“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” That’s always been good advice. And now, thanks to medical research, we’re learning that forgiveness isn’t just good karma – it’s good for both our mental and physical wellbeing.
Sure, you may feel justified in holding onto that grudge. After all, people’s words and conduct can be hurtful to us, whether they realize it (and intend it) or not. But think about that thorn you’ve been carrying in your side because of something someone said or did. Ask yourself one crucial question about the resentment you have against that person: Is it helpful to you to continue to nurture the hurt?
This may seem like a silly question, but it’s worth considering. It’s been said that carrying a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. We harm ourselves more than we punish the offender when we hold on to resentments. And often, this harm can move beyond our emotional pain to actual physical suffering.
Science has shown that continued anger and a lack of forgiveness towards others can lead to depression (as a result of ruminating on negative thoughts and emotions), isolation and loneliness. And all of these factors increase our risk for serious health problems, like anxiety and depression, high blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack.
But there is a cure for the anger that ails you, and that cure is forgiveness.
When you forgive, you free up more mental space for positive thoughts and relationships. In fact, a recent study from the University of Missouri found that forgiving others helped protect older adults from depression. This was true even if the forgiver didn’t feel forgiven by others – they experienced positive benefits by just merely forgiving.
“When you forgive, it isn’t saying that the other person is right. It isn’t justifying or condoning what the other person did,” Mayo Clinic professor of medicine Dr. Amit Sood told The Wall Street Journal. Instead, Sood explains, offering forgiveness is an acknowledgment that you are letting go of your anger and resentment and that any future relationship with the offender will be on your terms.
This can be a particularly important tool as we grow older. There may be burdens of anger or hurt that we’ve been carrying around for years. When we lay these burdens down by forgiving, we can move on with our lives in a lighter, more joyful way.
Of course, not everyone is deserving of forgiveness. Sometimes other people inflict such egregious hurts that not even a saint would forgive. If this is the case with any situation that’s happened in your life, the key, according to the experts, is to strive towards acceptance.
“If the other person isn’t sorry and hasn’t made meaningful amends, the hurt party often can’t and won’t forgive. They are left not forgiving and hurting and hating,” Janis Abrahms Spring, a clinical psychologist in Westport, Conn., told the Wall Street Journal. Instead of staying trapped inside these raw feelings of hurt, Spring believes people can get relief and resolution through acceptance.
To do this, you must strive to move forward from the event on your own terms, and, while recognizing the magnitude of the harm, be resolute in no longer allowing the wrong to obsess you. Hand in hand with acceptance is making sure, if the offender is still a part of your life, to keep the relationship at a level that you can handle and that serves your best interests. “This can be accomplished by the hurt party alone, even if the offender isn’t remorseful or willing to make meaningful amends,” Spring says.
Here is an important fact to remember: we are all human. Desmond Tutu put it more eloquently when he wrote, “Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed.”
So, science and good sense encourage us to forgive if we can. And if not, maybe find respite from our anger in acceptance. Practicing these principles can help us lead healthier, happier lives.