To err is human; to forgive, divine.-- Alexander Pope
It's not an easy journey, to get to a place where you forgive people. But it is such a powerful place, because it frees you. -- Tyler Perry
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. -- Mahatma Gandhi
Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave. -- Indira Gandhi
Because forgiveness is like this: a room can be dank because you have closed the windows, you've closed the curtains. But the sun is shining outside, and the air is fresh outside. In order to get that fresh air, you have to get up and open the window and draw the curtains apart. -- Desmond Tutu
When a deep injury is done us, we never recover until we forgive. -- Alan Paton
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” -- Matthew 18:21-22
He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven. -- Thomas Fuller
It’s a word that seems particularly relevant in light of recent events and debates about racism, equality and the value of life.
But it’s a concept that human beings have engaged in (or not) and pondered since the beginning of time. Many a well-known person has been quoted on the topic, from Jesus some 2,000 years ago to comedian/actor Tyler Perry of today, and many philosophers and theologians in between.
But Loren Toussaint has probably given more thought to forgiveness than the average person. He’s made it his life’s work to explore forgiveness and its effect on human beings and was recently featured in an article in Time magazine.
From ag to academia
A 1989 graduate of Worthington High School, Loren grew up on a farm outside the city, where his father, Jerald Toussaint, still lives; his mom died in 2005. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and social work at Southwest MInnesota State University, following that up with a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Loren married high school sweetheart Kim Woll, and they have two children, Abigail, 16, and Meredith, 13.
Loren knew he wanted to eventually teach in a higher-education setting, but he also wanted to use his knowledge of psychology for the greater good.
“As a kid, I was baptized and raised in the Church of Christ, now Worthington Christian Church, and my parents were really good about giving me a strong Christian faith, a nice base to work on,” he credited. “Of all the things my parents have done for me, that was the single greatest thing they offered me. There are so my viewpoints and ideas about religiousness and spirituality, but I never had the existential crisis people grapple with.”
But Loren did grapple a bit in pinpointing his vocational calling.
“What am I going to do?” he related. “Something I feel called to as a Christian, but I didn’t know what that was. When I was looking at job openings, I saw this one at the University of Michigan that mentioned you could study forgiveness from a sociological and psychological perspective.
“This is exactly what I want to do: Use psychology in a Christian mission of sorts.”
Loren spent two years as a research fellow at the University of Michigan, “getting familiar with the ideas of how you study forgiveness from a psychological perspective. It was a formative experience for me.”
His first post as a professor of psychology was at Idaho State University.
“I was there for three years, and it was a wonderful job -- just not the Midwest,” he explained. “They don’t grow much corn out there, and it just didn’t feel right.”
An opening at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, brought the Toussaints closer to their home territory about a dozen years ago, and Loren continued his research on forgiveness in collaboration with colleagues in the field. He co-edited a book, “Forgiveness and Health: Scientific Evidence and Theories Relating Forgiveness to Better Health,” published in 2015.
“I can’t imagine anything more fascinating, or frankly more important, especially given the last week,” said Loren, referring to recent the violence and protests that have divided the nation. “That’s the downside of it for me. It’s fascinating from an academic perspective, something I’m called to do from a personal spiritual perspective, but also something that when I realize how badly we need it, it can be kind of depressing. It’s most relevant when people are most hurting, and that can be an ugly place to be.”
The science of forgiveness
To better understand forgiveness, people first have to comprehend exactly what they are talking about.
“The hardest thing about forgiveness is that some people think it’s like giving up justice: ‘Look at what these people have done. They deserve to pay.’ … But if something horrific happens to you or one of your family and the person responsible was made to pay or have to pay in terms of a prison sentence, is that specifically going to make you feel better? Knowing they are in jail or having this big pile of money? The thing that hurts is that they are gone or hurt in some enormous way. Even if you get justice, there is still a lot of forgiveness work to do.”
It is also not reconciliation -- letting a friend off the hook and making up with them.
