Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?
In a 2015 article in Scientific American, it was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.
These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?
Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?
This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?
Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):
- Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above.
- At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
- Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
- At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.
- After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.
- Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
- Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.
When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.
My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.
Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study.
One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title, “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges.” Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?
Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overuse. Psychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagers. Anxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.
What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation.
Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?
Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
A final point is this: Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.
Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.
“Introducing Forgiveness Counseling to the Schools”
If you do an electronic search for anti-bullying programs, you will see three prominent approaches, the 3 P’s:
- Peer mediation
- Persistent norms. (This is a “no-bully zone;” we do not tolerate bullying in this school)
What makes people so angry that they:
a) retain the anger for a long time, sometimes years;
b) find no solution to that anger; and,
c) give the never-say-die anger to others?
We find that unfair treatment from other people is the source of so much anger in this world (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). Anger as a source of inner disruption in the form of anxiety, low-self esteem, and pessimism all too often goes unrecognized. After all, if a person with high anxiety comes to a mental health professional, it is natural to focus on the presenting symptom. Yet, our research and the clinical work connected to it suggest that toxic anger, the kind that is deep and long-lasting, often is at the heart of many psychological symptoms for those who have a history of being treated unfairly.
Forgiveness therapy, as an empirically-verified treatment, reduces and even eliminates the toxic anger (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). This is a paradoxical psychotherapy. As the client discussed the unfair behaviors coming from others, the treatment focus shifts from the client’s symptoms to an exploration of who the offending person is, what emotional wounds this person has, the vulnerabilities and doubts and fears that person brought to the painful interactions with the client.
As the client realizes that to forgive is not to excuse or forget or abandon the quest for justice or necessarily even reconcile with the other, then forgiveness therapy can proceed without distortion of what, exactly, it means to forgive. To forgive is to offer goodness to those who have not been good to the client. It is the offering of a virtue that has been around for thousands of years across many philosophies and religions and worldviews. To forgive offers the client a way to eliminate resentment by offering goodness…and it works (see, for example, Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004).
When a student in school begins to aggress onto others, those who use the lens of forgiveness therapy start to ask these questions:
- Does the one showing the bullying behavior seem to be particularly angry?
- What is the source of this anger? Might it be unfair treatment from others in the past, perhaps at home or in school or in the peer group?
- Might this student be in pain, which emerged from the injustice, and might that pain now have turned to a toxic anger?
- Might this student be willing to examine who perpetrated the injustice and the subsequent hurt and ask, “Can I forgive this person (or persons) for what they did to me?”
School counselors now have a resource for taking this kind of therapy directly to those who bully (Enright, 2012). Rather than focus on the symptoms of aggression, disobedience to school expectations, or even the student’s own anger, the treatment shifts: Who hurt you? Is this person hurting and vulnerable and confused? Do you know what forgiveness is and is not? Would you be interested in trying to forgive the one who caused you so much pain? This kind of therapy can take up to 12 or more weeks, but that is the blink-of-an-eye relative to anger that can last for years.
As the student’s pain subsides by seeing the inherent worth in the one who was cruel and by fostering compassion toward that person (not because of what was done but instead because of whom the other is as a person), so too does the anger within the one who bullies start to fade, and this takes away the incentive to bully. The focus is not on the symptoms exclusively any more, nor is it on only creating school norms (which are all too easily ignored by those who bully when they are nurturing a rage inside).
To reduce bullying, we need to see the anger inside those who bully and have a plan to reduce it. Forgiveness therapy, as empirically shown, already has done its job. Now it is time to transport such therapy from the clinician’s office into the school setting for the good of those who bully and for the good of those who are the unwitting recipients of their pain.
Posted in Psychology Today December 17, 2016
- Enright, R.D. (2012). Anti-bullying forgiveness program: Reducing the fury within those who bully. Madison, WI: International Forgiveness Institute.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Gambaro, M.E., Enright,R.D., Baskin, T.A., & Klatt, J. (2008). Can school-based forgiveness counseling improve conduct and academic achievement in academically at-risk adolescents? Journal of Research in Education, 18, 16-27.
- Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.
- Park, J.H., Enright, R.D., Essex, M.J., Zahn-Waxler, C., & Klatt, J.S. (2013). Forgiveness intervention for female South Korean adolescent aggressive victims. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 20, 393-402.
