If someone is stuck in an angry state, what they’re essentially doing is being in a state of adrenaline. And some of the negative health consequences of not forgiving or being stuck there are high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, not having a good immune response. You’re constantly putting your energy somewhere else.–Karen Swartz, MD
It’s not uncommon, during loss, tragedy or serious illness, that we may sometimes feel let down or hurt by others, whether family members, friends or co-workers. In my cancer writing groups, participants often express feelings of loss or disappointment experienced during cancer treatment and recovery from people once considered close or counted on in times of difficulty. I’ve felt those kinds of heartaches from time to time, whether from family members, being in positions of organizational leadership when tough decisions were part of the job, or even, so many years ago, when my first husband and I separated–the first of many marriages to fall apart–in a small university town.
It hurts, when people you have been close to let you down or take out their anger on you. It’s difficult not to internalize that hurt and find fault with yourself, as if you caused the unkind behaviors you experience, and you lie awake, replaying moments, conversations, actions to try to understand what happened and why. It’s hard to not blame yourself, but it’s often much more difficult to forgive the slights or unkind actions of those you once counted on. And yet, you know that carrying anger or resentment inside yourself is not healthy.
I recall the extended difficult months with my siblings in the wake of our parents’ illnesses and deaths and how I experienced anger, resentment or blame as I attempted to honor our parents’ wishes fairly. It became so onerous, I turned over executorship and power of attorney to an outside party. That was years ago, but in the process of returning to Canada a few months ago, I found myself sitting in the garage and paging through old journals from that tumultuous period. There were pages of questions, hurt and disbelief expression, and self-questioning repeated dozens of times. A quotation I’d copied caught my attention. It was from a program I’d watched about the same time, produced by the UC Davis Health System.
“It’s not a surgery; it’s not a medical treatment or a new medication, but this is a new healing process that doctors are convinced has many hidden benefits, something you can’t get in a pharmacy. The process is forgiveness. And more doctors believe that it heals.”
Forgiveness was obviously on my mind. I was struggling to stop the replay of hurt and disappointment, groping for a way to alleviate the sense of martyrdom, the shock of being wronged and treated so unfairly by my siblings. The many months of trying to understand by writing and re-examine the history I knew by heart, resulted only in rumination, taking me deeper into the pain. What I needed to do was forgive. And doing that was going to take some work.
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, nor does it mean that you’ve given the message that what someone did was okay. It just means that you’ve let go of the anger or guilt towards someone, or towards yourself. But that can be easier said than done. If forgiveness was easy, everyone would be doing it.
“The human mind,” psychologist Loren Toussaint stated, “is sometimes an instrument of misery. When you’ve done wrong…and regret it, it bubbles up again and again.” But it’s not only forgiveness of others that makes a difference. The health benefits of forgiving ourselves for our past mistakes or wrongdoings can be considerable.
Forgiveness—for self or others–is a virtue embraced by almost every religious tradition. Yet, if we’re honest about it, forgiveness is often difficult to embrace, but doing so is important to our well-being in so many ways. Forgiveness is intimately tied to our physical health. Even in the struggle of cancer, forgiveness plays an important role. In a 1989 study reported in the Canadian Journal of Counselling, “forgiveness therapy” helped cancer patients attain catharsis and a greater sense of peace (v. 23, pp. 236-251).
Another group of researchers found that a self-forgiving attitude contributed to less mood disturbance and a better quality of life among women with breast cancer (J. of Behavioral Medicine, v. 29, pp. 29-36, 2006). A growing body of research, much of it initiated by the Stanford Forgiveness Project, directed by Dr. Fred Luskin, suggests that forgiveness is good medicine for the body. Health benefits have been demonstrated in a number of “forgiveness interventions,” including improved cardiovascular function, diminished chronic pain, relief from depression and an overall improved quality of life among the very ill (M. Healy, L.A. Times, Jan. 12, 2008).
It’s not uncommon, following a cancer diagnosis or other serious illness that patients sometimes turn their anger inward, blaming themselves for contributing to their illness. I know I did it, telling more than one close friend that I felt I partly responsible for my early stage diagnosis of breast cancer several years ago. I hear the same self questioning in the newly diagnosed who attend my writing groups: “What did I do to cause this? What if I had only done this instead of that?” or say, “I feel like I’m partly to blame for my cancer…”
How do you forgive others and yourself? Poet Maya Angelou put it this way:
I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.
“We can’t see our own glory in the mirror…in the end, the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.” Angelou’s words remind me of a passage from the poem, “St. Francis and the Sow,” by Galway Kinnell:
Sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness
to put a hand on the brow of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely,
until it flowers again from within,
Forgiveness is, in part, a chance to “flower again from within of self-blessing”–a beautiful image to consider. How then do we learn to forgive others and ourselves? Karen Swartz, MD, a John Hopkins psychiatrist, suggests these steps:
Forgiveness training is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques, but the goal is the same: Identify the problem, give it time and get objective input. That input doesn’t have to come from a mental health professional. It could come from a close friend or a religious adviser.
• Identify what the problems are.
• Work on relaxation techniques.
• Challenge your own responses.
• Change your thoughts from negative to positive.
Focus on forgiveness this week. Perhaps it’s a simple act of forgiving yourself, another, or even your body, changed by cancer. Here are some questions to help you get started:
- Who or what do you most want to learn to forgive?
- Describe the event or the actions of someone that created pain and heartache for you.
- Did your pain morph into self-blame or depression? Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that emerge as you write.
- Where, in this week, do you have the opportunity to practice forgiveness?
- How have you learned to forgive others and yourself?
- Has learning to forgive helped you feel physically better, for example, improved sleep, energy, or mentally, have a more positive outlook?