Years ago, I got really into this Texas mega preacher, Joel Osteen. Maybe you have heard of him, as he is a best-selling author, tours the country and sells out stadiums, yes stadiums like the Rose Bowl and Madison Square Garden, for his inspirational talks and religious concerts and he is very good-looking to boot! As I listened to him and read his stuff for several months, I came to realize that he really has only one theme, one message that he continues to preach week in and week out, and it goes something like this: God loves us, God wants us to succeed, we can love ourselves, we can succeed and we should never give up on ourselves. That seemed to be pretty much all he ever said and people loved it! I know that I am simplifying it a bit, but I came to be cynical about that message, knowing that there is also pain and suffering in the world, challenges and hardships in the world--he always seemed to be happy, smiling and telling thousands of people each week (his church services get 21,000 people each week) that all will be fine and that all is possible. I stopped listening to him and the crush wore off. However, in honor of my upcoming 40th birthday, I am channeling my inner Osteen and want to share some happy thoughts, beginning with forgiveness and how we work with this challenging concept in relating to love and compassion.
Forgiveness, or what my friend and colleague, film producer Julie Bergman Sender calls the "F" word, is at once the most challenging and yet incredibly moving human concept we know. Many of us understand forgiveness from a religious standpoint, so I want to offer some thoughts about forgiveness from a more medical or psychological framework. In studying the issue some on-line, I found an interesting article by Dr. Katherine Piederman, staff chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/forgiveness/MH00131 ) She defines forgiveness as: a decision to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness is the act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings that bind you to the offense committed against you. This can reduce the power these feelings otherwise have over you, so that you can a live freer and happier life in the present. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you. She goes on to talk about the medical benefits of forgiveness, including:
• Lower blood pressure
• Stress reduction
• Less hostility
• Better anger management skills
• Lower heart rate
• Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
• Fewer depression symptoms
• Fewer anxiety symptoms
• Reduction in chronic pain
• More friendships
• Healthier relationships
• Greater religious or spiritual well-being
Improved psychological well-being
I noticed that she put religious and spiritual well-being near the end of the list. We often think of forgiveness as related solely to our spiritual selves, an aspect of living that might not affect how we live physically. In Judaism, we focus on forgiving around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, seeking to mend our lives in ways that will offer us a greater sense of peace. Yet, forgiveness is an area of life that merits our attention year round, for when we carry grudges, the burden weighs us down, prohibits us from living fully and can often boil over to the point where we do or say something that we will truly regret. I want you to think about a time in your life when someone hurt you, insulted you, mistreated you, wronged you in some way that caused you pain and who you have not forgiven. Try to bring into your consciousness the weight of that pain; see if you can feel it physically. Close your eyes if that helps. If it is something that is current for you right now, notice how you feel. If it something from the past, notice how it feels to conjure the feelings up right now. Notice your body posture, if it changed; notice your hands, jaw, chest--did they tense up? We can often notice feelings in our body before we notice them in our minds or souls. In thinking about why we cause this pain to ourselves by not forgiving, Dr. Piederman says, "When you experience hurt or harm from someone's actions or words, whether this is intended or not, you may begin experiencing negative feelings such as anger, confusion or sadness, especially when it's someone close to you. These feelings may start out small. But if you don't deal with them quickly, they can grow bigger and more powerful. They may even begin to crowd out positive feelings. Grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility take root when you dwell on hurtful events or situations, replaying them in your mind many times." Does this sound like something you can relate to? I know that I can. And while forgiveness operates in many different ways for different people, I like Dr. Piederman's explanation of how to begin the process, when she says, "One step is to recognize the value of forgiveness and its importance in our lives at a given time. Another is to reflect on the facts of the situation, how we've reacted, and how this combination has affected our lives, our health and our well-being. Then, as we are ready, we can actively choose to forgive the one who has offended us. In this way, we move away from our role as a victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in our lives. Forgiveness also means that we change old patterns of beliefs and actions that are driven by our bitterness. As we let go of grudges, we'll no longer define our lives by how we've been hurt, and we may even find compassion and understanding."
I recently saw a clip from my friend Julie's documentary "The 'F' Word" about forgiveness. I was moved to tears when I saw a few of the following ideas in front of me: a father whose daughter was killed by the Oklahoma City bombing going to the home of Timothy McVeigh's father and crying together; an Israeli mother writing to the Palestinian mother of the young man who killed her son in a terrorist attack and crying together; a South African man whose body was totally mutilated by a letter bomb and how he now travels the world to preach forgiveness and tolerance; a young American man whose brother was killed on 9/11 talking about peace and not revenge. All of these people were real human beings, with real stories and real pain. And the one thing that they shared in common was this: they each had free-will to act on the pain and resentment they felt and independently chose to seek forgiveness, and remarkable, independently spoke of the release and new hope they gained from acting this way. It was remarkable and gave me hope that truly anything is possible when we act from a place of love, compassion and forgiveness. These were extreme cases, but all real. I felt, "if they can do it, what am I waiting for?" I invite you to think about your lives and your pains from this perspective as well.
Forgiveness has the power to change lives and change our world. When we find the capacity within ourselves to let go of past wrongs, whether or not the person who wronged us has changed or not, we wrest control of our spiritual and emotional lives from the "dark side," the side of all of us that constantly screams at us not to forgive, not to let ourselves be vulnerable, that we always have to be right. Forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting by any means, but it does mean allowing a new spirit of renewal and understanding fill us and guide us. Love and compassion are directly related to forgiveness for we know that there is no love without forgiveness and no forgiveness without love. This applies to ourselves as much as to others. Just as we can sometimes show love and compassion to others more easily, many of us also find it easier to forgive others then to forgive ourselves. Carrying a burden of resentment is heavy enough when it toward toward another; when carrying it about ourselves, it can oftentimes become unbearable. Forgiving ourselves is key to living the healthier life that Dr. Piederman calls us to aim towards. This is the key to in our personal relationships, in our family relationships, in our national relationships and in the global relationships that remain stuck in resentment and anger. In each case, forgiveness has the potential to remake us, renew us and revitalize us. And as Gandhi spoke so poignantly, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong." And from a Jewish voice, the Gaon of Vilna teaches, "Each day should be a new experience. Each day we have the opportunity of a fresh start. A person who has forgiven is like a newborn child." May we all find ways to wrestle with forgiveness, to release burdens of past resentment and rebuild our lives in healthier, more productive and radiant pathways. And may that process begin right here at home, right inside ourselves.