Lord knows Stacey Jackson had every right to nurse a grudge against the world. Her son, Jerry Brown, died in a car wreck, just six weeks into his career with the Dallas Cowboys. Other mothers might have cursed the man responsible for his death. Josh Brent, the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle behind the wheel that night, had a history of driving drunk. But instead, Stacey hugged Josh and invited him to sit with her family at her son’s funeral.
“I know he is hurting just as much as we are,” she told CNN. “Him and Jerry were like brothers.”
This extraordinary act of forgiveness was echoed a week later by Robbie Parker, whose 6-year-old daughter, Emilie, was shot to death in Newtown. In an interview aired on national television, Robbie sent tearful condolences to the family of the shooter.
“I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you,” he said. “Our love and support goes out to you as well.”
Forgiveness lies at the heart of Christianity. Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, who taught the importance of obtaining forgiveness for our sins — and of forgiving each other. But the roots of forgiveness are universal. Nearly every language in the world has a word for it. One Native American tongue even has a special verb tense to convey that an offender has been pardoned, that an upside-down world has returned to normal again.
According to Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, the instinct for forgiveness and vengeance trace back to our earliest days of becoming human. His book, “Beyond Revenge,” explains why we thirst for the chance to strike back at those who do us harm. In a world without governments or police, the only protection from violence was the certainty of revenge. A reputation for retribution was necessary for survival. That’s the reason that people who are abused or humiliated in front of witnesses are far more likely to strike back. Revenge is so natural that even chimpanzees practice it, finding ways to punish chimps that have wronged them in the past. The philosophy of “an eye for an eye” developed over millennia; those who lived by it were more likely to survive a violent world and pass on their genes.
But if we are hard-wired for vendetta, so too are we endowed with the capacity to forgive. Social groups, which are marked by daily conflicts, would not have survived very long if aggrieved parties wiped out everybody who offended them. Revenge spawns more harm and more vengeance, a destructive cycle that can threaten an entire family or clan. That’s why so many cultures have established traditions that restore a victim’s dignity through the acceptance of apology or reparations.
In the Balkans, blood feuds between tribes can be stopped by rituals in which the family that fired the first shot crawls toward the family that suffered the first victim. In Kenya, a transgressor in the Maasai tribe can pay a cow or goat to admit fault and settle a wrong. In Jewish tradition, an offender who sincerely asks forgiveness three times no longer carries the burden of the bad act.
“What forgiveness enables is the repairing of valuable relationships,” McCullough said. Virtually every society that has been studied, he said, has tools for reconciliation.
Evolution programmed us to forgive. Maybe that’s why it makes us feel better. A flurry of recent studies shows that exercising forgiveness lowers our blood pressure, our heart rate and the amount of cortisol — a stress hormone — that is released into our brains.
“It is stressful to hold a grudge,” said Everett L. Worthington Jr., a psychologist who devoted his career to studying of forgiveness after his mother was murdered. “Excess cortisol can shrink the brain, damage sex life, cause stomach problems. We ruminate about this wrong that was done to us, and it does all of the things that any chronic stress does.”
Forgiveness feels right because it is the glue that has held human society together since the beginning of time. Without it, we could not have survived as a species. In this way, forgiveness is literally our savior. Maybe this is why it plays such a central role in so many religions.
And maybe this is why, today, so many of us will bow our heads at a table, surrounded by family and friends who may have — at one time or another — done us wrong, and pray: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.