Letting Grudges Grab Hold of You
We’ve all done it. A body blow to the ego, and we spit out, “I’ll never forgive that as long as I live!” We may then seal it with steely vows of revenge and remembrance till our dying days.
To get mad is human, but must we be divine to forgive? How do we ordinary mortals rise above our wounds—in fact, why should we? Self-interest is one reason. Staying angry just may be what hastens our dying days.
Anger has long been associated with a variety of negative health consequences. Among them: heart disease and stroke, hypertension, asthma, headache, digestive problems, insomnia, skin problems, anxiety and depression -- even lung function. A study in the journal Thorax concluded that longstanding anger and hostility compromise lung function and hasten the natural, age-associated decline in lung power. The association of anger with diminished lung function held even after accounting for factors likely to influence the findings, such as smoking and educational attainment.
How is it that anger and hostility wreak such damage on, of all organs, the lungs? Chronic anger alters neurological and hormonal processes, which in turn affect the immune system activity. Anger inflames more than the mind. It is believed to contribute to chronic inflammation of the lung tissue. The physiological components of anger and stress overlap, and researcher Dr. Paul Lehrer of the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey observes, “Indeed it is hard to find a disease for which emotion or stress plays absolutely no part in symptom severity, frequency, or intensity of flare-ups.”
The anger equation
Getting mad isn’t the problem. Anger is a natural and mostly automatic response to pain, whether physical or emotional. (Just think of the colorful phraseology that flies from the mouth when a table leg runs into a toe...) The type of pain doesn’t matter because pain alone doesn’t cause anger. Only when a thought combines with the feeling of pain does anger result. The thought determines the emotion.
“I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.”
— Booker T. Washington
Anger is called a substitute emotion because it serves as a vehicle to escape pain. Chronic anger comes from not letting go of a stress-producing thought. It goes like this:
- A year ago, you had a hurtful argument with someone you love.
- You have nursed the anger from that long-ago exchange.
- You fantasize, rehearse, perfect a searing—and publicly humiliating—retort for the next time your paths cross.
- When the anger-invoking tape keeps looping around, your body continues to react to the threat --a threat long since passed.
- Your body’s muscles stay tensed. Stress-associated chemicals like cortisol, catacholamines, adrenaline and noradrenaline keep pumping. Your heart rate accelerates each time you think about the ancient hurt and your blood pressure jumps each time this thought crosses your consciousness.
All this is fine and necessary to prepare us to fight or flee, but in holding a grudge, we’re not physically holding anything. Unforgiveness is usually not accompanied by physical action. We just stew in our own juices.
Antidote for brain poison
If living in anger is so bad for the body, mind and soul, how do you get out of it? Fortunately, there is an antidote for revenge. It’s forgiveness. “To forgive is the highest form of self-interest. I need to forgive so that my anger and resentment and lust for revenge don’t corrode my being,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
There are academic compendiums on forgiveness research, an International Forgiveness Institute for supporting and coordinating forgiveness research and more than 40 research laboratories currently studying forgiveness. The synthesis of the findings is that, if not a fountain of youth, forgiveness does indeed have many benefits for health and longevity. Among them are increased self-esteem, decreased anxiety and anger, lower heart rate, and reduced blood pressure. You are also likely to live longer and healthier if you forgive.
Just as all of us have held a grudge, we all have some experience with forgiveness. But it seems to take practice, and even an age, to get it right. An immediate response of forgiveness to unspeakable pain is a learned behavior and may seem unimaginable. NewsHour essayist Anne Taylor Fleming wrote this on the Amish response to the horror of the ghastly schoolhouse murder of five young girls by a deranged, distraught father:
“(W)hat we heard from that community was not revenge or anger, but a gentle, heart-stricken insistence on forgiveness...In a world gone mad with revenge killings and sectarian violence, chunks of the globe, self-immolating with hatred, this was something to behold, this insistence on forgiveness... “
“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
— Mark Twain
Rx: Forgive yourself, forgive others
We can forgive, and we do. A study conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that nearly 60 percent of a nationally representative sample of 1423 Americans report that they have forgiven themselves for past mistakes or wrong-doing and 52 percent say they have forgiven others. Middle-aged and older adults were more likely to forgive than were younger adults. In those ages 45 and older, forgiving others was linked with better self-reported mental and physical health. The benefits of forgiveness seem to increase with age, research has shown.
A ‘willed change of heart’
You don’t have to wait until you are “old enough” to start practicing or to benefit from forgiveness. Robert Enright, one of the leading forgiveness researchers and founder of both the University of Wisconsin’s Human Development Study Group and the International Forgiveness Institute, concluded that what is necessary is “a willed change of heart.” He defines interpersonal forgiveness as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.”
Forgiveness and its opposites, resentment and revenge, all begin then the same way: with a decision. We know we’ve been dealt with unfairly and we decide, nonetheless, to consider forgiveness as a healing strategy. Just as with love or happiness, there are many paths, but all of them begin with the intent to forgive. For your own well-being, consider taking that first step today.