“Bitterness is a poison you swallow hoping someone else gets sick.”
I don’t know who said this, but it’s true. When you hold onto hurt — when you refuse to forgive — you are the one you are hurting. This has been a spiritual truth for millennia. More recently it has become a scientifically demonstrated truth, as well.
A study entitled, “Forgive to Live,” published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine involving 1,500 adults ages 66 or over demonstrated that those who practiced “conditional forgiveness” — meaning that they would not forgive others until they apologized or promised not to do it again — died earlier than those who scored low on the conditional forgiveness scale. This is consistent with a growing body of research demonstrating positive mental and physical health effects associated with forgiveness.
“But, what about…?”
Nope. No buts. “But” is a conditional forgiveness word that apparently can decrease your lifespan. Before you throw in the towel and resign yourself to an early death because of what someone said or did to you, let’s tease apart the general idea of forgiveness into two components: forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation are often thought of together because they often happen together. But they are two different steps.
Reconciliation is about restoring the broken relationship between the people involved. And, most importantly for our discussion, reconciliation depends on the willingness and ability of everyone involved. There’s the rub. Sometimes reconciliation is not possible. The other person may need more time. The other person may neither desire nor care about reconciling. The other person may have died (this happens especially with parents). In many cases, reconciliation simply is not an option. That’s why it is important to see forgiveness as a separate issue.
The difference is this: reconciliation is about “us” while forgiveness is about “me.” Separating forgiveness and reconciliation in your mind will free you to forgive in ways and times you may never have thought possible.
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of forgiveness is not so helpful: “to stop feeling anger toward someone.” Have you ever tried to just stop being angry? How’d that work out? Not so hot, eh? Yeah, me, neither.
Here is the best definition of forgiveness I have ever read: “give up your right to get even.”
Retribution is so natural to the human condition. If you say something hurtful, I say something hurtful back. If you hit me, I hit you. If you break something of mine, I break something of yours. It even seems like justice. But the research indicates that retribution and withholding forgiveness until reconciliation can be achieved is bad for you.
The good news is that “give up your right to get even” is something you can do choose to do. If you’ve been hurt deeply, it will likely be a choice you have to make over and over. But, unlike “stop being angry,” “give up your right to get even” is a choice you can make.
It’s also a general attitude you can cultivate that will significantly decrease negative emotions in your life. Imagine the day when someone wrongs you and your natural response is to wonder what is going on with them rather than thinking about how to get back at them. This may seem far-fetched, but the more you live into the notion that forgiveness is only about you and how you relate to others, the more natural it will become.
The Mayo Clinic, in an article entitled, “Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness,” (jump to May Clinic article) asserts that forgiveness can lead to:
- Healthier relationships
- Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
- Less anxiety, stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Stronger immune system
- Improved heart health
- Higher self-esteem
WebMD also has a great article (jump to WebMD article).
Forgiving does not mean forgetting. Who could actually forget some of the really major hurts of their life?
Forgiving does not mean pretending nothing happened (nor does reconciling). Quite the opposite. When you make the decision to forgive, the underlying presupposition of that decision is that you have been hurt and need to consciously decide to forgive.
Forgiving does not necessarily mean no consequences for the other person. Full reconciliation often includes compensation for wrongs done. You might choose to release the other person from the consequences, but that is a separate issue from forgiveness.
Forgiving is simply giving up your right to get even. You can choose forgiveness with regard to individual situations. You can develop forgiveness as a life attitude that flows from you as a natural reaction. And forgiveness will even contribute to a healthier, longer life.