01/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Most Generous Gift of All is Free

If you find yourself lurching from obligation to obligation this holiday season, wondering why you are not in the mood for shopping, parties, or celebratory hoop-lah, why not give yourself permission to stop performing and spend a few moments thinking about what Christmas means to you.

If there was one thing that you could give that could change another person's life and your own...that would cost you nothing financially...would you choose to give this in lieu of a physical present?

What if this particular gift came with a complete set of 46 scientific studies proving that it can lower your blood pressure, improve cardiovascular functioning, relieve stress, reduce anger, and improve your overall state of health and well-being?

If you are thinking it sounds too good to be true, you are wrong. The gift is forgiveness: the act of giving up resentment or anger towards another person or yourself.

There is, of course, a price for everything. Forgiving demands that you give up your justifications for holding on to anger. Even the most delicious grudge must be relinquished to create the emotional space for forgiveness to occur.

Do I hear you saying, "But, but, but....remember the time...?" I know. There's nothing as satisfying as calling up a really good grudge. It's like a favorite pair of old sneakers: ugly, worn-out, and oh-so comfortable. Remembering the events that triggered a grudge may feel like putting salve on an emotional wound. But holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

These days, most of us feel some resentment towards something or someone: the economy, Wall Street, the President, Congress, our employers, and the usual suspects. If you have just lost your job, are in danger of going into foreclosure, or no longer have retirement income or investment assets, it is easy to be blame "them" for your emotional pain. Or you may be using this opportunity to punish yourself. Perhaps you are enraged at what feels like a betrayal of your belief in hard work and playing by the rules. You may even feel angry at God for not intervening on your behalf.

When it comes to finding a gift that can soothe these soul-wounds, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that there is nothing you can buy to take the pain way. The bad news is that there is nothing you can buy to take the pain away.

The great news is that such a gift exists. You won't find in a store. It sounds corny but you can, if you look, find it in your heart.

That is, if you allow yourself to go there.

In her book Led By Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocidem>, Immaculee Ilibagiza describes hiding out in a bathroom with seven other women while her Hutu neighbors were hacking her parents, both members of the Tutsi tribe, to death with machetes. She could hear them calling her name: "Immaculee, you are next."

When the genocide ended, she emerged from her hiding place to find piles of dismembered corpses along the roadsides. In total, more than 500,000 people were killed during the four month killing spree. While in the bathroom, Immaculee had shriveled to 80 pounds and could see her organs through her skin.

In a recent conversation, Immaculee told me what went through her mind while she was in hiding. "I would ask God, 'How could this happen? And why was I born a Tutsi?' I was fighting my anger and fear. When they were with me, I was paralyzed," she said. Her mind wandered to thoughts of revenge and what she would do when she emerged from hiding. "I was just thinking about what I can do to hurt people who have made me miserable," she said. "But then I realized that the fear was eating my soul. I asked God to help me out and take away the fear."

Looking back, Immaculee believes that was the first step in her finding inner peace. "I knew that my pain was not because of anyone outside who was doing this to me. The demons that were eating my soul were coming from me."

This realization led her to search for the neighbor who had murdered her mother and a brother. He was serving time for the murders he committed in a jail near her home town. After Immaculee gained permission to visit him, she did not know if she would be scared or angry. What happened next surprised her.

"I began crying," she said. "I told him I forgive him."

The prison guard got angry with her. "Don't you love your parents? How can you forgive their murderer?"

"Forgiveness is all I have to give," she said.

The financial mess we are in cannot be compared to the horror of genocide. But our fears, angers, and insecurities are similar in that they come from us and not from anyone or any thing external. Each of us has the capacity to become forgiving instead of blaming and resenting people or institutions. In our willingness to explore what it's like to forgive, we move from helplessness to a state of spiritual empowerment. We help ourselves and others when we let go of those grudges and say, "I forgive you."

Forgiveness research studies: