No American will ever forget where he or she was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I'm no exception, though that date will always mark two major events in my life. When the first plane struck the World Trade Center, I was at a funeral home, preparing to act as a pallbearer at my father's memorial service and burial.
It was a duty I assumed with sadness but also some ambivalence. My father left home when I was 15. He had been cheating on my mother for years, it turns out, and had decided to start a new life. For the next quarter-century, I saw him only once or twice a year. Now and then he seemed to take an interest in my life and the lives of my siblings. But it was clear that he had a new family, new friends and new priorities. If pressed, for example, I'm sure he couldn't have named half of his grandchildren without some coaching. One of the most painful moments at his funeral occurred when several people I had never seen before that day stood up and shared loving memories of their charming, funny and devoted friend Bob.
When I learned my father's prostate cancer was incurable, I realized something about myself: I had never forgiven him for deserting our family. I still sent Father's Day cards, but on the inside I remained a rejected, bitter teenager. Which, trust me, is a lousy way to live -- bad for both the mind and the body, it turns out.
The clergy has long preached the importance of forgiveness, but in recent years scientists have produced evidence that letting go of anger toward the people who hurt us is good for mental and physical health.
Forgiveness isn't easy for anyone, but according to a 2001 study, men may cling to grudges a little more tightly than women do. Psychologist Loren Toussaint and colleagues at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research interviewed 1,423 Americans and rated 54 percent of women as scoring high in forgiveness of others, versus 49 percent of men. Meanwhile, 48 percent of women said they had asked forgiveness of others they had hurt, but just 37 percent of men had done the same.
The study, published in 2001 in the Journal of Adult Development, also found that people with forgiving personalities have fewer psychological problems, feel more satisfied with their lives and are generally healthier than grudge holders.
The same trend has turned up in other studies, including one with particular significance. A team led by Toussaint, now an assistant professor of psychology at Idaho State University in Pocatello, recently asked 400 Americans to rate how willing they were to forgive the terrorists who committed the Sept. 11 attacks. Toussaint's group found that the least forgiving people were also the least healthy.
They were more likely to suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, have trouble sleeping or report some kind of health problem.
Holding on to anger about an old hurt can also mess up your marriage or other relationships, says psychologist Fred Luskin, author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness (Harper San Francisco, 2001). "It's harder to let down one's defenses and achieve intimacy if you're carrying mistrust and mistreatment from the past," says Luskin. "You tend to act that out in the present relationship."
A grudge, of course, is nothing more than bottled-up, simmering anger. There's not much doubt among scientists that, over time, hostility harms the human body, especially the cardiovascular system. For example, a study published in 2000 by researchers at the University of North Carolina found that non-hypertensive people who are most prone to anger are nearly three times more likely to suffer a heart attack than people who are the least hotheaded. According to one theory, stress hormones may cause deadly clots to form in the arteries that feed blood to the heart. With that in mind, some scientists believe forgiveness may actually reduce the risk of heart disease. "Is there an antidote to anger?" asks Toussaint. "Forgiveness may be it."
In one study, psychologist Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet and her colleagues at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, asked 71 college students to think about someone who had hurt them and focus on the anger they felt toward that person. Then they asked the subjects to try to feel forgiveness toward the offender. All the while, the subjects were wired with electrodes that measured how their bodies responded to their emotions. While the students were nursing their grudges, their blood pressure surged and heart rates increased. Their muscles tensed, and they perspired more. Thinking about forgiveness, meanwhile, caused the subjects' cardiovascular systems and nerves to calm down.
Some guys are probably thinking: What am I supposed to do, become a doormat? Let jerks walk all over me, then let them off the hook? Witvliet says the old saying is wrong -- you don't have to forgive and forget. In other words, you can let go of your anger toward someone who has wronged you but then choose not to associate with him or her anymore. After all, Witvliet says, "It's wise to stay away from people who have proven themselves abusive or untrustworthy." The key, she says, is to free "yourself from the shackles of rage and resentment."
Toussaint says it's not clear what makes some people more forgiving than others. But research hints that receiving an apology from the offender makes it much easier for a grudge holder to drop the charge, he says. Empathy helps too. "If you can begin to understand what caused that person to harm you," says Toussaint, "you can begin to process some understanding and forgiveness."
I visited my father several times in the months before he died. Gradually the disease robbed him of the glib confidence he had relied on throughout his career as a salesman. On one occasion he wept while talking about his fear of death, the first time I had ever seen tears in his eyes. Another day, near the end, my father lay in bed muttering nonsense, his once-nimble mind addled by painkillers, the cancer or perhaps both. Suddenly he turned to me and asked, "Where did I go wrong?"
It was the closest thing to an apology he would ever offer. As his life slipped away, I found myself thinking less about my father's selfish, unrepentant side. Instead I was able to focus on his humanity, flaws and all, and realized that I could forgive him. I still have mixed feelings about my father. But the anger is mostly gone, and I no longer waste time and energy raging at the past.
Mental Health: Keeping Your Emotional Health. What about anger?. FamilyDoctor.org updated September, 2010
How the link between forgiveness and health changes with age. News release, December 11, 2001. University of Michigan News and Information Services.
Toussaint LL, et al. Forgivess and health: age differences in a U.S. probability sample. Journal of Adult Development. October 2001; 8(4)249-27.
Interview with Loren Toussaint, Ph.D., psychologist and assistant professor, Idaho State University, Pocatello
Interview with Fred Luskin, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness
Williams JE, et al. Anger proneness predicts coronary heart disease risk: prospective analysis from the atherosclerosis risk in communities (ARIC) study. Circulation. May 2000; 101(17):2034-9
Interview with Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet, Ph.D., psychologist and associate professor, Hope College