Forgiveness, it seems, is becoming increasingly fashionable.
At least in theory.
From yoga teachers to self-help books and from research papers to seminars on consciousness, the benefits of forgiveness are being widely trumpeted – it’s not only good for the soul, it’s also good for the health.
However, many are finding it’s ‘easier said than done’. When that inner voice of resentment clings doggedly to even a casual slight from a relative or colleague, then what hope is there when facing a real crisis?
If the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, it can be useful to have a role model that can help us enlarge the parameters of what we perceive to be possible.
Widow Debbie Dorling offers just such an example. Her husband was tragically killed by an HGV driver when both crossed red lights at an intersection. Instead of baying for justice when he walked free from court on Tuesday she wholeheartedly embraced the driver and forgave him.
Dorling said the defendant was a “completely broken man” who didn’t deserve to be punished further for the death of her husband, the Evening Standard reported.
She added: “Two of my children and I met him after the case and told him we didn’t hate him. In fact, I gave him a big hug. He needed to rebuild his life as much as I’m trying to rebuild mine. I have never felt anybody hug me back so strongly.”
No-one could really suggest the motive for such a loving response was in any way self-serving. And yet the evidence is growing that forgiveness is a key element of regaining and maintaining good health.
Answering the question “What are the benefits of forgiving someone?”, the Mayo Clinic lists healthier relationships and greater spiritual and psychological well-being; less anxiety, stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression and a lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse.
In contrast – according to Carsten Wrosch, a Canadian professor of psychology: “Persistent bitterness may result in global feelings of anger and hostility that, when strong enough, could affect a person’s physical health.”
Even with the best will in the world I, like many, have had to ask myself over the years how I can move beyond bitterness when it seems so justified?
I marvel at examples like that of Debbie Dorling and others such as Maureen Greaves who recently forgave her husband’s murderer. Like most, I have found it hard enough just to maintain poise in the ordinary day to day battles with personal slights and mutual misunderstandings. Yet I have also been grateful to find a way to rise to the challenge of forgiveness – spirituality has consistently pulled me through.
I see that spirituality as the call to view others through a different lens, one that helps to focus thought on the enduring qualities of an individual rather than on a particular act they might have committed. To do so can help restore what I would call the divine normal – one’s natural sense of inner peace – regardless of the decisions and actions of others.
A book co-authored by Professor Wrosch and fellow scientist Jesse Renaud warned that harbouring bitterness for a long time can affect everything from organ function to immune response and vulnerability to disease.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Jesus set the high standard by urging his followers to forgive someone who hurts them “seventy times seven”, and then showed them what doing that looks like.
So when an inner voice or a perceptive friend tells us “You must have an utterly forgiving spirit”, as author Mary Baker Eddy once put it, it might not only be offering us a moral compass but sound health advice, too. To overcome hatred with forgiveness is to take control of your circumstances and perhaps put a spring back into your step, both mentally and physically.
As Debbie Dorling said: “I don’t have any room in my heart for hate. If you harbour hate you never get on in life.” If you forgive, she said, you can move on.
And she proved it with a hug.