Life Reimagined

Learning to Forgive

Letting go of past hurts can bring a better and healthier future

What do President Obama, Mark Twain and noted Stanford Professor Fred Luskin share in common? Answer: a belief in the healing power of forgiveness. In Obama's case, he recently apologized to Americans who are losing their health insurance despite his earlier promises they wouldn’t. Luskin, who created the Forgiveness Project, which studies the effectiveness of forgiveness therapy on victims around the world, including those from both sides of Northern Ireland’s civil war, believes holding a grudge can be hazardous to your health. As Mark Twain once put it: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

What forgiveness isn’t

Anger, bitterness and resentment are difficult walls to scale. Getting over those feelings can seem almost impossible when old wounds feel as fresh as the day they were inflicted. But Luskin insists that forgiveness does not mean condoning the behavior of those who have hurt us. “Forgiveness is a choice that we make to release our past and heal our present.” How can it do that? By helping us “take back our power,” he says. Learning to forgive is a “trainable skill, like learning to throw a baseball.” Forgiveness is not excusing poor behavior. It’s not forgetting that something painful happened. It’s not denying or minimizing your hurt. Forgiveness does not mean you give up having feelings.

The source of your anger

Being perpetually angry at someone comes down to three simple things, says Luskin: 1) the exaggerated taking of personal offense; 2) the blaming of the offender for how you feel; and 3) the creation of a grievance story. “Careful feeding and dedicated nurturing of these grievance components can keep a hurt alive forever,” says Luskin. “That is exactly what we do when we refuse to forgive.” To counter the negative effects of the grievance trifecta, Luskin suggests that we intentionally take things less personally, take responsibility for our feelings, and tell a “positive intention” story that reframes what caused the disappointment in the first place. This allows us to channel our energy into finding another way to achieve our positive goals (relationship, job, etc.) than through the experience that has hurt us (divorce, being fired, etc.). The positive intention story stops us from hitting the rewind button on the old recording. Instead, we record a new script for our life going forward.

The benefits to your body

When one truly forgives there are immediate and positive changes to one’s physical and mental health. Participants in the Forgiveness Project experienced a decrease in hurt feelings; a reduction in the physical symptoms of stress including backache, muscle aches, dizziness and upset stomach; an increase in optimism; and a reduction in long-term experience of anger, which in itself is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

When the hurt seems too big to forgive

Luskin’s work with casualties of the civil war in Northern Ireland proved conclusively that no grievance is more powerful than a person’s desire to release it. Women whose children were murdered learned to forgive. “Each of these people had a right, if anyone does, to be bitter, angry, and victimized. Yet at the end of a week of forgiveness training, the victims were less depressed, felt more physically healthy and energetic, and were less hurt by their loss.”

Helping the young forgive

The University of Utah offers a course, “Forgiveness and Anger Reduction,” to undergraduate and graduate students to help them learn how to help themselves and others “reduce their destructive anger from a long-term minor grudge by using step-by-step forgiveness and anger reduction processes.”

Dr. Robert Enright, author of The Power of Forgiveness and another expert on the science of forgiving, asked, “If forgiveness can improve the psychological health of adults, can it do so for children?” His team of researchers launched an ambitious project in war-torn, impoverished, and/or oppressed areas of the globe: the development of forgiveness educational curricula for children. “As children learn about forgiveness, their levels of anger go down. It is our hope that such anger reduction [will help them, as adults, find] the best paths toward justice.” World peace, anyone?

Getting started

As with most things, it’s a good idea to start where you are. Alexandra Asseily, governor and founder of the Centre for Lebanese Studies, Oxford and former member of the Advisory Board of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, says, “If we forgive ourselves, it’s a wonderful beginning to forgiveness. Because actually, if we really forgive ourselves for all the wickedness we think we have inside or all the things we think are wrong with ourselves, we would then be so much more compassionate with others.” Forgiving yourself may not be easy, but the alternative is worse: you’re stuck carrying a big bag of bitterness and resentment for as long as you choose to carry that load.

Forgiveness, then, is an important ingredient in the recipe for a healthy, happy life. As Mark Twain put it, “Life is short. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly.”

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