Peace Work

Stanford researcher Fred Luskin has developed a method to help people let go of their grievances. Now, he's bringing together Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland--and putting his techniques to the test.

May/June 2001

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Peace Work

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Patrician Magee has sparkling eyes, a ready smile and the lilting voice of many an Irishwoman. But for the last decade, she has also harbored a consuming sorrow and anger. Magee lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, wellspring of years of discord the Irish call "the troubles." She is Catholic, and in 1992 her brother Martin was beaten to death by Protestant loyalists. His killers were apprehended and jailed, but released in a prisoner exchange as part of a peace agreement. Now, they live near her family. They walk the same streets.

Magee's painful story is but one of thousands on all sides of Belfast's conflicts--stories of murdered children and kidnapped spouses, of stunning betrayals and retributive violence. Not only are the incidents tragic for the families, but they are used by factions to fan the fires of hate and resentment.

For years Magee has felt isolated in her grief, unwilling to discuss Martin's death outside the family. She has never been able to talk about Martin or his killers without bursting into tears.

Until now.

We are chatting comfortably in the Encina Hall lounge in late January. The room is filled with Irish brogues as 17 other visitors emerge from their final session in a weeklong workshop that Magee credits for her breakthrough. As the crowd heads for the deck to smoke and talk, a tall, slim shaggy-haired man's hard "g" New Yorker's accent stands out. It belongs to Frederic Luskin, a researcher at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. For the second year in a row, Luskin, PhD '99, has joined forces with Byron Bland, a Presbyterian minister who is associate director of the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation, to help victims of Irish violence learn to forgive.

Luskin and Bland's work with these 15 women and three men is a pathbreaking effort to introduce a new form of reconciliation into the ancient grudges and profound personal losses of Northern Ireland. It's an outgrowth of an intriguing area of research into the health- and life-enhancing effects of forgiveness. And it's an intense, high-stakes test of techniques Luskin first developed to overcome his hurt feelings from a lost friendship--and has taught to hundreds since.

Like many people, these Irish visitors grew up hearing about the moral imperative of forgiveness, a key teaching of most religions. In fact, it's a theme of the Christian world's most common supplication--the Lord's Prayer. But putting forgiveness into practice is a far trickier proposition. Wars, after all, are also carried out in the name of religion, and societal notions of justice and punishment often stand in stark opposition to the idea of forgiving another's trespasses.

Psychologists and other behavioral scientists historically have shied away from studying forgiveness, perceiving it as a spiritual or religious concept rather than a measurable or specific act. "Psychology had interested itself in looking at what's wrong with people," Luskin says, even though grudges and unresolved distress can sap the happiness from otherwise healthy people.

But as interest in spirituality and "wellness" increased in the early 1990s, psychologists and other researchers took the first tentative steps toward exploring forgiveness scientifically, including its potential to improve people's health and social functioning. The researchers come from a wide variety of academic disciplines, including political science, criminology, animal behavior and philosophy. "There are probably 50 studies out there," says Everett Worthington, professor and chair of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and executive director of the John Templeton Foundation's Campaign for Forgiveness, which has raised $6.4 million for research. "This is an idea whose time has come." Still, the field is in its infancy. The first major scientific book on the topic--Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice (Guilford Press), by Stanford education and psychology professor Carl Thoresen--was published just last year. And according to Worthington, forgiveness researchers still debate what forgiveness is--and whether it must involve the offender.

To Fred Luskin, forgiveness has nothing to do with making overtures to anyone else. Rather, it is a personal, healing act that replaces negative emotions with positive ones and allows the person to move on. "I see it as another way to describe peacefulness," he explains.

Luskin, 46, has the jiggly intensity of a coffeehouse regular. Usually dressed in sweats and sneakers, and often running late, he could easily pass for a grad student 15 years younger. He came to the forgiveness field after a couple of other careers, one as a co-owner of a vegetarian restaurant and another as a school psychologist. He became interested about a decade ago after a frustrating experience with a former close friend who, Luskin says, abruptly shut him out. Hurt and confused by the brush-off (the friend had been Luskin's best man, but he didn't even invite Luskin to his wedding), Luskin says he spent years fuming and churning about the affront, telling the story repeatedly, never able to simply accept that the relationship was over.

He'd long been interested in Eastern religions, so he started trying to employ some of their meditation and visualization techniques. And when Luskin entered the School of Education's PhD program in counseling and health psychology in 1996, he built on his progress forgiving his former friend to develop a method to help people with their grievances.

In his dissertation research, Luskin combined a psychotherapeutic technique called rational emotive behavior therapy with some ideas from researchers studying the impact of negative emotions like anger and resentment on cardiac health. Thoresen, who was Luskin's thesis adviser, calls the approach "extremely creative." Rational emotive behavior therapy encourages people to take responsibility for their own emotions and actions and be more realistic about life's challenges and upsets. Breathing and visualization exercises, meanwhile, aim to help people relax and focus on feeling more peaceful.

In a pilot study of 55 Stanford students, the subjects' self-assessed level of anger dropped an average of 15 percent after forgiveness training. So in 1999, Thoresen obtained a major grant from the John Templeton Foundation to expand the scope of the research. The Stanford Forgiveness Project, for which Thoresen, MA '60, PhD '64, served as principal investigator and Luskin as project director, recruited 259 adult subjects who described themselves as upset about an incident and unable to forgive someone.

Initially, Thoresen and Luskin had trouble finding enough men for a gender-balanced study. Then, Thoresen hit upon using the terms "grudge" and "grudge management" in their recruitment efforts. The guys started lining up. Thoresen thinks "forgiveness" sounded to some men like a feminine thing to do. A "grudge," on the other hand, struck them as something they could and probably should address.

The participants were split into experimental and control groups, and the experimental group took a six-week class in Luskin's forgiveness techniques. The preliminary results, Thoresen says, are striking: the class participants showed reductions in their perceived level of stress, viewed themselves as less angry and reported a marked increase in their confidence that they would be more forgiving in the future. In one of the first documented demonstrations that forgiveness training can provide specific improvement in physical well-being, the treated group also showed significant decreases in symptoms such as chest pain, back pain, nausea, headaches, sleep problems and loss of appetite. The psychological and health benefits persisted at least four months, and in some cases even increased during that time.

Liskin has taken his research on the road. He has aggressively developed a workshop he offers to the general public at several locations in California, including Stanford's complementary medicine program. He's also created a self-help audiotape, "Art and Science of Forgiveness." And he's preparing a book, Forgive for Good (HarperCollins), which will be published in December.

In his workshops, which cost $255 for six two-hour sessions, Luskin takes a straightforward approach. His argument is basically this: rotten things are happening all the time to people--marriages are failing, spouses are being unfaithful or abusive, stepchildren are acting out, business partners are being unscrupulous. To assume that because you are hurting from one of these experiences, there is something wrong with you, is ludicrous. And focusing your attention on the affront and the offender, or on how stupid you were for being duped or abused, gives the offender a power over you that is inappropriate and harmful. "When you give too much space to that which has hurt you, what you're shutting out is your own ability to feel love and joy," he explained to a recent workshop group.

As he speaks, Luskin's alternately soothing tone and Brooklyn-infused brusqueness is rather mesmerizing. Although he offers workshops at self-actualization meccas such as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., his approach seems much more like the application of commonsense ideas he's tried himself than New Age psychobabble. "He doesn't have that social worker voice that can drive you nuts," laughs workshop participant Phyllis Mayberg, an administrative associate in the genetics department.

Luskin does not let the sessions become crying jags or exercises in letting one's anger go and feeling one's feelings. He also is anything but the impassive, neutral therapist. Rather, he's constantly inserting examples from his own life when he's coped badly with a forgiveness issue, referring often to his struggles to mend his broken friendship. And when one workshop participant begins sharing her frustration with a difficult intimate relationship, Luskin gently reminds the woman that some people are like cacti--by their own nature they have sharp points, and demanding or hoping that they'll change, or being frustrated when they won't, is futile. "If you keep throwing yourself against the cactus and getting jabbed, you can't blame the cactus," Luskin tells her. "It's just standing there being a cactus."

Even when people are physically removed from a prickly situation, however, there's another crucial component to forgiving, he explains: changing the "grievance story." Initially, a grievance story is simply one's version of what happened. But over time, it can become something more malignant--a detail-packed, often obsessively repeated, subtly or not-so-subtly distorted account that embellishes the role of a villain who is responsible for one's misery. "The problem with our stories is they always focus on 'them'--the other person--and why he won't change or what she won't do. That gives them power they shouldn't have," Luskin says.

What's more, telling that story is a ticket to rising blood pressure, surging adrenaline, and a familiar sense of anger and frustration, perhaps even tears. Luskin says the more you repeat the grievance story, the more victimized you feel, the more stress you develop, and the less likely it is that you can, to use the vernacular, get over it. "Our bodies react as if we're in real danger right now to a story of how someone hurt us seven years ago. It's the fight-or-flee response," he says. "You're feeling anger, your heart rhythm changes, cholesterol is dumped into your bloodstream, breathing gets shallow." People get stuck in that response, stop thinking clearly, and end up rehashing the same thing over and over--and dealing with it in the same unproductive way.

Luskin encourages his workshop participants to feel gratitude for the good things in their lives. He leads a breathing exercise in which he directs people to "focus on the area around your heart" and try to relax and feel grateful for the gift of life itself, for breathing, for sunshine, for any positive image they can think of. Luskin then urges them to mentally recast their grievance stories, articulating what they wish would have happened; accepting that it didn't happen; and realizing that they probably got involved in the situation for some understandable, human quest for love or parenting or friendship. He points out that just because those rewards didn't result once doesn't mean they're lost forever.

