During the last decade plus, there has been a growing number of studies showing the beneficial effects of forgiveness on the body. As far back as 2004, a Harvard Medical School publication) was able to sum up:
“Reduced stress. Researchers found that mentally nursing a grudge puts your body through the same strains as a major stressful event: Muscles tense, blood pressure rises, and sweating increases. Better heart health. One study found a link between forgiving someone for a betrayal and improvements in blood pressure and heart rate, and a decreased workload for the heart…Reduced pain. A small study on people with chronic back pain found that those who practiced meditation focusing on converting anger to compassion felt less pain and anxiety than those who received regular care.” (Also see 11/23/11 report by the Mayo Clinic staff)
And that’s just the body. Of course forgiveness brings about better relationships and more happiness as well. In a post last week on Oprah.com called “How to forgive anyone—and why your health depends on it”, Harriet Brown shares an in-depth description of her journey to forgiveness working with Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. Eventually she was able to say, “Forgiveness, I begin to see, is not about pretending you don’t feel angry or hurt. It’s about responding out of kindness rather than rage. It’s about letting yourself feel the full spectrum of emotions—grief and anger and hurt, but also kindness and compassion. Even toward someone who’s hurt you deeply.”
I have a friend whose story shows the effect of forgiveness on the one forgiven as well. He spent a winter living in the mountains. One day, he was out walking and heard a sound – which stood out in the snow-covered stillness. He investigated and found it was the ice thawing and snapping, beginning to break up over a stream. As he watched the water moving under the thinning ice, he was reminded of how his brother had finally been able to forgive him recently for something he’d done many years earlier. He empathized with the water at his feet. He felt like his heart had been frozen, but now was melting and his feelings were able to flow again.
Thoughts of unforgiveness affect us like putting water in our car’s gas tank – we don’t run right. I’ve learned from the Bible and my study and practice of Christian Science that I always have the right to make the decision to forgive. No one can take that choice away. Not even someone who seems unforgivable. It’s often not easy. And I don’t do it because the other person necessarily deserves it.
But if I refuse to express kindness and compassion towards someone, then I’ve given them power over me that they don’t really have. If an encounter with or just the thought of someone can negatively alter my mood – and certain bodily systems – then I’ve allowed my true nature to be distorted. So, I deserve to uphold the integrity and harmony of my own individuality and health.
And as my friend’s mountain tale illustrates, changing our thoughts affect others’ well being too. If there’s a group of people suffering over something that seems unforgivable, it only takes one who’s willing to forgive and the whole group can experience healing. If several people are in a dark room and one of them opens the blinds and lets in light, that light shines on everyone equally.
It comes down to an application of the Golden Rule – as so many things do. “Forgive others, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37 – New Living Translation)