One of the most complex subjects human beings grapple with is understanding and embracing the concept of forgiveness. “… – 62 percent of American adults say they need more forgiveness in their personal lives, according to a survey by the nonprofit Fetzer Institute,” reports www.johnhopkins.org.
To be honest, I’m certainly not an expert on forgiveness. That’s why I was really surprised when a personal story of transitioning from unforgiveness to forgiveness that I wrote, was included in the recently released book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Forgiveness Fix.”
Like a lot of folks, I have secretly wrestled with this tricky topic for most of my life. According to the article, “What is Forgiveness?” on www.greatergood.berkeley.edu, “Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.”
There’s the complicated component, forgiving someone who has harmed you who might not “deserve your forgiveness,” especially when they aren’t remorseful for their actions. Two decades ago, I learned a lot about undeserved forgiveness from a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Elisabeth “Liesl” Sondheimer. My late friend, Liesl, eventually made her home in Lima, Ohio, after she fled her German homeland during Hitler’s reign of terror.
Like the famous Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Mrs. Sondheimer spent decades retelling the horrific account of the World War II extermination of more than six million European Jews to countless audiences. She was featured in the regional Emmy award-winning documentary, “A Simple Matter of God and Country.” Unlike Wiesenthal’s quandary concerning forgiveness highlighted in his book, The Sunflower, Liesl always maintained, “You must forgive, but never forget, or Hitler has won.” The silver-haired survivor’s ability to forgive astounded me.
Oh, I knew about forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I grew up mouthing these words as a Catholic school girl, almost daily reciting this line from “The Lord’s Prayer,” also known as the “Our Father.” Although I recited words about forgiveness, in my heart I had no idea how to forgive childhood trauma. I was the ultimate grudge keeper wearing my unforgiveness as a badge of honor.
As a vulnerable teen, I became consumed with a lack of forgiveness, which resulted in depression, migraine headaches, ulcers, and a failed suicide attempt. As a high school senior, I was committed to Toledo State Mental Hospital. During the 1970s, the barbaric institution only intensified my desire for validation, that I was the one who had been wrongfully treated. Yet when we are victimized, we become a further victim when we hang onto the hurt and bitterness.
There is a famous quotation that’s been circulating for decades, it says, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Our health truly can be affected. “Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards … lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure and levels of anxiety, depression and stress,” this according to the article, “Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on it” from www.johnhopkins.org.
Don’t get me wrong, this column isn’t about “cheap” forgiveness, which is denying the offense or violation. Nor does forgiving a grievous offense mean the perpetrator should be spared from consequences. Whether it’s a prison sentence, a permanently broken relationship, or instituting healthy boundaries; there are circumstances where we must protect ourselves or those we love from physical or emotional abuse being repeated.
For less serious matters though, it’s crucial to remember, no one’s perfect. It’s a pretty lonely existence when we hold others to such high standards that we refuse to forgive. In addition, the hardest thing can be to forgive ourselves when we mess up in a major way. Forgiveness is truly a gift we give ourselves. It is the condition of the heart where we let go of bitterness, anger, and a desire for revenge, and find emotional freedom.
But back to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Forgiveness Fix book,” which was released on Nov. 5. This is my third title as a contributor for this inspirational series of uplifting books. I’m beyond thrilled to have my story of embracing forgiveness as one of the 101 stories included. After all, for a girl who once was a champion grudge holder, this seems like a consummate testimony to the extraordinary power of grace.
Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and an inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.