The story is told of two brothers who often got into disputes. Each time there was a fight between the brothers, they would go down to the river to record the details of the fight: who started it, who said or did what, and why the other was wrong. Most likely, each demanded an apology from the other. Though the brothers always diligently recorded the details of their fights, the manner in which they recorded those details was remarkably different.
The first brother was a stone crafter. Utilizing his best tools, he used his great stone-crafting skills to carve the details on the rocks and stones to ensure that his brother would not get away with his misdeeds. After all, he wanted to expose his brother’s callous behavior and publicly demonstrate how disappointed he was with his brother. The details would be forever visibly etched in stone for all to see so that, in the future, no one would ever doubt who was right.
But when the second brother went to the river, he knelt in the soft, muddy brown sand and began to write everything his brother had done to him. His only hope was that the water would wash away his brother’s faults, make them disappear, bury them in the river, and that he would remember them no more.
These two brothers were faced with a choice of how to respond to his brother’s misdeeds. One chose to make a public display of their disagreement, expose the wrongdoer, and hang on to his hurt, while the other chose to forgive and move on, not allowing himself to seethe in anger for the rest of his life. This parable dramatically illustrates a principle that has lately received a great deal of attention in the scientific world: forgiveness is a choice.
What Is Forgiveness?
“Forgiveness is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings, whether the person deserves it or not,” says Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. “You are choosing to offer compassion and empathy to the person who wronged you.”
So why is it important to forgive when someone wrongs us? According to the Fetzer Institute’s Conversations About Forgiveness (p. 5), “Forgiveness is an opportunity for transformation, both individually and collectively. It not only helps relieve mental and emotional anguish, but it offers the possibility for change, for redemption, for restoration—for hope and even love to blossom from pain and suffering. It can stop a cycle of hurt and create opportunity where there seemed to be none.”
The Science of Forgiveness
A number of scientific studies indicate that forgiveness can have powerful mental and physical benefits, including lowered risk of heart attack, improved cholesterol levels and blood pressure, better sleep, reduced pain, and enhanced mental health (less anxiety, depression, anger, stress, and hostility).
In a study by Loren Toussaint, Ph.D., published in 2016 in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers observed participants for five weeks, monitoring the ebb and flow of their forgiveness. Their findings revealed that as levels of forgiveness rose, participants’ stress levels declined, as did negative mental health symptoms.
Research from a Hope College study found that holding on to a grudge resulted in higher physiological activity—evidenced by facial muscle tension, heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating. And a study on married couples published in the Journal of Personal Relationships found that in instances of marital discord, when a person forgave their spouse, both of them experienced a drop in blood pressure.
Dick Tibbits, forgiveness researcher and author of Forgive to Live: How Forgiveness Can Save Your Life, says that holding on to grudges can lead to dangerous emotions. “When you refuse to forgive (or don’t know the proper way to forgive), your grievance story produces a complex range of emotions consisting of resentment, bitterness, hatred, hostility, residual anger, and fear.”
And according to Tibbits, that resulting built-up anger can be life-threatening. Anger is “a strong emotion of displeasure brought on by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness,” says Tibbits. When anger becomes chronic, it puts us in a fight-or-flight mode, which adversely affects blood pressure and heart rate.
How to Forgive
Forgiveness is undeniably good for your health, but the act of forgiving is often easier said than done. It may not feel natural at first; that’s why it’s important to know the process—how to really let go and be set free from your grudges. These steps will help:
1. Choose to forgive—even if it’s only half-hearted. “Before you can begin to enjoy any of the profound benefits of forgiveness, you must choose to forgive,” says Tibbits. “This decision, however halfhearted it may initially be, is key to taking your first step toward freedom.”
2. Reflect and remember. It may come as a surprise that forgetting the offense is not a requirement for forgiving. Swartz says that remembering the events, how you reacted, how you felt, and how the anger and hurt have affected you can be a healthy aspect of the forgiving process. Conversations About Forgiveness explains it this way: “Denying or ignoring our experience inhibits our ability to move beyond the pain itself.”
3. Empathize with the other person. University of Wisconsin psychologist Robert D. Enright refers to this as “making a gesture of goodness” toward the offender. While the person’s actions may not be excusable, understanding the background and life circumstances can help you to be more forgiving and empathetic toward them.
4. Let go of expectations. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean you reconcile or receive an apology yourself. “Often forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, but not always,” explains Tibbits in Forgive to Live. “It takes two people to reconcile, but only one to forgive. . . . You can forgive whether or not the other person is involved.”
5. Pray. When you have been wronged or have wronged someone, prayer can be a powerful tool to help you find strength, guidance, peace, healing, and forgiveness. It can be a valuable reminder that you are not alone.
Is there someone in your life (or even in your past) who needs your forgiveness? Whether or not they’ve asked for it, why not choose to offer them the gift of forgiveness, and in return, you will receive the gift of better health.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Vibrant Life. Used with permission.