March 1, 2015


Forgiveness is harder in practice than in theory

Authentic forgiveness is a hard business, as any crime and justice reporter trying to fashion an article on the topic will confirm.

The exceptional instance of a victim truly forgiving a criminal is tough to find and then evaluate by conventional journalistic standards. And even those opportunities come along only a few times in a reporter’s career.

Roy Wenzl, my colleague at The Wichita Eagle, recently wrote a terrific piece about Kerri Rawson’s 10-year struggle to forgive her father, Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer.

I won’t summarize the article here because it wouldn’t do justice to Roy’s work or Rawson’s experience. But when I emailed him to commend the story, he confirmed that forgiveness also is one of his hard topics.

“It is never easy,” he said. “I’ve drilled into so many potential stories that became dry holes.”

But let’s not put reporters’ problems writing about forgiveness ahead of how hard it is for people to actually forgive.

Everett Worthington, a psychology professor and forgiveness researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, suggested to me recently that forgiving should at least seem easier than it is.

Society just loves forgivers, he said.

“We look at it in our culture as often a good thing to do, a virtuous thing to do,” Worthington said. “We get a sense we’re doing something moral by forgiving.”

Worthington knows why it is hard. He fought to forgive his own mother’s murderer. Worthington then worked to forgive himself after his brother committed suicide.

Worthington was consumed with guilt, believing that, as a brother and as a psychologist, he could have done more to save his sibling.

“How you deal responsibly with self-condemnation is an important thing,” he said.

Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey framed the duty to forgive with his Catholic faith, pointing to the words of the “Our Father” prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The prayer challenged Polan in 2002 when a gunman killed two of the abbey’s monks and seriously wounded two others. Some of his religious brothers forgave easier than others.

The benefits always go beyond the individual.

“We forgive ourselves and then turn to others we have hurt,” Polan said. “Forgiveness is a one-way street, and reconciliation is a two-way street.”

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Forgiveness is harder in practice than in theory
Mark Morris
The Kansas City Star
March 1, 2015