Debbie Crandall isn't sure how to define forgiveness, but experts who study it would say she embodied its spirit on a recent March day in court.
That's when Crandall, her husband, Karl Fleischman, and their agender teen, Luke "Sasha" Fleischman, came face to face with the family of Richard Thomas, the 16-year-old accused of setting Sasha's skirt on fire on an AC Transit bus in Oakland. Sasha still bears scars on both legs after suffering second- and third-degree burns in the Nov. 4 attack, which became a national news story.
But the assault's painful memories temporarily receded during those moments before the court hearing when Thomas' mother approached Sasha's family and said, "I'm so sorry."
"There were 10 or more people from the family, and they all came up to us and gave us hugs," Crandall said. "It didn't feel forced, like they were trying to get something. It just felt very genuine."
Sasha's mother said she was glad to return the hugs and to tell Thomas' mom she was sorry about her situation, too, empathetic to her plight as the mother of a son who is in jail, facing adult charges of mayhem, assault and hate crimes.
"It was a healing experience for all of us," Crandall says.
It's that kind of positive encounter that underlines what experts say is the healing power of forgiveness -- especially for those who have been wronged.
Since the early 2000s, an explosion of studies in social science journals have chronicled the potential health and psychological benefits of letting go of anger and the need to settle scores with those who have caused us harm. Once mostly considered a religious virtue, forgiveness gained widespread attention through restorative justice programs efforts in African nations recovering from war and political conflicts. Forgiveness training, which has been linked to reduced trauma among 1994 Rwandan genocide victims, also formed the basis for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995 by then-President Nelson Mandela to allow perpetrators to come clean about apartheid-era political crimes and ask for forgiveness.
Another Bay Area case of forgiveness received national attention last month when the documentary "Facing Fear," by Berkeley filmmaker Jason Cohen, was nominated for an Oscar. The film told the story of Matthew Boger, formerly of Newark, who went through the long and painful process of forgiving one of the neo-Nazi skinheads who savagely beat him decades ago when he was a 13-year-old hustling in Hollywood.
While those cases are dramatic, they have something to teach us about how forgiveness also can improve relationships with family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors.
"Now it's entered into the daily discussion of psychology, spirituality and emotional well-being," says Frederic Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. "It's become immediate and practical to people in a way that it wasn't before."
For a long time, we've lived in a society that encourages wronged people to resort to anger, blame and a "self-righteous aggression," Luskin explains. No doubt, anger is a justified, normal human response to different kinds of outrages. Still, holding a grudge carries downsides -- both for individuals and for society.
"We live in a culture that's stressed and angry," Luskin says.
Jason Marsh, the editor of the magazine for UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, concurs.
"A core message from the research is that it's relatively easy for us, after suffering any kind of hurt or betrayal, to be defined by anger and to ruminate on past offenses," he says. "But devoting a large amount of mental energy to that kind of thinking takes an enormous toll."
This toll includes stress, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease and impaired immune function, writes Everett L. Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the world's leading scholars on forgiveness research.
Conversely, forgiveness promises a host of benefits. Forgiving types tend to be more optimistic, energetic and compassionate, Luskin says.
A study by the University of Miami found that college students who forgave boyfriends or girlfriends felt much better about the relationships, which in turn made them happier. In addition, most of the time, spouses who are less vindictive are better at resolving conflicts, according to University of Tennessee researchers.
As Crandall suggested, forgiveness has no hard and fast definition. It's also not appropriate for all people or situations, experts say.
The Greater Good Science Center, which is affiliated with UC Berkeley's psychology department and promotes research into forgiveness and other practices thought to promote social and emotional well-being, sums it up as "the conscious and deliberate decision" to let go of resentments and the need for vengeance. That doesn't mean condoning or excusing offenses. Advocates reject the adage that to forgive means to "forget." They add you don't have to reconcile with the person who has hurt you. In some cases, that's not possible -- when the person denies responsibility or isn't available, as in the case of a parent who has died.
Luskin's definition -- "Giving up all hope of a better past" -- reflects his belief that forgiveness mostly is "for you," not the person who has hurt you and not anyone else.
"The essence of forgiveness is being resilient when things do not go the way we want -- to be at peace with 'no,' to be at peace with the vulnerability inherent in human life," he says.
He recalls a student, Delores, who was devastated by her fiance's betrayal. At first, Delores couldn't stop talking about his lousy behavior and blaming him for how much she disliked herself. She was reluctant to forgive her fiance, because she didn't want to seem weak.
Over time, Dolores realized that she didn't have to forget her fiance's betrayal or condone it. However, she had to accept that he wasn't going to change and decide that she didn't want that kind of misery in her life. When Delores gave up her "hope of a better past," she was able to move on, Luskin says.
As for Crandall, she doesn't hold herself up as a model of forgiveness and says she could have easily become angry and focused on seeing Thomas punished -- especially if Sasha's injuries had been more serious or if the assailant had been an acquaintance with malicious intent. Instead, Crandall and her husband viewed Thomas' act as a stupid prank by a misguided, possibly troubled kid. Crandall especially felt bad for Thomas' mother. For these reasons, anger never came into play, for which Crandall is grateful.
Meanwhile, Sasha, a student at Maybeck High School, has been focusing on enjoying senior year with friends and looking forward to the future. Sasha is weighing offers from MIT and Reed College.
As for the attack, Crandall notes: "I don't think Sasha thinks about it much."
You've been hurt, but you don't want to continue to feel bad. Forgiving this person is one way to move on. Frederic Luskin, author, psychologist and director of Stanford University's Forgiveness Projects, breaks forgiveness down into nine steps. Here's a summary: