Thursday, December 20, 2012

Forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you are

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
A young lady in my interpersonal communication class asked for my advice about trying to find out who her real father was.  She felt betrayed by him from childhood when she learned she was adopted, and she wanted to find out who could deceive, desert, and disappoint at such an intense and personal level.  I remember my advice to her as if it were yesterday.  
I told her that I thought it would be best for her to go forward with her life, not spend her time in what could be a fruitless and, potentially disappointing, search.  I told her, too, that she needed to forgive her father to help free her from the negative baggage of anxiety, distress, and anger that she has carried for so many years.  Finally, I said, you know, forgiving is not forgetting.  It is, instead, having the courage, understanding, and maturity of knowing when to let go. (Whether or not she took my advice I’ll never know.)
It was Lewis B. Smedes who said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
I’m sure you know people who nurse grudges and keep track of every slight.  Persistent unforgiveness is part of human nature.  To forgive goes against a natural human tendency to seek revenge and the redress of justice.
The problem with unforgiveness is in the number of ways it works against our well being.  Because of this, it is the subject of one of the hottest fields of research in clinical psychology.  Before 1999, a search of the literature found only 50 studies even remotely related to the subject; now there are more than 4,500 published studies, and it has its own foundation—A Campaign for Forgiveness Research—where scientists are studying the way forgiveness works in individuals and among families and nations.  One study, for example, is entitled “The Role of Forgiveness in Divorce Prevention,” while another is called “The Study of Forgiveness with Victims and Offenders.”
There are mental, physical, and spiritual difficulties that unforgiveness has the potential of causing.  Regarding mental health, Frederic Luskin, in Stanford Medicine (Vol. 16, Number 4, Summer 1999), reports that when the research over the past 10 years is taken together, “the work so far demonstrates the power of forgiveness to heal emotional wounds.”
“What is intriguing about this research,” Luskin continues, “is that even people who are not depressed or particularly anxious can obtain the improved emotional and psychological functioning that comes from learning to forgive.  This suggests that forgiveness may enable people who are functioning adequately to feel even better.”
Think of each of us as viewing the world through a very tiny, self-created lens.  Negative thoughts can have a direct effect on how we construct and maintain that lens, especially if the negative thoughts have grown into a poison.  By keeping negative thoughts with regard to someone, you are in fact ensuring that your body receives a regular supply of the poisons associated with those negative thoughts—since every thought results in the production of  chemicals in the brain.
If the supply of poisons associated with those negative thoughts continues long enough, the effects will manifest themselves at the physical level.  Unforgiveness is like carrying a live coal in your heart—far more damaging to yourself than to others.
Physically, research suggests that forgiveness reduces the stress of the state of unforgiveness.  The poisons referred to above include a potent mixture of the chemicals associated with bitterness, anger, hostility, hatred, resentment, and the fear of being hurt or humiliated.
These, of course, have specific physiologic consequences such as increased blood pressure and hormonal changes that are linked to cardiovascular disease, immune suppression and, possibly, impaired neurological function and memory.  Everett Worthington, executive director of A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, states that “Every time you feel unforgiveness, you are more likely to develop a health problem.”
“One study of students,” reported by Herb Denenberg in an online article entitled “The Importance of Forgiveness in Preventing Disease and Preserving Health” (Nov. 22, 2005), “found that even focusing on a personal grudge drove up blood pressure.  When the same students imagined they had forgiven the grudge, blood pressure levels returned to normal.”
Studies from the Mayo Clinic found that where forgiveness is taught, emotional and physical well-being improved.  Another study found that the less forgiving had more health problems.
The International Forgiveness Institute recommends a four-phase plan for achieving forgiveness.  First, recognize the situation and acknowledge your pain.  Second, commit yourself to forgiveness.  Third, find a new way to think about the person who hurt you, perhaps employing meditation or prayer.  Fourth, start to realize the relief brought about by forgiveness.  
The four steps underscore what Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, a Harvard psychiatrist, writes in his book, Dare to Forgive.  He writes that forgiveness is a choice, that it is a process, that it has to be cultivated, and because it goes against a natural human tendency to seek revenge and the redress of injustice, that it may require the help of friends, a therapist, or prayer.
And this leads to the spiritual difficulties of unforgiveness.  The power and importance of forgiveness is central to every religion.  When you forgive, there are no seeds of an unforgiving spirit planted in your heart.  When you respond with unforgiveness, then you have a seed in your heart that slowly but surely develops into a root of bitterness.  These roots can spread through your whole spiritual being and infect your entire spiritual life.  In Hebrews 12:15 (NASB) it says, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.”

Not forgiving someone whom you have a reason to hate is certainly not easy.  It could probably be argued that it is one of the most difficult things to do in your life.  But, considering the potentially negative mental, physical, and spiritual effects of unforgiveness, and the predictive improved health and well-being that depend on forgiveness, sometimes the choice is staring you right in the face.
Bernard Meltzer said, “When you forgive, you in no way change the past, but you sure do change the future.”  While unforgiveness makes you smaller, forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were. 
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The essay at Celebrate Love “Forgiveness . . . What’s it for?” is a lengthy but worthwhile essay with many people responding to it.

Karen Houppert has a terrific 5-page essay “The Truth About Forgiveness” (Sunday, March 22, 2009) at The Washington Post website.
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Copyright December, 2012, by And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.


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