We cannot really control our emotions, and anger is an emotional response. We feel what we feel. However, we can control our actions and reactions. When I heard the words of Donald Trump saying that some of the alt-right were good people, I was furious. I was still fuming until I walked into our elevator. There I ran into a deeply religious Haitian woman. As I started to vent, she turned to face me directly. Then she pointed at me and said, “Don’t you say a word about Mr. Trump. Put him out of your mind. He will get what’s coming to him. Do not let him take your peace.”
She had a point. But were her words enough? In my mind I began to think about the research on the damage that anger does to our bodies. And then I thought of colleagues at Yale who have deemed the president to be mentally unfit to serve, and I felt some sense of pity. (See "Shrinks Define the Dangers of Trump’s Presidency.") As I thought about my neighbor's words, I said to myself, “If this man is mentally unfit to govern, then he should be pitied and also be forgiven."
Our reaction to anger can harm us
Often when we are angry, we simply lash out at the other person. And when it’s our elected leader, we can lash out only on Twitter or Facebook. It may alleviate some of the tension we feel. And we know we can take action at the voting booths.
But what happens when someone close to us, a friend even, comes and says to us, “I do agree with Trump about a few things. Why are we taking down monuments?” Is it better to say what is on our minds, and possibly lose a friend, or ignore the situation?
When angry, I remind myself of interviews I have had with Redford Williams, M.D., director of The Behavioral Medical Research Center at Duke University. Through his research he determined:
“People who are angry, bitter, hold onto grudges, cannot let go of the past will find that such hostility is a predictor of heart attacks.” (Anger Kills: 17 Strategies for Controlling Hostility that Can Harm Your Health.)
According to Karen Swartz, M.D., clinical programs director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, "If someone is stuck in an angry state, what they’re essentially doing is being in a state of adrenaline. And some of the negative health consequences of not forgiving or being stuck there are high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, not having a good immune response...“
Although her advice pertained to individuals who are feeling angry, it is possible to follow her suggestions during this stressful time in our history.
The forgiveness factor
How can we change our thoughts after a United States president says there were some good people walking among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who created such havoc in Charlottesville? This might be where forgiveness comes in. Religious leaders have long told us about the value of forgiveness. But researchers are beginning to confirm the wisdom of our grandmothers who often quoted Ephesians 4:32, "Forgive and you shall be forgiven."
Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, Fred Luskin, Ph.D., says that "forgiveness boils down to a simple choice: whether to dwell over past hurts or try to see the good in others." (His video, The Choice to Forgive, is available at the website of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.)
An example of loving-kindness
In the midst of our outrage, Barack Obama quoted Nelson Mandela, the man who was not afraid to declare that apartheid in South Africa was wrong. He served as leader from 1994 to 1999 after being imprisoned for many years. We should aspire to his wisdom. This is what Obama tweeted in what has become the most-liked tweet in history.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion …"
The rest of that quote is from Mandela's The Long Walk to Freedom: ”People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
If we can embrace these words, then perhaps we can take pity on and forgive a president who appears to have missed the class on leading with integrity.
Copyright 2017 Rita Watson
Swartz, Karen, MD, The Healing Power of Forgiveness, July 8, 2014, "A Johns Hopkins psychiatrist on how letting go of grudges is good for your health." JohnsHopkins.org