9/12/2011: Practice Forgiveness for Better Health
September 12, 2011 9 Comments
As I wrapped Halloween goodie bags for the elderly at a National Charity League meeting on 9/11 with my 13-year-old daughter, she asked if we’d have time to attend mass that evening. We are hardly model churchgoers and—as I’ve mentioned (See Recipe for Change- Less Everyday) —I consider myself at best a “Recovering Catholic” open to the tenets of several faiths. Our children are the product of this open-minded spirituality regardless of their more formal exposure to Catholic teachings their first nine years. For me it is a gift to see them reach for their own spiritual lifeline when it comes to navigating their way through difficult times.
Over the past week we have discussed the 9/11 of ten years ago, when my son and daughter were just two and three; and, as I answered questions and cried tears as I recounted the day—the moment—that we all personally own, I realized that they too need to personally mourn this piece of history that defines their generation.
We attended mass at 5:30 Sunday evening at Mary Star of the Sea in La Jolla. As I walked into the simple mission-style church with its ethereal glow, the angst and grief that accompanies me on every 9/11 drifted away with the sea breeze as the heavy double doors blew open to welcome us into the century-old Spanish chapel. We love the casual upbeat music at the evening mass and thankfully our Sunday attire of jeans, shorts and flip flops is perfectly acceptable.
The moments of silence on this particular day were deafening and the prayers for the fallen, somber; but the homily was surprisingly uplifting for this conservative little Catholic Church in the heart of La Jolla Village where there is no shortage of plastic surgeons, Pilates studios, and Ferrari dealerships.
The theme…the message: Forgiveness. Simple and powerful on a day that conjures resentment, desperation, and loss. Our priest shared a memory of watching the stories unfold on TV in 2001. In particular, he remembered a female reporter interviewing an older couple as they perched on the edge of Ground Zero just one day after their only daughter perished in the South Tower. At the end of the interview, as the reporter visibly lost composure, she noticed the mother’s cross around her neck and in a last effort to bring this devastated couple some comfort, said, “When you go home tonight, I pray you will find some solace in your place of worship.”
The mother responded, “That will be difficult for us to do. You see we are Christians and we are expected to find it in our hearts to forgive. We cannot do that right now. It might be a very long time before we return.”
An incredibly brave and honest answer.
I love that our priest told this story. Of course forgiveness would be ideal, but we are human first and it is that journey to forgiveness that keeps us human.
Moving toward forgiveness is a necessity that our healthy bodies and minds rely upon. We need to let go of the dark passenger that rides with us through our days and allows us no solace at night. Psychological research shows that being a forgiving person is essential to happiness. Just as all of us to some degree have been responsible for cultivating feelings of disappointment in those around us, we have also ALL been wronged and mistreated; we have felt anger, hatred, resentment. This misery causes you to suffer, not the person that spawned the feelings inside you. Greg Esterbrook writes in his article “Forgiveness Is Good for Your Health” that when “Buddha and Jesus and other great spiritual figures taught us to forgive those who sin against us, they weren’t just pronouncing holy philosophy. Rather, they were giving practical down-to-earth life advice.”
Forgiveness and Your Health
Katherine Piderman, Ph.D. writes in an article published by the Mayo Clinic that letting go of “grudges, bitterness and thoughts of revenge makes way for compassion, kindness and peace.” The health benefits related to these feelings are:
- Healthier relationships
- Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
- Less stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain
- Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse
The study of forgiveness and its subsequent health benefits is not a new concept. In 2004, Harvard Health Publications published “Power of Forgiveness—Forgive Others” and reported consistent findings with the Mayo Clinic study but added the following, which I find to be both fascinating and liberating:
- Reduced pain. A study on people with chronic back pain found that those who practiced meditation focusing on converting anger to compassion felt less pain and anxiety than those who received regular care.
- Greater happiness. When you forgive someone, you make yourself—rather than the person who hurt you—responsible for your happiness.
Everett Worthington, Jr., professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving,” concurs through his pioneering studies that people who refuse to forgive the wrongs committed against them tend to have, “lower immune-system function, and worse rates of cardiovascular disease than the population as a whole.”
By failing to forgive we simply punish ourselves.
My 9/11: WindanSea Beach, La Jolla, CA
So, should the couple whose lives were destroyed by the unfathomable and untimely death of their daughter gaze peacefully into the camera and declare their forgiveness as ash drifts in the stifling New York sky and the rawness of their desperation is so clearly visible? Of course not, but my wish is that by now—ten years later—they have found some peace and released the dark passenger from their personal journey.
I remember so vividly the evening of September 11, 2001. After stoically feeding my children dinner, I leashed up my dog Pepper and strapped the kids into the double stroller for a walk to WindanSea Beach. The sunset crowd was hanging out on the cliffs near Westbourne, some drinking their usual wine or cocktail. We’d all seen each other for years practicing this ritual, but somehow never exchanged more than a glance or slight smile. That harrowing evening, strangers stood arm in arm, leaning on each other, tears flowing, and guitars strumming as we all gazed at the reflection of the setting sun in the low tide. A bunch of surfers had dug out a huge circle in the damp sand and placed their boards inside of it to create the spokes of a peace sign.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
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