Some years ago, I saw an old friend at a conference in an Eastern city. He seemed somewhat reserved when I enthusiastically approached him, and eventually he informed me that many years previously, I had done or said something that offended him and he had spent these years angry with me. He even remembered precisely what I did, which I could not recall at all. I was astounded and apologized profusely. I had no idea of his hurt and had continued to hold him in high esteem.
While I now believe the angst has healed, I gave it a great deal of thought afterwards. I was blissfully unaware of his pain and was even buoyed by what I thought was his friendship. I discovered that his anger had affected him for years, but had had no negative impact on me! He told me later that my apology and his forgiveness had a healing affect on him.
Most of us have had times in our lives when the statements or actions of others have hurt us. If we dwell on the injury, our life will be negatively impacted. While the scriptures have a number of admonitions on this subject, I approach this commentary purely from the point that the inability to forgive is destructive behavior that will affect not only us, but everyone with whom we associate!
An LDS pioneer once said: “There are two courses of action when bitten by a rattlesnake. One may, in anger, fear or resentfulness, pursue the rattlesnake and kill it. Or, he may make full haste to get the venom out of his system. If we pursue the latter, we will be likely to survive, but if we attempt to follow the former we may not be around long enough to finish it.” We must be most careful that we do not cause spiritual or emotional snakebites in the first place. Especially within our families, we can hurt the ones we love most with small arguments and petty criticisms that, if unchecked, can poison relationships and escalate into estrangements, even abuse and divorce.
Forgiveness does not require us to accept or tolerate evil. It does not require us to ignore the wrong that we see in the world around us or in our own lives. But as we fight against wrong, we must not allow hatred or anger to control our thoughts or actions. That is not to say that forgiveness is easy. When we or someone else is hurt, the pain can almost be overwhelming and can even cause one to seek vengeance. When we forgive others, it frees us to choose how we will live our own lives. Forgiveness means that problems of the past no longer cloud our judgment regarding future actions.
Evidence is mounting that grudges and bitterness result in long-term health problems. While the unburdening that forgiveness allows can reduce blood pressure, stress and hostility, lower anxiety and heart rate, lessen the risk of substance abuse and, in general, improve psychological well-being. The newsletter published by the Mayo Clinic indicates:
When you experience hurt or harm from someone’s actions or words, whether this is intended or not, you may begin experiencing negative feelings such as anger, confusion or sadness, especially when it’s someone close to you. These feelings may start out small, however if you don’t deal with them quickly, they can grow bigger and more powerful. They may even begin to crowd out positive feelings. Grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility take root when you dwell on hurtful events or situations, replaying them in your mind many times. Soon, you may find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice. You may feel trapped and may not see a way out. It’s very hard to let go of grudges at this point and instead you may remain resentful and unforgiving.
A few years ago, at an annual Prayer Breakfast for the South Orange County Interfaith Council, I was emotionally touched by a message from Linda Biehl, whose daughter, Amy, won a Fulbright Scholarship and chose to go to South Africa and immerse herself in the African culture and community. In 1993, Amy, a white American, was stoned and stabbed to death by a mob of angry black militants. Those who participated in the murder were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to long prison terms. In an attempt to understand their daughter’s commitment to South Africa, Linda and Peter Biehl and their 3 daughters traveled to the country at a time when they were on the brink of a race war. Horrified at the murder of a kindred spirit, blacks joined with whites in peace rallies across the country. Amy’s parents went to the squatter camps where the imprisoned murderers were raised, and were overwhelmed with the needs of the residents of the area. Even though they were sickened by the ferocity of the attack on Amy, they felt the need to find some closure. They even met their daughter’s killers and turned hate into love through the power of forgiveness. They formed a foundation, set up a bakery in the area to employ and empower workers, and are involved in many programs to change the lives of the members of this town. Today, there are a number of bakeries in the nearby communities and the Biehl’s even spoke at hearings to release Amy’s killers. Two of them have transformed their lives and, with the assistance of the Amy Biehl Foundation, head a youth club. There is much more to this story, but, through their ability to forgive, the Biehl’s have had a major impact on many lives – and very importantly, their own.
It may be particularly challenging to forgive someone who doesn’t admit wrong or doesn’t speak of their sorrow. Keep in mind that the key benefits of forgiveness are for you! If you find that a pain that is holding you back cannot be resolved, seek counseling. Until that resolution, the bitterness and resentful anger will poison your life-giving water. It can cloud every thought and action, preventing you from reaching your full potential and may contaminate all the aspects of your life. Even worse, those close to you are forced to adjust to your anger and are either caught up in the maelstrom or live in fear of approaching sensitive issues. Forgiveness is our own personal tool, allowing us to put to rest any situation in life that is not in harmony with our own sense of justice. It is our healthy attitudes and actions that promote healthy relationships. Forgiveness allows us to move forward and enjoy the balance of our lives. / Tom Thorkelson, August, 2011