Today’s Washington Post (p. W8) features a compelling account of a father who 14 years ago lost a son — one of hundreds murdered every year in Baltimore. This father, Bernard Williams, nearly died from grief, until he figured out how to save himself from the pits of despair. He learned to forgive himself and … the killer of his son. It’s a gritty, heart-wrenching story; would any of us do as he did?
Williams received extraordinary help from a Lauren Abramson, a Johns Hopkins professor who runs a 11-year-old Community Conferencing Center, wherein “whole neighborhoods are invited to gather and solve problems.”
Abramson also facilitates conversations between victims and incarcerated offenders, in keeping with the worldwide “restorative justice movement.” Pioneered barely a quarter century ago by Howard Zehr, now of Eastern Mennonite University, the restorative justice method adjusts the focus away from punishing the perpetrator and towards the victim, emphasizing support for the afflicted, repairing the harm, and transforming all the parties.
Being an international politics specialist, I sat up and took note of the referenced benefits of forgiveness — as compared to the “benefits” of vengeance. Herein, we encounter Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University:
“Recent studies suggest forgiveness can decrease your cardiovascular risk, elevate your immune system and reduce your chances of depression, anxiety, anger disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Worthington attributes this to the conflicting body messages: “Biologically, we have an immediate vengeful justice motive when we’ve been wronged, but over time we have a biological urge toward empathy and reconciliation..” On the one hand, the thirst for justice “gives us a buzz…
“Pretty much everybody can get aroused and motivated by anger and the prospect of getting back at this person. It is lighting up… those same dopamine-releasing pathways that are in the reward section of the brain.”
Gaza anyone? (Why was Israel’s recent pounding of Gaza so “popular” inside Israel?)
Yet Worthington suggests that “at some point, an evolutionary response kicks in…. A human who is totally cut out of the group doesn’t stand much chance of survival. The others in the group “want to do something to not cede them to the wild beasts out there….. That’s when we start to feel conflict and pressure.”
What group? What beasts? International community? Conscience?
Hmmmm…. much worth pondering here. Reminds me anew of Vamik Volkan’s work.