- Reed, G. & Enright, R.D. (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 920-929.
Think about the love that one person has given to you some time in your life. That love is eternal. Love never dies.
If your mother gave you love 20 years ago, that love is still here and you can appropriate it, experience it, feel it. If you think about it, the love that your deceased family members gave to you years ago is still right here with you. Even though they passed on in a physical sense, they have left something of the eternal with you, to draw upon whenever you wish.
Now think about the love you have given to others. That love is eternal. Your love never dies. Your actions have consequences for love that will be on this earth long after you are gone. If you hug a child today, that love, expressed in that hug, can be with that child 50 years from now. Something of you remains here on earth, something good.
Children should be prepared for this kind of thinking through forgiveness education, where they learn that all people have built-in or inherent worth. One expression of forgiveness, one of its highest expressions, is to love those who have not loved us. If we educate children in this way, then they may take the idea more seriously that the love given and received can continue……and continue. It may help them to take more seriously such giving and receiving of love.
We need forgiveness education……now.
Suppose that over time, a culture began to see forgiveness as simply moving on with a sense of tolerance. Have the people in that culture then changed what forgiveness is? After all, the current thinking in psychology and philosophy is that forgiveness is a moral virtue of goodness toward those who have been unjust.
I think it is impossible to alter the essence of forgiveness, no matter what happens in a particular culture or in a particular historical moment. We could, I suppose, see forgiveness as a relative concept, flexible in its meaning depending on the consensus of a group at a certain point in time, but that would be to invite error.
Here is what I mean: To label forgiveness as “moving on with a sense of tolerance” will mean that forgiveness is now equated with other terms, such as acquiescence and, as part of this definition, tolerance. Yet, forgiveness never gives in or acquiesces to wrong doing, but instead labels the wrong as wrong. Forgiveness never tolerates injustice but instead labels the injustice as unjust.
When it appears that a given group is defining forgiveness in an odd way, ask yourself this question: What else might this definition represent other than forgiveness? If you come up with a sound answer, then I urge you to stand firm in the truth of what forgiveness is, despite protests and even ad hominem attacks on you as a person.
Forgiveness is what it has been, what it is currently, and what it will be long after each one of us reading this post is gone from this world.
I recently read an article by an abused person who seemed angry at forgiveness itself. The person talked of a cultural demand for forgiving an abusive person. This put pressure on the one abused. The culture of forgiving, as it was called, seemed to create a sense of superiority in those who forgive in contrast to those who refuse to forgive. Further, the person seemed angry because this cultural demand for forgiving was creating a sense of entitlement for the abuser, an entitlement that forgiveness be granted.
My heart goes out to this person who now must live with a horrible action perpetrated. No one deserves this.
At the same time, forgiveness itself deserves accuracy. If forgiveness is to be criticized, it is my fervent hope that the criticism comes from a place of truth about forgiveness’s flaws, and not from a position of error.
I think there are errors in the criticism of forgiveness which I would like to correct here and I do not want to be misunderstood. By this essay, I am not saying that the person should forgive. I am not saying that this person is inferior. I am saying that forgiveness should not be dishonored because someone does not want to avail themselves of that forgiveness.
So, please allow me three points:
1. People who forgive rarely feel superior based on my own experience talking with those who have forgiven. The path of forgiveness is strewn with struggle and tears. After walking such a path, a person can feel relief, but it is difficult to feel superior as the person wipes off the emotional stress and strain from that journey. If a person happens to feel superior, this is not the fault of forgiveness itself. Forgiveness itself is innocent.
2. Anyone who demands that others forgive is creating the pressure. It is not forgiveness itself that is creating it. Forgiveness is seen in philosophy as a supererogatory virtue, not demanded, but given if and only if the person wishes to do so. A supererogatory virtue does not make demands, even if people do demand.
3. Some who perpetrate injustice do play the forgiveness card and tell the victim that without forgiving, then the victim is a hypocrite. “Sure, you talk of forgiveness, but then you do not forgive me,” the story goes. This is a power-play by the one who perpetrated the injustice and should be recognized as such. Again, as in points 1 and 2, the fault is with particular people, in this case those who act unjustly. It is not the fault of forgiveness itself.
Forgiveness can be given a black eye by people, those who misunderstand. My client, forgiveness, is innocent and I ask the court to dismiss the charges against it.