The Christmas gift of forgiveness
IT’S A DAY after Christmas. After all the get-togethers, giving and receiving of gifts, recalling of good old days and rekindling of relationships, it’s good to take a pause before we get busy again for the New Year’s Eve celebrations and be thankful for all the blessings we have received this year and the past many years.
It’s also good for us to think of the people who might have wronged us, or have said something unfair about us; and sincerely forgive them and release whatever resentment we have been keeping in our hearts. We can always forgive the person but still make them accountable for what they have done.
Leads to win-win situation
Forgiving leads to a win-win situation. But, the act of forgiving benefits more the one who forgives than the one who is forgiven. Anger and hatred are two of the most potent negative emotions, which can wreak havoc in our body and cause a lot of physical, mental and emotional illnesses. If we may paraphrase God’s beatitudes: Blessed are the meek, humble and those with a forgiving heart for they shall have true happiness, peace of mind and a sense of serenity that will open the doors for more blessings. Indeed, they will inherit the earth.
From time to time, we encounter patients complaining of all sorts of symptoms, which couldn’t be localized to any specific organ or system of the body. They have a hodge podge of multiple, seemingly unrelated complaints like high blood pressure, stomach upset, weakness and easy fatigability, irregular bowel movement, muscle twitches and insomnia.
We had an elderly patient several years ago with similar complaints. After doing the labs, everything was within normal range. “You’re probably just missing your work,” I told him. I recall he had similar symptoms several years back whenever he was under severe stress due to his work as a prominent government official. “You can’t be under stress now that you’re retired.” He was shaking his head as I said this, and he opened up.
He doesn’t know what he has done to deserve what her daughter, who is his only child, has done to him. He has been supporting his daughter, who is a single mother, all these years. And apparently she’s been used to living the good life. After he retired, he could no longer sustain her lifestyle and she has become very disrespectful. I could feel the anger as he spoke, the fuming rage that has been eating him up emotionally and physically.
This is not an isolated case. The average medical practitioner sees similar cases over and over again in one’s practice. Negative emotions such as anger, bitterness, resentment and unforgiveness can really cause havoc, not only in one’s nerves, but one’s entire body and being.
In a clinical study conducted by Prof. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, investigators have noted that heart rates and blood pressures were two-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 their 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.
Adverse stress responses
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 think 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. In fact, 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 a gift one gives the offender, but 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 but even on the physical health of the one who harbors it. A more depressed immune system has been observed in these individuals, making them more prone to cancers, and infectious and other diseases.
It’s easier said than done, but forgiveness can 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 hurt 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.
Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” So every time we forgive, we already experience a little bit of heaven on earth, and what a heavenly feeling that can give us.
That can also be the best Christmas and New Year’s gift we can ever give ourselves.
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