Never does the human soul appear so strong and noble as when it forgoes
revenge and dares to forgive an injury. — E.H. Chapin
Why should anyone forgive? There is no single reason, but this much is clear: harboring anger and resentment is physically, mentally, relationally and spiritually unhealthy. People who are unable to forgive themselves or others have an increased incidence of depression and act with more callousness toward others, are less happy, and have higher mortality rates. And that’s only the beginning.
Without forgiveness, anger and resentment putrefy. When we are tethered to the past, we trap ourselves in a narrow and vengeful future. Perhaps Max Lucado put it best when he said, “Hatred is the rabid dog that turns on its owner. Revenge is the raging fire that consumes the arsonist. Bitterness is the trap that snares the hunter.” Even justified anger can be every bit as self-destructive as addiction itself: both can feel good, yet are toxic.
Unfortunately, there are doubters. Consider these recent tweets:
Make no mistake, Twittersphere. Forgiveness is always best for you in any situation. And with more and more forgiveness apps cropping up on iTunes, the latest of which is “Forgive for Good” by renowned researcher Fred Luskin, you needn’t just take my word for it.
An astonishing example of the power of forgiveness can be found in the practice of burn surgeon Dabney Ewin. His patients would enter the ER “all burned up” both inside and out, writes Megan Feldman Bettencourt in her new book Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World. As they lay in agony, enraged at themselves or someone else for their wretched injuries, Ewin spoke to them more like a therapist than a doctor: “You can still pursue damages through an attorney. You’re entitled to be angry, but for now I’m asking you to abandon your entitlement and let it go, to direct your energy toward healing, and turn this over to God or nature or whoever you worship. When you know at a feeling level that you’re letting it go, raise your hand. Then I’d shut up, they’d raise their hand, and I’d know that skin graft was gonna take.”
Over many decades of treating burns, Ewin discovered that the attitude of his patients greatly impacted their healing. “With someone who’s real angry, we’d put three or four skin grafts on, but his body would reject them.” For this surgeon, helping his patients forgive was step one.
Then there’s Robert Enright, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been conducting research on forgiveness for decades. Enright found that patients with coronary artery disease who completed forgiveness therapy had better blood flow to their hearts, thereby reducing their risk of sudden death. Enright was also among the authors of a study that looked at the use of forgiveness therapy among patients in treatment for substance abuse. Those who took part in 12 twice-weekly sessions reported less depression and anxiety, an improvement in self-esteem, and reduced vulnerability to drug use than the control group.
Forgiveness is indeed for the forgiver. Research also shows that people who think about forgiving are not only happier — they are also healthier. That’s right, even thinking about forgiving helps to improve the nervous and cardiovascular systems in research subjects. Still more benefits:
So how can you learn this skill? We learn to forgive by first seeking forgiveness ourselves, though forgiving ourselves can be particularly challenging. But as we come to understand what it means to be forgiven ourselves, we can become more eager to forgive other people for their transgressions. Acknowledge your own humanity. When we appreciate that we are imperfectly perfect human beings, accepting that wrongs are part of life is easier to digest. Life is full of up and downs. Forgiveness is simply an effective coping skill for managing life on life’s terms.
To get started, choose a minor hurt or offense that you have superficially forgiven but the peace and the emotional experience of forgiveness might be eluding you. Why start with a minor hurt? If you were learning to play a musical instrument like the piano you wouldn’t try to learn the skills you need to play well by playing with the Houston Symphony. You’d learn the skills by practicing the basics. In the same way, if you choose a really difficult offense that you still need to forgive, such as physical abuse as a child or the murder of a close relative, you won’t have the bandwidth to learn and apply new skills.
Ask yourself if you are holding onto anger, a desire for revenge or resentment. Is it helpful? Is your life better as a result of allowing these anchors to the past to mire you down in unwanted emotions? If the answer is no, then remember, your life is your own creation. Where you apply your attention will make your experience. So, attend to helpful thoughts. Let go of resentments. Forgiveness is really more about our relationship with ourselves than whom or what we are forgiving. We should be our own best friends, but instead we frequently judge, shame and otherwise beat ourselves up. Accept the past, journal about it, share it with others, make sense of it, and then direct your attention to helpful things: recovery, goals, hopes, helping others, or using your strengths in meaningful ways.
Recall how strong the negativity bias is? Our brains light up more when exposed to frightening images than happy ones and we are better at recalling the facts of negative events than positive ones.
That means that even after you have forgiven, fear may try rekindling the fire of resentment from time to time. When that happens, remind yourself (aloud if necessary) that you have forgiven and you would like to move on. Repeat the forgiveness process if necessary, set your attention on meaningful, healthy goals and activities, and get busy flourishing in recovery.
Jason Powers, MD, is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehab and The Right Step network of addiction treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in recovery.