“What is comes down to … is when you forgive someone you -- out of no obligation, you don’t have to -- just decide to quit hating them. It’s as simple as that,” Loren said. “People don’t want to hear that. That seems far too simple. But it’s not simple to do, or we would all do it.. But that’s what it all comes down to. When you forgive someone, you change from saying ‘I hate that person. I don’t want to be around them’ to ‘This person might be -- fill in the blank expletive -- somebody who is not perfect, somebody I don’t want to be around, but they do not deserve to be hated by me. They are just an imperfect human being like me. My hating on them doesn’t do anything to them; it just puts me in this place where I continue to feel bad.
“When I forgive, I’m going to be done with that -- moving on, letting go. It might not be right; there might not have been justice. I may or may not have made up with this person. But the internal turmoils, the anger or venom of disgust -- you just decide to hit it with the fire extinguisher and put it away.”
In order to study the effects of forgiveness, Loren and his colleagues ask their subjects about symptoms related to low forgiveness and high forgiveness qualities.
“The more symptoms there are of unforgiveness, the more stress, the more anger, the more rumination,” Loren said. “If somebody hurt you 10 years ago, and you keep mulling that around, it is really related to depression and anxiety. The more the symptoms of unforgiveness, the more likely you are to be stressed and angry and ruminating.”
Issues of race and inequality are complex with deep roots, but Loren said we are also all broken, imperfect beings who can reach our breaking points -- and that’s why forgiveness is a universally relevant concept. When a grievance is the last thing a person thinks about before they go to sleep and the first thing they think about when they wake up, deciding to forgive can be lightening and enlightening.
“We all need to love each other, and the purest illustration of love is forgiveness,” he said. “One of the simple truths that people struggle to grapple with is that if I love other people the way I should, I have to forgive them. … That’s a missing quality from a lot of the discussions. Everything’s about justice. People do need to be held accountable, but that’s not going to change how you feel about the situation.”
The book, “Forgiveness and Health,” is the first time the correlation between forgiveness and health has been explored, noted Loren.
“It’s fascinating to me how the people with better psychological markers for forgiveness have fewer stress hormones, their immune system seems to work better, have fewer major heart disease-type issues, less pain, less depression,” he noted. “When I was writing the final synopsis, the final chapter in the book, the thing that strikes me is that there are so many benefits, and yet it just seems like it’s so rarely talked about. … It brings into focus some of the really direct connections between how you are managing some of those feelings and how you feel as a person.”
Driving the point home
Loren said his upbringing in Worthington shaped how he looks at the world and led to his interest in exploring forgiveness.
“There’s a certain mindset in that environment, where people really value common sense and a down-to-earth approach to life in general,” he reflected. “I know, certainly, that was what was instilled in me. My mom and dad would constantly remind me of the value of having a square head on my shoulders, making sure my feet were firmly planted on the ground. You could have big ideas and ambitions, but be realistic about things.
“I wanted to study something and contribute in a scientific and personally meaningful way, and I wanted to do something that meant something to people. … I always wanted to do something that really meant something to just the average person on the street. I didn’t want to do something that would be hard for people to connect with. … I do what I do because I think forgiveness, more so than anything else, is something that everyone can relate to. I’ve said many times: If you can’t in some way relate to what I’m doing trying to understand forgiveness better, you should count yourself as the luckiest person on earth.”
Tips for forgivenessFrom a recent article Loren wrote for The Big Issue, a publication in the United Kingdom, here are tips for forgiving yourself and others:
- Be sure you know what forgiveness really is and don’t be misled by popular misconceptions.
- Be clear about what you are trying to forgive. Start small. Forgive your co-worker for making a snide remark. Forgive the person in front of you in the express checkout line for buying half the store’s inventory. Forgive yourself for forgetting to wish someone a happy birthday. Then, once you get more practiced, start to work on bigger, more hurtful things.
- When forgiving others, try to see the offender’s perspective. Often hurtful things are done or said when they aren’t intended, and putting yourself in your offender’s shoes can shine clearer light on motivations.
- When forgiving yourself, be sure to accept your faults and don’t deny your imperfections.
- Commit to forgiving yourself and others and improving quality of life for you and others.
- Be ready for challenges as you try to forgive. Just because you struggle doesn’t mean you’re unforgiving. You’re just trying amidst challenges, like the rest of us.