I have a lengthily list of justified reasons for being relationally at strife with my father. Despite my most sincere desire to enter into peaceful conversations, it seemed the inevitable dance of conflict would be the last scene of every encounter. Over time, these hurts seeped deeper into my bones, and I filled this hole of hope for reconciliation with a backfill of bitterness. This Christmas will be the eighth anniversary of his passing and what previously seemed like a thick, forest of transgressions has blown away like chaff in the wind. What felt so justified and so big at the time seems so fruitless and insignificant now. While I think it would be foolish to not learn from past pain or wrongdoings in unhealthy relationships, I often wonder if we end up hurting ourselves more because we choose not to purge our hearts of the bile of bitterness.
The term forgiveness can best be defined as a conscious decision to let go of the feeling of anger or resentment harbored toward a person who has committed a wrong. Forgiveness is not for the one who wronged but more the victim. It has been said that bitterness or unforgiveness “is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Forgiveness is not forgetting or pretending the wrong did not occur, just moving on, excusing or approving of the action, and does not require a reconciliation of the relationship. Forgiveness is a process which requires you to feel the negative emotions while also applying additional perspectives, is best aided through empathy and requires a conscious decision to surrender your justified right for justice.
Mental health research has shown that forgiveness is linked to outcomes such as reduced anxiety, depression, and major psychiatric disorders, in addition to physical health symptoms. One book that describes these in great detail is “Forgiveness and Health” by Toussaint, Worthington and David R. Williams, PhD (2015). In another study, Dr. Bob Enright, a psychologist from University of Wisconsin coined the term “toxic anger.” Unlike normal anger, “toxic anger” prevents muscles from relaxing, robs us of energy, weakness immune system, increases our anxiety, and can even lead to lower self-esteem if left untreated.
Other research has shown that some of the individuals that have the highest reported scores of bitterness, holding grudges, or negative feelings toward others, also have the lowest scores of self-forgiveness. These individuals are unable to apply the healing salve of forgiveness to their own lives and are more prone to engage in risky, dangerous behaviors such as substance and alcohol abuse. The problems with this tactic is that we are just ingesting more depressants into our bodies and when we do sober up, the issues will still be there. Thomas à Kempis knew this even back in the 1400s when he stated, “You cannot escape it, run where you will; for wherever you go, you take yourself with you, and you will always find yourself.”
As we look toward the end of 2021 and setting New Year’s resolutions, maybe part of your new health goal could include applying forgiveness to a situation. As many look to start lifting weights to get buff, maybe it’s time for you to quit carrying this weight of resentment to get better? The first step of this process may be to start forgiving the person in the mirror. When I stand before my father’s headstone in late December 2021 like years before, I will not be warmed by the thoughts of justified anger but chilled by the reality of missed opportunities to extend true empathy and to get healthy.
Tony Kirkman is the executive director of the Piatt County Mental Health Center.