We read and hear that forgiving is something we need to do for others, and that when we forgive others it allows us to let go of feelings of anger and resentment. There are now numerous studies that show when we forgive others, the biochemistry of letting go of the negative feelings we have carried around with us has the power to transform our own health and sense of inner peace.
In the daily news, we see the most unthinkable and unimaginable events occurring. We see people who harm and kill others, parents who violate and abuse their own children, and even children that murder their own parents. For most of us it is difficult to forgive even benign insults and events in our relationships (such as a rejection or slight), let alone something of horrible tragedy. The thought that a victim of such cruel violence could let go of a grievance against another person who has perpetrated such acts seems impossible.
The Danger Of Holding A Grudge
However, what science is now demonstrating is that the simple act of “holding a grudge” against another person can create chronic long term stress with accompanying feelings of anger and frustration. This chronic emotional and physical response to a perceived hurt or insult can lead us to become sick and even develop ongoing, chronic disease states such as hypertension, asthma or digestive problems.
The use of the term “perceived insults” or wounding is intentional. This is because while there are people in the world who do unimaginably horrible things to others, much of what we experience in our lives is a perceived hurt of rejection that causes us not to forgive another.
What Is Forgiveness?
In 2000, as a result of a lecture arranged at a hospital I worked at, I had the privilege to meet Fred Luskin, PhD, founder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, and hear him present his work and research on the subject of forgiveness. Dr. Luskin is the author of the book Forgive for Good, and a world renowned researcher on the subject of forgiveness. His scientific studies demonstrate the healing power and health benefits from the process of forgiving others for either actual or perceived transgressions against ourselves, or to those we love.
Dr. Luskin was the lead researcher on a study in Ireland, which included individuals from both sides of Northern Ireland’s civil war. These individuals had all lost a loved one due to the country's civil conflict. In his groundbreaking book, Forgive for Good, he outlines what forgiveness is—and, what it is not:
“Forgiveness is for you and not the offender”
“Forgiveness is about your healing and not about the people who hurt you”
“Forgiveness is taking responsibility for how you feel”
“Forgiveness is a trainable skill – just like learning to throw a ball”
“Forgiveness is a choice”
“Forgiveness is not condoning unkindness or poor behavior”
“Forgiveness is not forgetting that something painful has happened”
“Forgiveness does not mean reconciling with the offender”
“Forgiveness does not mean giving up your feelings”
So then what does forgiveness mean? Forgiveness means being willing to find new ways to experience “justice” and to choose not to be victimized by other’s choices or actions. It can also mean experiencing an event from a different perspective, which allows us to reclaim our life even from the depths of our suffering, loss or despair.
Forgiveness has been scientifically proven to decrease depression, increase hopefulness, decrease anger, increase self-confidence, enhance relationships, decrease stress and physical symptoms of illness, decrease heart disease and increase immune function. Forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves that helps us live more peace-filled, healthier lives. There are many excellent books on the subject to assist with and facilitate the process of forgiving what seems to be the unforgiveable.