All of the world’s wisdom traditions seem to be unanimous on at least one point – that forgiving those who have harmed us is wiser than nursing grudges and resentments. One reason this is true is that forgiving means letting go of the past, which lightens our own loads. Holding onto grudges is a little like trying to run a marathon while carrying a bowling ball.
There is a growing body of research, which demonstrated that forgiveness is beneficial for both emotional and physical health. In more than 1,200 published studies, results consistently show that people who are forgiving tend to have not only less stress but also better relationships, fewer general health problems and lower incidences of the most serious illnesses—including depression, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Why? It seems that forgiveness works, in part, by reducing the caustic effects of being unforgiving – that painful mixture of anger, bitterness, hatred, resentment and fear of being hurt again. The harmful effects of these negative emotions include increased blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol levels, which have been linked to cardiovascular disease, immune suppression and, possibly, impaired neurological function and memory.
A second way forgiveness works is more subtle. Studies show that people with strong social networks tend to be healthier than loners. People who are angry and remember every slight are likely to lose relationships during the course of a lifetime, while those who are forgiving are more likely to attract and keep a strong social support system, which has multiple health benefits.
But so many of us don’t allow ourselves the freedom that forgiveness brings because we’re loyal to our suffering. We all want to be happy, yet one of the most predictable human failings is to cling to our traumas and betrayals as if to let them go would mean to deny or minimize them. To forgive, then, is a kind of spiritual victory of wisdom over delusion, and of love (including self-love) over hatred.
One inspiring example of what is possible for us is the Dali Lama, who bears the weight of the oppression in Tibet and the loss of his culture. Yet, in spite of it all, he remains a very happy and joyful person. He says, “They have taken so much. They have destroyed temples, burned our texts, disrobed our monks and nuns, limited our culture and destroyed it in so many ways. Why should I also let them take my joy and peace of mind?” As the great Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita says, “If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.”
But even if we’re convinced that forgiving would be the better road to take, many of us find doing it very challenging. I’ll talk about how to do it next time.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net.