By Alicia Brooks Waltman
June 14, 1999 12:00 PM

Three years ago, psychologist Everett Worthington Jr., a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and director of an international campaign to fund forgiveness research, learned to practice what he preached—in the most horrific way imaginable. He had just finished cowriting To Forgive Is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past, a self-help book about the importance of forgiveness, when his 78-year-old mother, Frances, was bludgeoned to death by an intruder at her home in Knoxville, Tenn., where Worthington was raised. The crime remains unsolved.

“I got so angry,” says Worthington, 52, recalling the night he learned of the murder. “I looked at a baseball bat and said, I wish I could have that guy here. I’d beat his brains out.’ Then I thought, ‘Whose heart is darker?’ ”

Worthington, who lives in Richmond with his wife of 28 years, Kirby, a child-development specialist, and Katy Anna, 16, the youngest of their four children, says he no longer harbors hate for his mother’s killer. Contributor Alicia Brooks Waltman talked to Worthington about the importance and difficulty of learning to forgive.

Why is forgiveness such a hot topic now?

President Clinton’s infidelity, warfare in Kosovo, the Littleton massacre—all these things have forgiveness as their root issue. So forgiveness is very much on people’s minds.

Why should we forgive people who hurt us?

There are obvious benefits to forgiving someone with whom you have an ongoing relationship—your child, your parent, your spouse. Such relationships are important; forgiveness helps people learn to live together.

If you have been hurt by an institution instead of a person, it is still good, psychologically, to forgive. Look at Nelson Mandela, who spent 20 years in jail but refused to take vengeance on the white establishment that imprisoned him. All major religions promote forgiveness because people obviously hurt each other again and again, and forgiveness preserves the social fabric.

What are the risks of being unforgiving?

Refusing to forgive can have health consequences. Holding grudges is a kind of hostility, and chronic hostility is related to a high risk of cardiovascular problems. It’s also a source of stress that could be harmful over the long term.

Isn’t it sometimes foolish to forgive? At some point, for example, shouldn’t Hillary Clinton or Pamela Anderson Lee stop forgiving their partners?

That’s confusing reconciliation and forgiveness. Forgiving means accepting what has happened and deciding not to seek revenge. Should you forgive? I think yes, always. But should you always reconcile? Maybe not. Consider a woman who is being beaten by her husband but keeps going back to him. She can forgive him—without staying with him.

How do you teach people to forgive?

By following five steps, using the acronym REACH.

R is for recall the hurt; relive the pain and acknowledge that an offense was committed against you.

E stands for empathizing with the person who hurt you by trying to understand his motivations. I tried to imagine the guy who broke into my mother’s house. He doesn’t expect anyone to be home; when he hears someone behind him, he just reacts.

A is for altruism: You give the gift of forgiveness. As a Christian, I knew I could be forgiven by God for the rage I had in my heart, so who am I not to grant forgiveness to whoever did this?

C stands for a real commitment to forgiveness.

And H means holding on to forgiveness. Forgiving my mother’s killer didn’t take away missing her, the sorrow, the loss at such a tragedy. But it took away a lot of the anger, a lot of the hatred.

How long does it take to forgive?

Forgiveness is something you deal with after the tears stop rolling. For example, it’s important for the parents and students in Littleton to experience their grief fully and deal with it. They shouldn’t rush.

Are people more forgiving than they used to be?

It’s in vogue for people to say that they are forgiving, but if they really are, I don’t know. It’s easier to hold a grudge these days, because electronic connections have replaced many personal ones. If someone makes you angry, it’s easy not to return their e-mail or phone message.

What do you say to people who think that being forgiving makes them look weak?

It takes more courage to forgive than to hold a grudge. If I hold a grudge because I’m angry, I feel stronger. But to say I want to set that anger aside—that takes courage.