Transformative forgivenessBy Rafael Castillo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
A week after Holy Week, it would be an opportune time to talk about forgiveness. It is one of the positive emotions that can help give one, not only peace of mind, but also good health. It can have such a transformative effect that when collectively done, it can be healthy for the nation as well.
There are no large clinical trials to establish the health benefits of forgiveness, but a number of small studies have demonstrated that it can decrease anxiety, depression and grief, anger and negative thoughts, and vulnerability to substance abuse like smoking, alcohol and drugs.
Time and again, we encounter patients complaining of all sorts of symptoms such as high blood pressure, palpitations, upset stomach, appetite problems, insomnia and other sleep disturbances, irritability and mood swings, either loss or excessive gain in weight, and various symptomatic complaints that the physician can’t localize to any specific organ of the body.
When labs are done, the results are usually unremarkable, with probably a few minor abnormalities which are not significant enough to cause all the symptoms the patient is complaining of. In most of these patients, there is an underlying emotional problem like long-standing grudges.
In a clinical study conducted by Prof. Charlotte Vanoyen Witvliet, investigators have noted that heart rates and blood pressures were 2 and a half times higher when participants held grudges and did not forgive the object of their grudges. When asked to focus on their grudges and the persons involved, the participants were observed to sweat more with heart rates and blood pressures rising, too. All other parameters showed that their nervous system was on edge. On the other hand, participants who said they had forgiven whoever wronged them felt more calm and in control, based on the observation of the researchers.
Several other studies—including those in young college students and old retirees—have validated these adverse stress responses caused by hurtful memories and an unforgiving feeling. When subjects were encouraged and taught to learn thinking forgiving thoughts, the stress response was diminished, and the study participants consistently felt much better.
Emotional distress, which unforgiveness is likely to produce, can produce toxic substances—called inflammatory hormones—that can cause harm and injury practically to all organs including the brain, heart, stomach and kidneys. The mere act of forgiveness markedly relieves this.
Prof. Frederic Luskin, a Stanford psychologist, studied the healing effects of forgiveness, and he has defined it as “the moment to moment experience of peace and understanding that occurs when an injured party’s suffering is reduced by the process of transforming a grievance they have held against an offending party.”
He clarifies that forgiveness does not mean forgetting abruptly. It also does not mean pardoning, condoning or giving the impression that the offensive behavior is acceptable. It does not entail forcing oneself to simply forgive. One must accept and acknowledge whatever negative emotions one feels, and figuratively let them go for true forgiveness to happen and its healing effects experienced.
Forgiveness is basically an internal process that is solely dependent on the one giving it, and not on any other person. It is a gift one gives the offender, and does not require acceptance of the act by the other party. Psychotherapists say that it is more a gift to the one who gives it than to the one it is given to. Unforgiving bitterness only results to more serious negative impact, not only on the mental health of the one who harbors it but even on their physical health. A more depressed immune system has been observed in these individuals making them more prone to cancers, infectious and other diseases.
Liberating to the soul
When one talks of liberating emotions, forgiveness tops the list. It can truly be so liberating to the soul. It does not mean that sins or vicious crimes should be forgiven and forgotten. The offender(s) should still be made to pay for their offenses. The aggrieved persons should however make the decision to move forward, and let go of the hurting feelings and emotions. Forgiveness releases all the negative emotions associated with not forgiving. When one does not forgive and continues to hold onto the pain of an injustice done, one allows the past injustice to continue to hurt him or her.
We should practice forgiving not only individually but also collectively as a nation. A true national transformation can only be possible by forgiving and praying for our leaders, giving them the benefit of doubt sometimes. Endlessly criticizing them will only pull us down further as a nation. We can still be national activists for social issues but we can strengthen our desire to pave the way for positively meaningful changes to happen in our national government with an attitude of transformative forgiveness. When we shall have attained this, we’re ready to assume our role as a leading nation in this part of the world.
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