The woman made her way slowly and painfully across my office and into a chair. Her name was Jaylee. She was attractive, in her early forties, with mahogany hair pulled back in a low ponytail—but she was obviously in great discomfort. As she began her story, silent tears coursed down her face and fell onto hands that were clasped tightly in her lap—hands that were beginning to show signs of arthritic disfigurement.
She unfolded her story to me. Several years before, Jaylee had returned home early from a meeting—to find her husband in bed with the babysitter.
“I’ve tried to get over it,” she said. “We got a new bed and redecorated the room. We went to counseling. I’ve tried everything—I really have—but nothing has worked. Every time I look at him, all I see in my mind’s eye is the two of them in our bed in the midst of rumpled sheets. And to add insult to injury, a few weeks ago, my doctor told me I had an autoimmune disease. I’m always in pain. Everything about my body aches.”
I listened carefully before responding. “Have you tried changing the picture in your mind’s eye?” I asked at last. “Have you purposefully envisioned a replacement image whenever that old picture pops up?”
She shook her head. “That psychological stuff doesn’t work for me.”
I smiled. “It’s brain-function stuff.”
She rolled her eyes and continued. “As I said, I’ve tried everything, but nothing has helped. Finally, I told him to move out.”
“And how is that working?” I asked. Silence, and more tears.
“It appears that you’re still sad,” I said. “It’s been five years since the incident. What are you still sad about?”
In a nanosecond, her entire demeanor changed. Her black eyes blazed fire and indignation. “What do you think I’m sad about?” she shouted. “Are you a moron? He ruined my life. That’s what I’m sad about!”
However, it appeared to me that sadness was the least part of the woman’s problem. She raged on for several minutes about the injustice of life. After all, she’d been a good wife and mother and didn’t deserve this. Repeat: did not deserve this. Finally, she wound down, took a deep breath, and sighed.
“But have you tried forgiving him?” I asked.
Shaking her head, Jaylee replied, “He asked me many times to forgive him but it was all just too offensive. Now it’s too late. He remarried last month. Besides, why should I forgive him? He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.”
“None of us deserves to be forgiven for any faux pas,” I said.
“Faux pas!” Jaylee all but yelled. “Are you kidding me? What he did was absolutely unforgivable. It ruined my life. Faux pas, indeed!”
I squelched a smile. My French heritage had bubbled up before I’d had time to consider that blunder would have been a more appropriate word choice.
“You could still forgive him,” I said. “It’s never too late. The person could have died, and you could still forgive.”
Some definitions for forgiveness focus on reducing unforgiveness. Many acts have the potential to reduce unforgiveness and are thus often confused with forgiveness. As one researcher put it, successful vengeance will eliminate unforgiveness, but no one would confuse vengeance with forgiveness.
“Forgiveness does not mean that you deny the other’s responsibility for injuring or hurting you, nor does it mean condoning bad behavior, minimizing and justifying the wrong, or excusing the act,” I explained. “And it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to choose between reconciling or remaining in an abusive relationship or environment or that you waive your right to justice and appropriate compensation.”
Jaylee sat motionless, glowering at me.
I explained that at least two types of forgiveness appear in scholarly literature: “decisional forgiveness” and “emotional forgiveness.”
Decisional forgiveness is a behavioral intention to resist taking an unforgiving stance and to respond differently toward a transgressor. Emotional forgiveness is the replacement of negative, unforgiving emotions with positive, other-oriented emotions. Emotional forgiveness has more direct consequences on our health and well-being.
A different way
I suggested to Jaylee that she begin with decisional forgiveness and, hopefully, move on to emotional forgiveness.
“The bottom line,” I said, “is that forgiveness and forgiving appear to be crucial to healthy living. When you say, ‘I forgive you,’ you’re also saying, ‘I want to be healthy.’ The act of forgiving allows the body to turn down the manufacture of catabolic chemicals and instructs the subconscious to banish negative feelings from the mind.
“Forgiveness has less to do with others and everything to do with the forgiver. In this case, that would be you.”
“Think of it this way,” I continued. “Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself, a way to stop harboring destructive feelings that will only sap your health and happiness. It’s a way of helping you to feel better. Forgiveness can improve your health.
“If you choose not to forgive, you will likely be the one who pays most dearly. I once heard it put this way: a person living in unforgiveness, all the while wishing that the other person would die, is the one actually drinking the deadly poison. I know that you’re accustomed to holding a grudge, but there is another way.”
A gift for oneself
Unforgiveness may lie behind many of the problems we humans have to grapple with in life. According to one cleric, his belief at the time of his ordination was that about half of all problems were due, at least in part, to unforgiveness.
Ten years later, he estimated that at least three-quarters of all health, marital, family, and financial problems stem from unforgiveness. After more than 20 years in ministry, he concluded that more than 90 percent of these problems are rooted in issues related to unforgiveness.
“In fact ,” I explained to Jaylee, “it appears that the one who forgives tends to benef it more than the one who is forgiven.”
Jaylee would have none of it. Rising from the chair, she painfully made her way toward the door. “I’ll think about it and let you know,” were her parting words.
Several days passed. The weekend came and went and was followed by another. Then one morning the call light on my office phone started blinking. Picking up the receiver, I dialed into my messages. The words “I’ve decided” came to my ear. “And I won’t do it,” the voice said. “I’ve decided I’ll die first!”
I replaced the receiver regretfully. Sadly, and unnecessarily, Jaylee probably would die first—a devastation that might have been avoided.
Do you need to forgive yourself for something? Is there anybody in your life you need to forgive? How healthy do you want to be?
Forgiveness is a choice, a gift you give to yourself. If, like Jaylee, you’ve been suffering the life-destroying consequences of unforgiveness, then choose forgiveness instead. It will allow you to move on with life and really live.