In October just over three years ago, delivery driver Charles Carl Roberts IV backed his truck up to the porch of a little one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. As you may remember from the news reports, Roberts then unloaded from the back of the truck the supplies he had carefully stockpiled for his mission: nails, wrenches, earplugs, ropes, chains, clamps, a change of clothes and plastic ties. He also carried in a shotgun and an automatic pistol, ammunition for the guns and two tubes of lubricant.

Russell Collins

Russell Collins

When the ordeal was over less than an hour later, Roberts was dead by his own gun. Five grade-school girls also had been shot dead or mortally wounded — execution style — and five more were in critical condition. Roberts’ explanation for the massacre — given to the girls before he began shooting — was, “I am angry at God, and I have to punish some Christian girls to get even with him.” Roberts’ own little girl had died at birth nine years before, and now the 10 children he had tied up and lined up against the blackboard were going to pay the price.

This is a story about — almost unbelievably — forgiveness.

To help illustrate the point, I have an exercise for you. Think about this: While it’s not entirely clear what was going on in Roberts’ mind that day (many have tried to figure this out), if we take him at his word, his motive was some kind of payback for his suffering. To even the score, it was necessary that 10 or so blameless girls suffer terribly at his hands, and that others — the girls’ families — suffer, too. Roberts planned suicide to escape further suffering for himself, but as he made his exit, he intended to inflict a lifetime of agony on the five surviving girls and the innocent families who would be grieving their dead children.

Now do a mental scan of your body and mind. What do you feel right now? Tension? Anger? Sorrow? Fear? A slight sickness or depression that the world could contain such a monster? (That last one is what comes up in me.)

Now think about this: Roberts seemed to be disoriented and haunted by demons that day. Several times he seemed to be about to abandon the plan, almost walking out of the room at one point. In a suicide letter to his wife, he spoke of his hatred toward himself and an “unimaginable emptiness.” Clearly, something had gone terribly wrong inside this man, and he lived in a world of inconceivable confusion and pain.

Now scan again. Is there any part of you — however tiny — that connects with this man’s suffering? Is there any part of you that could consider forgiveness?

Your answer may depend to some extent on your background — attitudes toward forgiveness vary widely among cultures. But your reaction may also say something about your levels of happiness, satisfaction in life, your capacity for healthy relationships, your ability to compromise in situations of conflict — even your physical health and well-being. For the past 15 years or so, forgiveness has become the subject of serious academic research. And what the science is telling us is that both the act and the personality trait of forgiveness can be good for you.

“The fledgling field of scientific research in forgiveness studies is transforming our understanding of forgiveness,” writes Virginia Commonwealth University professor Everett Worthington, probably the leading forgiveness researcher in the country today. “People forgave others for centuries. Peacemakers, religious leaders and helpful friends advocated forgiveness. But we did not know the social, personality and developmental processes underlying forgiveness and nonforgiveness.”

Nonforgiveness? This is one of Worthington’s key distinctions, the act of mentally or emotionally holding onto the transgression against you. Nonforgiveness is important because it is physiologically measurable as a stress reaction that produces effects in your nervous and endocrine systems. Replacing nonforgiveness with emotions of forgiveness can change, not just subjective feelings of well-being, but objective indications of health as well.

This is a powerful idea for people going through stressful times in their relationships. Forgiveness can transform a relationship, of course. But forgiveness has many flavors, and sometimes the flavor of a pardon or free pass makes it feel too wrong or at least too risky to grant, given the nature of the offense. An affair can be loaded with this significance for the betrayed partner: “I can’t forgive him. … I won’t. He needs to suffer, too.” Or: “I’m not going to let her off the hook. She’ll just hurt me again.”

What I like about Worthington’s definition of forgiveness is that he thinks of it most importantly as an inner state — a kind of grace — rather than a communication of reconciliation to the offender. It’s for the benefit of the aggrieved party, in other words.

Of course, domestic relationships are one thing. The desirability of forgiveness becomes a more complicated issue when you combine it with the need for justice. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel prayed at Auschwitz for God to never forgive those who built the camp, “the killers of children.” Vigilance is the guardian against the recurrence of injustice, from this point of view, and vigilance may be another term for Worthington’s nonforgiveness.

The massacre of the little schoolgirls at Nickel Mines may strike a similar chord: unfathomable evil perpetrated upon unprotected innocents. If you didn’t recognize the story of Roberts, it’s either because you don’t read the news much (it was everywhere) or because I didn’t include the part that made it a worldwide media event: The child victims were members of an Amish community, who almost immediately forgave Roberts, and even turned out at his funeral to comfort the family he left behind. How could this be? And how does one reconcile the forgiveness with the heinousness of the crime?

Worthington takes on this issue in a new book, A Just Forgiveness: Responsible Healing Without Excusing Injustice. I put the question to him in an e-mail.

“When terrible injustices occur, like the Nickel Mines massacre, forgiveness seems very hard,” he wrote back. “We feel a huge injustice, and the bigger the injustice, the harder it is to forgive. But many people can forgive, through cultural and religious groups (like the Amish) or just because they don’t want to carry the weight of unforgiveness on top of the grief they are already feeling.”

Forgiveness as a kind of healing for the self, in other words.

My own interest in forgiveness has been whetted by the powerful (though rare) effects it produces when it can be woven into the fabric of a mediated settlement. People often come to mediation with a huge imbalance in power and knowledge. An uneducated wife who’s been kept out of the couple’s finances, say. Or a depressed beaten-down husband who has just lost the will to fight. This represents a dilemma for me as their mediator, because justice and reconciliation are at odds. These people may need their sense of outrage to power them through the conflict. Having been dominated in the relationship, their desire to “let bygones be bygones” may merely be a way to avoid standing up for themselves now.

On the other hand, every successful mediation has both people giving up something they believe is rightfully theirs. And the couple’s successful future relationship, especially if they are parents, depends on their ability to forgive or let go of their feelings of victimization. The mom who stands in the supermarket six years later complaining bitterly to you about her ex, or your tennis partner who still has the cutting description of his ex-wife long after the divorce — these are the people who suffer greatly because they haven’t yet developed the capacity to forgive. Their lives will be better — I’m sure of this — as they learn to forgive.

Worthington has described his own journey to forgiveness after his mother was brutally raped and murdered during a robbery. He told me that forgiveness can be granted without letting go of the demand for justice. I’m not sure I could make that subtle distinction if it were my mother, to be sure. But I’m glad to know there are researchers and scientists such as Worthington struggling to advance our understanding of such complex human processes as forgiveness, so that future generations can move beyond the impasses that keep us locked in conflict — between individuals, cultures or countries — in a quest for a better world.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.