is best offered in response to sincere repentance by the wrongdoer, this is an ideal rather than a necessary condition. We know this, because we can even forgive the dead, from whom apologies are generally not forthcoming.

Canceling Forgiveness

Promoting forgiveness might not only improve public health, but could equally soften some of the crueler aspects of American civic life. Contemporary “cancel culture” is at least, though not only, a name for public life without forgiveness, in which any misdeed is grounds for immediate punishment, with no statute of limitations and little hope for reconciliation, apologies notwithstanding. Public campaigns to promote forgiveness might not only blunt the excesses and cruelties of “cancellation,” but, as gestures of forgiveness, like those of love more generally, rippled outward through social networks, could also begin to replace it with a culture of neighbor love, or even love for one’s enemies.

Such a culture could tap rich veins in American political thought and practice. As the Civil War drew to a close, for instance, president Abraham Lincoln devoted his Second Inaugural Address to forgiveness as a political problem. In the face of the Yankee temptation to gloat, Lincoln encouraged humility and penitence: perhaps, he mused, God “gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those” who have all profited in varying degrees from “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.”

Lincoln did not call for vengeance, nor demonize the Southerner who had opposed and would shortly murder him; rather, he called for the entire nation to strive “with malice toward none; with charity for all” — that is, with forgiveness’s substitution of goodwill for ill-will — not merely to forego retribution, but even to strive for reconciliation, “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves.” If Lincoln could call for such a corporate turn from malice to charity even amid a bloody war waged against a people incomprehensibly (as he saw it) bent on “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” surely we too can muster the courage and patience to let go of our own hurts and bitterness, and to chooseC. Not only our own health, but that of our families, communities, and perhaps even our republic, might well depend on it.

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