To forgive is not only divine, but the way to your heart’s peace.
The first reports out of Pennsylvania last October were sad, but familiar: A deranged gunman murdering children in a classroom—in this case, the West Nickel Mines Amish School—before taking his own life. What made this story unique was the Amish community’s response: the immediate forgiveness of killer Charles Carl Roberts—which included reaching out to Roberts’ wife and three children.
Many of the world’s faiths exhort followers to travel the hard road of forgiveness for their souls’ sakes; in the Bible Jesus told his disciples to forgive “seventy times seven” and the Koran says, “If ye pardon...God is forgiving, compassionate!” But now science has also linked forgiveness with physical well-being—including enhanced cardiac health. It turns out that the Amish may just be wiser than anybody knew.
The Burdened Heart
At a time when reality TV brings petty spats into every living room, forgiveness isn’t exactly in style. One survey found that 94% of those polled thought it was important to forgive but only 48% had actually tried it. Amassing evidence indicates that such hard-headedness hurts our hearts; more than one investigation has linked grudge-bearing with increases in heart rate and blood pressure.
Such studies have confirmed what doctors had already learned from working with actual heart patients, especially people without such “classic” warning signs as obesity or high cholesterol. Instead, many of these individuals “seemed to have emotional factors, particularly hostility—a perpetual internal conversation of resentment, that other people owe you something, that the world is a dangerous place,” says David Simon, MD, Medical Director of The Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California. “When you have this as your worldview it predisposes you to early heart attacks.”
The link between holding a grudge and having heart trouble lies in the stress reaction that prepares us to either fight our foes or fly from them. “We have extended that fight-or-flight response to our personalities,” explains Simon, author of The Ten Commitments: Translating Good Intentions Into Great Choices (Health Communications). “Just like we have a physical boundary we have an emotional boundary—our ego. So if you thought you should have gotten that job promotion and you didn’t, that’s a boundary violation. You then activate the emotional equivalent of fight or flight; you might become sarcastic or gossip, or you might withdraw.” (The fact that we live in a world where the duel is now passé only complicates matters.) Either way, the resulting stress response floods your system with chemicals that affect heartbeat, blood pressure and glucose levels. What’s more, this stew of resentment is kept at a slow simmer by society at large: For one thing, Simon believes that “the wound inflicted by 9/11 is still quite active. That sense of being hurt is affecting people on an individual level—and it extends to their relationships.”
Inner turmoil, left to fester long enough, can harm the body. “Eventually the stress reaction will exhaust and weaken you, and make you sick,” as Simon puts it. “Doing what is necessary to free your heart from resentment or regret is important not only emotionally but physically.”
Stepping Towards Forgiveness
The problem for many would-be forgivers (maybe even you) is the perception that forgiveness equals capitulation, or giving in. It does not. In Simon’s opinion, “Forgiving is the most courageous thing human beings can do. And it’s something that people really can learn—when they’re ready.” (Hint: remind yourself that you’re doing this for you—not the other party.)
Once you’re prepared to take the forgiveness plunge, Simon suggests some honest self-reflection: “Ask yourself, ‘Where am I still hurting?’” Keeping a journal can help you coax that distress into the open, where you can see it for what it is—something painful that’s now in your past.
But simply staring down your demons isn’t enough; you need physical release, “some sort of conscious ritual—dancing vigorously, pounding a pillow—something to enact a safe fight-or-flight response,” says Simon. The last step is to process all those old lemons into satisfying spiritual lemonade. “You have to fill that space that was occupied by toxic emotions with something more nourishing,” Simon explains. “We encourage people to write a story about the person they resent to explain why that person behaves the way they do, even if they don’t know all the details.
Understanding leads to compassion and compassion leads to forgiveness.”
So now you feel better emotionally and spiritually, but does that translate into something more physical? Researchers are saying yes, it actually does. In one study, grudge holders with heart disease underwent forgiveness training. After 10 weeks, they not only reported more positive feelings but scans showed that they also experienced smaller drops in cardiac blood flow while recalling the incidents that had upset them (American Psychosomatic Society meeting, 2003).
If you’re holding onto resentment, learn to let go. The healing you experience will make your life more joyous—and your heart more content.