The process of recasting both the situation and one's prolonged and ineffective response to it resonates with Luskin's workshop graduates. Los Altos real estate agent Maryam Hellar says she'd spent thousands of dollars on therapy to help her cope with the memories of an abusive father and first husband in Iran. "When I took Fred's class I realized forgiveness is not about forgiving other people, but forgiving yourself and the situation and setting it aside so you can go on with your life." She says releasing old anger helped her current marriage. "I don't have the kind of father I wish I had," she adds, but that realization is "better than the hatred I had."

Mayberg, who took Luskin's forgiveness classes to work on the lingering effects of her failed marriage, had also tried other forms of counseling. But they just didn't help. "They'd say it's okay to express anger. Well, I don't think that's very helpful," she says. She prefers the approach she learned in the workshop: to focus on "what was your positive intention in the situation, but then also to appreciate that you won't always get what you want, people won't always do what you want. Forgive what happened and then move away from it, move on."

Moving on is unquestionably difficult for those whose relatives have been killed in Northern Ireland's bloodshed. The roots of Anglo-Irish enmity reach back more than 800 years, and in the last century alone, thousands have been killed or maimed in sectarian violence. Byron Bland has had an interest in the conflict for more than a decade. "Up until '97 [the date of a far-reaching cease-fire agreement in Northern Ireland], what we thought about was, how do you reach a deal here?" he says. "After 1997, it was, how do you build relationships that could sustain a deal?"

One of Bland's ideas is the project that's brought the Irish visitors to Stanford. It's called hope--for Healing Our Past Experiences. When Bland heard about Luskin's work in 1999, he called Luskin to discuss the possibility of working with a small group of aggrieved Irish women. Last year, they provided a week of forgiveness training at Stanford to five women whose sons had been killed in the troubles. Before and after the training, Luskin and Bland measured the women's overall levels of depression, anger, optimism and perceived stress, and the degree of pain they felt over the loss of their children. The women showed dramatically improved scores--even in very tangible measures such as improved sleep--and they continued to meet with each other after they returned to Ireland, to sustain their newfound sense of peace. They also helped recruit a new group to come this year.

"One of the principal things that has changed for [the Irish visitors] is the transformation of their stories from being victimized to being a survivor or a hero," Bland says. Indeed, there's no talk of reconciling with the specific individuals who've caused the harm. When Magee was invited to this year's Stanford workshop, she says, "I asked, 'Can the forgiveness just be in my own mind?' I could never go to the persons who did this to my brother and say, 'Oh, I forgive you,' not in a million years." Assured that it could be, and that forgiveness in her own mind was in fact the goal, Magee agreed to make the trip.

It's been powerful to come together with others who've suffered as she has, Magee says. She smiles as her new friend Florence Watts walks up. Watts is a Protestant who has been grieving since the Irish Republican Army killed her husband 20 years ago. Magee gently touches Watts's hand. "We both told our story Sunday for the first time without crying," says Magee, as Watts nods. "She's a Protestant, I'm a Catholic, and we've had a brilliant week."

Pat Campbell, a member of the first group of Irish women who came in 2000, agrees that Luskin's training has had a dramatic impact on her life. "Until I came to Stanford, I could not see things the way I do now," she says. Her son Philip was gunned down in 1991 as he stood by his sidewalk vending cart in Belfast. Plunged into depression after Philip's death, Campbell says she was having trouble "rowing the family boat." Using Luskin's techniques, however, "I'm forgiving myself for letting [Philip's killers] ruin my life."

Can forgiveness--but not necessarily of the enemy--tip the scales toward a more lasting peace in Northern Ireland? Bland believes it can. As a minister, he says, he would be satisfied healing one person at a time. But, he says, "I could not justify those goals as a project. The larger academic interest I have is how societies put themselves back together." He and Luskin plan to bring 15 to 25 people to Stanford each year from Northern Ireland and other parts of the world, like South Africa, where forgiveness could help ease conflict. They're trying to "seed the community," says Luskin, with pro-forgiveness activists who can lead their own workshops--and train others.

As this year's Irish visitors wrap up their workshop around a big table in Encina, Bland cautions them that it won't be easy to maintain their sense of peacefulness when they return home. He draws a diagram with three elements. In the middle is a loved one's death. On one side is the community; on the other is the family. Because the community believes it "owns" the death equally with the family, it does not respect the family's desire to heal and often keeps hate and revenge alive for its own political agenda. "People will tell you they understand, but they don't," says Brendan Bradley, who has lost five family members in the troubles. Heads nod around the room.

The group is talking about compiling a book of their stories--not as melodrama or political rhetoric, but expressing the love they felt for their family members. "All Catholic people aren't bad. They breathe the same air," sighs Pearl Marshall, whose son was murdered by the IRA in 1989. "I don't see the people who killed my son as Catholic now; I see them as IRA." Pat Campbell concurs: "Protestant and Catholic tears are the same."

Joan O'C. Hamilton, '83, a Stanford contributing writer, is a columnist on high technology for Business Week.

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