The Power of Forgiveness

For most Americans, the Amish way of forgiveness is difficult to comprehend. It's sourced deeply within their way of life, which is grounded in compassionate, unyielding faith.

On April 17, 2012, 21-year-old Chandler Gerber was driving down a silent, deserted stretch of rural Indiana highway on his way to work. As such, he didn't see the harm in briefly trading text messages with his wife. Gerber also didn't see the Amish buggy before he rear-ended it at 60 miles per hour. 

The results were devastating: clothes strewn across the pavement, a crumpled buggy, a mangled horse, a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old dead.

Weeks after the horrific accident, Gerber received a letter from Martin Swartz, the father of the children whose lives Gerber had negligently taken. Here's what it said:

Dear Ones, 

Trusting in God's ways, How does this find you? Hope all in good health and in good cheer. Around here we're all on the go and trying to make the best we can. I always wonder if we take enough time with our children. Wishing you the best with your little one and the unknown future. I think of you often. Keep looking up. God is always there.

Sincerely, 
Martin and Mary Swartz.


Gerber had been forgiven.

This unbelievable resiliency and willingness to let go of resentment in the face of unspeakable tragedy is nothing new to the Amish. In 2006, 32-year-old Charles Roberts entered the one-room West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with an array of weaponry and ammunition, resolved to do evil. He allowed 15 male students, three parents with infants, and a pregnant woman to leave the schoolhouse, then lined up the remaining students -- all girls, aged 7 to 13 -- and shot them execution style. Five died. Roberts committed suicide. 

Amazingly, just hours after the incident, the Amish community extended their thoughts, prayers, and forgiveness to the deceased Roberts and his family. Many Amish visited Roberts' parents and widow personally and dozens attended his funeral.

"We must not think evil of this man," the grandfather of one of the murdered girls urged.


For most Americans, the Amish way of forgiveness is difficult to comprehend. It's sourced deeply within their way of life, which is grounded in compassionate, unyielding faith.

"...Rather than using religion to bless and legitimize revenge, the Amish believe that God smiles on acts of grace that open doors for reconciliation," Donald B. Kraybill, a distinguished professor at Elizabethtown College explained in 2007.

But forgiveness is not only grounded in faith, but also in science. In 1996, University of Wisconsin educational psychologist Robert Enright developed a process model of forgiveness. It can be broken down into four phases: uncovering anger, deciding to forgive, working on forgiveness, and discovery and release from emotional pain. 

Enright tried out his forgiveness training on 12 female incest survivors. Six of the women served as an experimental group, and immediately received Enright's intervention, which was delivered in a set number of sessions spread over 14 months. The remaining women -- serving as controls -- were wait-listed and received the intervention only when their counterparts finished.

The results were glowing. Members of the experimental group became significantly more hopeful, and their levels of anxiety and depression decreased dramatically. Fifteen years later, the benefits remained.  

More studies have been conducted since, by Enright and others. A 2004 meta-analysis of forgiveness training found the therapy to be promising, but not completely validated due mostly to a dearth of published research.

The University of Arizona's A.J. Clark put forth the following neurological explanation for the power of forgiveness in 2005:

"The cornerstone hypothesis is that, before forgiveness takes place, memories periodically arouse fear stemming from the amygdala. This fear drives a pattern of anger and fight-or-flight readiness. Under appropriate circumstances the frontal cortex interrupts the pattern and quells the fear response in the amygdala. The resultant relaxation of muscular tension signals the cortex that forgiveness has occurred. In addition, the memory pathway from the rhinal cortex and hippocampus to the amygdala is inhibited. Finally, a tangible act confirms that the memories no longer stimulate the amygdala and the pattern of anger and stress do not recur."  

 
The benefits of forgiveness are also evidenced physiologically. In 2010, University of Massachusetts researchers gauged 79 subjects' tendency to forgive and later exposed them to verbal harassment. The subjects who were more forgiving "displayed more rapid diastolic and mean arterial blood pressure recovery than persons low in forgiveness." Another study returned a similar result. Subjects who scored higher in self-reported levels of forgiveness had significantly lower diastolic blood pressure than their counterpoints who weren't as forgiving.

A popular view in American society is that forgiveness is weakness. But the conducted science clearly contradicts that pervasive view. Forgiveness makes you stronger.

"[Forgiveness] does not make you weak," Enright affirmed to OnWisconsin. "The love you cultivate and develop in your heart is stronger than any injustices anyone can ever throw against you. And once you live that, you realize how very, very strong you can be, because that's a buffer against all of the poison that unfortunately visits us just by being alive."


(Image: Hand & Butterfly via Shutterstock)

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    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.