Most people have heard the saying “forgive and forget.” But according to Associate Professor of Communication Carla Ross, this saying is just one of many misinterpretations of what it means to forgive.
“If you look up forgiveness in the thesaurus, you’ll see everything that forgiveness is not,” said Ross. “It’s no wonder that we are confused.”
Forgiveness is a loaded term that can be difficult to define and even harder to put into practice – which was precisely one of the reasons Ross felt compelled to embark on researching the subject.
For 10 years Ross, who has a Ph.D. in communication, has been exploring the concept of forgiveness through research and application. She has applied what she has learned through academic courses at Meredith and workshops in the community. After returning to school to earn a master’s degree in counseling, she opened a private practice. Because of her classes, students have conducted related undergraduate research projects. And, research from her sabbatical became a published paper in a book that explores the subject from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
Ross has used this knowledge to support those within the community, especially women. And with the growing awareness of the widespread incidence of sexual assault and abuse, she sees an even greater need for a better understanding of forgiveness.
What forgiveness is … and is not
Ross began her research on forgiveness when she realized as a faculty member in the field of communication that most relational communication courses end with conflict management. She felt that this was stopping short of a productive conclusion and identified forgiveness as the next step.
As further motivation, she had personally experienced the transformative effect of forgiveness.
“In my own life there was a time I was pretty mad at the world and I learned how to forgive,” said Ross. “I didn’t realize how angry I was and how many grudges I was carrying around.”
Through her work, Ross has identified several myths about forgiveness. One of the most prevalent is the assumption that forgiveness is for the offender. In fact, said Ross, forgiveness, with all of its many benefits, is for the person who is doing the forgiving rather than the person receiving the forgiveness. Further, unlike reconciliation, forgiveness is an individual endeavor. It might lead to reconciliation, which requires mutual change by both parties involved, but its power – and scope – is individual in nature.
“There is great empowerment and liberation in realizing that you can do this all by yourself,” said Ross.
Forgiveness is also not an excuse for bad behavior, and does not require that one forgets what has happened.
“When we forgive something it doesn’t take anything away from how bad it was,” said Ross. “It’s not excusing bad behavior – in fact it’s recognizing that it was horrible and wrong – but it’s saying I’m not going to let it control the rest of my life.”
The students who take Ross’s class on forgiveness and communication are among those who benefit from having greater clarity about forgiveness.
“Before taking this class I would have said that forgiveness had to involve two people. Now I have learned that forgiveness has nothing to do with your offender and whether they deserve to be forgiven; forgiveness is solely for your own benefit. It is letting yourself move on from an event that has caused you pain,” said Holly Hite, ’19.
Hite sees potential for using this knowledge long after she graduates from Meredith.
“There will always be conflicts and the need for forgiveness in relationships, and this class has better prepared me to deal with and understand these situations.”
Health benefits of forgiveness
Through her research, Ross has found that forgiving, or not forgiving, can have significant health implications.
“Repressed anger is incredibly destructive,” said Ross. “We have all kinds of health outcomes that are just killing us, from heart attacks to high blood pressure to skin disorders.”
According to Ross, intense bitterness, anger, and sadness held onto for a very long time can literally make us sick. She cited studies that have found associations between repressed anger and arthritis, and sadness with skin disorders. Other studies have found that people who were unforgiving had blood chemistry similar to those under extreme stress, and experienced migraines and severe headaches.
Conversely, practicing forgiveness has been found to support better sleep, a greater sense of peace, and less anxiety and depression.
Expanding the scope
More recently, Ross has shifted her focus to the related topic of abuse, specifically educating to help identify abuse and provide resources for safety and accountability for victims and abusers. In April she will be presenting at the Christian Association for Psychological Studies on this topic, as she has discovered that churches are frequently called on to support victims of abuse and are often ill-equipped to do so. She intends to develop a program for ministers and other professionals in the field to support education and recognition of abuse, counsel and protection for victims, and accountability for abusers.
Although much of what Ross studies has obvious significance on an interpersonal level, she sees broader societal implications. Angela Sabates, an associate professor of psychology at Bethel College who has known Ross for more than 20 years, agrees.
“Interpersonal forgiveness is associated with many positive outcomes, including a lessened likelihood of seeking retaliation. Thus, forgiveness research like that done by Dr. Ross can help us better understand how to stop the cycle of aggression that occurs in both intimate relationships as well as in larger contexts such as extremist groups.”
Sabates observed that Ross’ expanded focus on recognizing and treating abuse is critical in today’s climate.
“Recent media coverage of women’s allegations about sexual assault helps to highlight just how pervasive abuse is. Interestingly, forgiveness also plays an integral role in recovery from abuse, so these two areas of research are intricately linked. Dr. Ross’s acknowledgement of this connection is one reason her research is not only relevant, but also indispensable.”
Ten years into her research, Ross continues to be struck by how misunderstood the concept of forgiveness is. And, she said, “… because we misunderstand we don’t do it and we’re missing out. I have a daughter who is 15 years old, and of all the things I’ve learned this is probably the most powerful. If I can teach her how to forgive I know she will be all right.”