Forgiving What We Cannot Forget–Why Bother?

“Forgiving does not erase the bitter past.  A healed memory is not a deleted memory.  Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember.  We change  the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” Lewis Smede

We have all been hurt by others–some in small but painful betrayals and others in ways almost too horrible to imagine. I have listened to stories from victims of physical and sexual violence, from children who were bullied and tormented by peers, from adults whose partners cheated on them, from families torn apart by drug and alcohol abuse. Should we forgive people even when they are unwilling to acknowledge their wrongdoings let alone take responsibility for them? And if so, why?

Yes. The reason that forgiveness is important is because it actually helps the victim recover and get on with life. In the past ten years, the focus on this topic has grown enormously. The research has been teaching us what the benefits are to an individual’s physical, emotional and psychological health. In 2010, an entire issue of the Journal of Mental Health Counseling was devoted to forgiveness in therapy, summarizing the findings of over 1000 published psychological research articles on the topic.

There are clear mental health benefits that come with the ability to pardon those who have hurt us. Perhaps most notably, the research shows that an improved ability to forgive results in decreased depression and anxiety.

Those who are able to forgive also have a greater likelihood of experiencing significant posttraumatic growth. This means being able to get on with your life after the crisis has passed.

We also know that forgiving helps people shed their negative affect about whatever happened whether it be fear, anger, hurt, or all of the above. In turn, the subsequent decrease in obsessing about the crime or betrayal facilitates better sleep. Don’t we all know how difficult it is to participate happily in life when our sleep is chronically poor…

Speaking of sleep and physical health, other researchers have focused their efforts on the effects of forgiveness on specific medical issues. Results of one such study has shown that the inclination to forgive is associated with healthier ratios of both total to HDL cholesterol and LDL to HDL cholesterol. Given both their psychological (lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression) and physiological findings, Jennifer Friedberg and her colleagues concluded that “forgiveness may be associated with reduced risk for future cardiovascular events.”

Other researchers have found that forgiveness seems to confer increased immunity on its subjects bringing reduced symptoms during illness and better aging. Webb and his colleagues even found better physical markers of recovery among their patients who suffered spinal cord injuries in automobile accidents. We are learning that being capable of granting emotional pardon, for example, to the drunk driver or the distracted texting teen that hits you or a loved one actually seems to jump-start the healing process.

I am often pressed by clients wondering if they are being doormats if they forgive someone, particularly when that person is a spouse or family member. Forgiveness does not imply that you tolerate inappropriate or abusive behavior. Part of the process of healing also involves setting healthy clear boundaries when that has been part of the problem.

As Lewis Smede said so eloquently, “a healed memory is not a deleted memory.”  In fact, there are often gifts or new strengths that also come with trauma, reminding me of how the great mystical poet, Rumi, taught that “a wound is the place where the light enters you.” Clearly then, we should ”bother” with forgiveness–for our very own good.  (Next I’ll explore the how-to of forgiveness–how and when to let the bitterness go. Stay tuned).


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