“To be wronged is nothing if you do not remember it,” said the 400 BC philosopher Confucius.
This translation captures in a few words what health scientists and psychologists are realizing today through concrete data: to forgive someone their wrongdoing has the power to confer health benefits, physically and psychologically.
Originally, the concept of forgiveness was used for monetary debts—forgiving financial obligations. Now we use the word for other kinds of debts—from being late for a date, to causing pain and hurt—and forgiveness means that the need for repayment is erased. Psychologically, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge, even developing understanding and empathy for the one who hurt you.
The key word here is decision. Decisions come from rational thought, and once again, our trusty “old brain” has to be dealt with, as we talk ourselves down in order to think through to new actions. Forgiveness is commitment to a process of change, from hanging on to anger and self- protection to letting go and placing value on reconciliation.
What do we gain from hanging onto grudges? Our “old brains” are smart, even though they get us in trouble sometimes. They are wired to keep us safe, and we reflexively want to satisfy our sense of justice by not allowing the offender to go free without punishment. Harm may come our way again if we appear to condone the wrongful deed. We are wired to “think” this way in all our relationships.
“I was worried he’d just blow me off,” said my patient, describing her reticence to apologize after an argument. Emotional danger is felt by the body every bit as strongly as physical danger. “My heart was beating out of my chest,” she said.
When a couple finds themselves in a standoff, it’s not unusual that neither one of them knows what originated the fight. The notion of being the one who extends the olive branch is to emotionally jump into ice cold water.
The inflammatory response after an injury is the body’s way of fighting off invading harmful bacteria, but if the response continues long after the injury, the result may be greater damage than the original injury caused. To hang onto old grievances, by perfecting our sense of injustice causes similar harm to the body-mind, with certain neurotransmitters and hormones that keep us in a state of alert.
Apology plays a big role in our ability to let go of a wrongdoing. A mea culpa goes a long way, just as the refusal to acknowledge that a wrong was committed makes a hard job even harder—sometimes blocking our ability to forgive. Kelly Clarkson’s hit song says, “I forgive you, forgive me,” showing the double gift of giving forgiveness and sharing the burden by saying, “maybe I was part of the problem.”
But what if there can be no apology? The person we wish to forgive may be dead, or the grievance so great that the road to peace takes years. The widow of the great writer David Foster Wallace is an artist who built a “forgiveness machine” into which people could feed things they wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. The work was surely inspired in part by her anger at her husband for his suicide, and illustrates the need we have to forgive those who hurt us, even when the harm has no remedy. Instead of a “forgiveness machine,” perhaps an old shoe box could do as a tangible place where we could lay to rest any debts that we carry around unconsciously—ones we owe and ones we wish to forgive.
Psychologists today are fascinated by f-MRI’s and other methods of concrete and tangible measurement of the effects of forgiveness and other emotional states. To perform an act of forgiveness lowers the blood pressure, increases our ability to concentrate and focus, and clears cortisol from the bloodstream. Technology allows us to see proof of what Confucius believed based only on his observations.
Try it today. Let go of a long held grudge, or let a loved one off the hook, by silently saying, “How important is it?”