Let go of that grudge: to forgive is healthy for you

When Joe "X" made the crushing discovery that his best friend had bedded his fiancé just weeks before the wedding, he confronted the two of them and, hurt and furious, called off the nuptials. Then he took a sabbatical from his teaching job and left to backpack alone around Europe for three months, nursing his wounds.

Later he was back on the job and pouring all his offtime energy into work on a Ph.D. He lived like a monk. He didn't return calls from old friends ... and he began drinking nights until he passed out.

Each of us has felt terribly wronged, bitter and angry at some time in our lives. Those who have tried to bury or ignore those feelings still suffer the effects, whether they're aware of it or not. A growing number of scientific studies have shown that such feelings can literally make us sick. There is a connection between anger and resentment and health problems - including alcoholism and drug abuse.

A University of Pittsburgh study of 1,300 women found that heart disease and high cholesterol levels were four times more likely to be found in those who said they had feelings of anger. A study of men found those who were better at releasing and diffusing anger had half as many strokes as angrier men. The latter was a seven-year study of 2,110 middle-aged men by researchers at the University of Michigan.

You may know a story like Joe's. Or you may have your own story. Think a moment. Is there someone you used to feel close to but now avoid, perhaps haven't seen for years? All of us are most vulnerable to injury from closest friends and family members, and those are the injuries most difficult to heal. And if you can't find a way to forgive, those emotional injuries inevitably turn toxic.

The estrangement may have been caused my something major: a man is fired from the family business by his older brother; a woman's intimate secret is revealed by her best friend. The cause of the rift may have been minor. There may not have even been any real confrontation.

More often, an estrangement between people who were once close develops over time: For example, your father-in-law remarries following the death of your mother, and he gradually stops contacting the little grandkids. Weeks, months, then years go by. You effectively write the old man off and resolve to "move on."

But if you do not resolve the hurt in some way, it doesn't dissipate. It turns into a grudge, and it makes you sick. As Joe assured his family months after the ruined wedding, "Hell, I'm over it. I just don't want to spend time with either one of them anymore. I'm moving on." He stuffed away his pain and ignored it, but at a price.

After a major emotional blow, it's essential to find a way to forgive, something rarely taught and extremely difficult to do. "The act of forgiving has direct and indirect effects on the body and the mind," Dr. Everett Worthington told physicians, psychologists and other health practition-ers at Harvard Medical School in Boston last fall.

He presented his scientific findings at a special national conference to support the assertion and emphasized that "When people forgive, they replace [negative] feelings ... with more positive emotions, such as empathy, sympathy and love."

The act of forgiving reduces negative stress and, specifically, reduces the risk of heart disease, depression and other health problems.

Although medical science clearly affirms what counselors and theologians have long known about the connection between forgiveness and health, some people simply cannot forgive and don't even try. According to a Gallup Poll, most Americans feel forgiving is important, but fewer than half actually try to do so.

Nearly 60 percent of a representative sample (1,423 respondents) said they had forgiven themselves for wrongdoing, but only 52 percent said they'd forgiven others. In another study, by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, only 43 percent of respondents said they had actively sought forgiveness for harm they had done.

"Forgiveness is a complex experience that changes an offended person's spiritual feelings, emotions, thoughts, actions and self-confidence level," said Dr. Fred Luskin, director of Stanford University's Forgiveness Project.

Luskin believes learning to forgive the hurts and grudges of our life is key to feeling more hopeful and spiritually connected. In his book "Forgive for Good," he talks about how the process of forgiving actually improves our health and give us more energy, as well as enabling our bodies to function better.

In another best-selling book, "Spiritual Rx: Prescriptions for Living a Meaningful Life," Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat say, "Forgiveness is freeing. It means that we can move out of our previous position and move on with our lives. Best of all, it enables us to be reconciled with our neighbors and with God so that once again we feel part of the greater community of the spiritual life."

All major religious traditions value forgiveness. For centuries the wise have understood its importance to health and well-being. Still, there is little practical training available on how to actually forgive an offender.

Now that the connection between forgiveness and health has been documented, it's time for us to look to our hearts and psyches in the process of treating our own unhappiness. After four years of alcoholism and emotional isolation, Joe "X" is now sober working on the thorny process of forgiving. Don't give up!

Lynne DeMichelle can be reached at lynne@axiomfusion.com.[[In-content Ad]]