Practicing Forgiveness is lifestyle medicine approach



I'd like to wrap up this post with a few words on forgiveness. My lifestyle medicine approach requires that I do a thorough evaluation with new patients, including social connections. Far too often, as I counsel patients and families, they talk to me about ongoing familial conflicts, anger, and resentment. What I have found is that as humans we often hold on to our deepest grudges and offenses against family members—after all, those closest to us often have the most power to inflict hurt. These disputes might go on for a long time, at enormous cost to everyone.

One of my patients recently told me that she and her brother had not spoken to each other for years. When I asked her why, she responded, “He's a jerk.â€‌ But as we talked, her sense of regret began to come through. At one point, she told me, they were very close. I encouraged her to share some of those good memories. I was surprised as she went on, smiling as she shared one loving encounter after another. Then I asked if she could describe the inciting event—the moment when things turned sour. She paused, her eyes filled with tears, and she said, “Lots of little things, really. I don't have one specific thing; I just feel like he was never there for me when I needed him.â€‌
I've heard similar stories from other patients and seen how conflicts that remain unforgiven often leave in their wake a void of pain and solitude. Grudges and feuds take the joy out of life, and prevent us from deepening our connections to the people in our innermost circle. I think this is why so many religious and spiritual traditions all over the world encourage the practice of forgiveness. We have learned that strengthening the depth and quality of our connections with others serves to reduce our risk of disease and support our own longevity. Forgiveness is one of the most direct and powerful paths to access these benefits.
I want to be clear—forgiveness doesn't mean being “niceâ€‌ or allowing yourself to be hurt or staying in an abusive or unhealthy situation. In fact, forgiveness can be an important aspect of self-care, as you realize that you deserve to be loved and treated well. Everyone makes mistakes, but if there is a pattern of bad behavior, it's important to stand up for yourself and create some distance in whatever way makes the most sense. In these cases perhaps most of all, forgiving another person for past hurts—whether or not they “deserveâ€‌ forgiveness—can be a profoundly healing and transformational experience, as you let go of the pain on your own terms and move on.
Is there someone out there for whom you've held a grudge or resentment for years? What if you were to reach out to this person? Or if that's not best or even possible, can you imagine an encounter with them in your mind? Start with a clear and generous intention, something along the lines of, “I know we've been distant for a long time, and I've felt guilty and sad about it. Would you be opposed to sharing how you feel with me?â€‌ Own your part of the story, including any mistakes you've made or hurt you've caused. Commit to listening to their side of things. What would that feel like? It's probably a little scary to think about. What if they reject your kindness? What if it makes you feel inferior, embarrassed, or foolish? Let me assure you that regardless of how the other person reacts, this act of forgiveness and connection will be a big win for you. Even if you are not able to repair your relationship, forgiveness will empower you to let go and move on, rather than being a victim stuck in your past pain.
Remember, no matter what happens, you can always call on your mindfulness practice to see and experience things as they are, not as you wish them to be. When a conflict arises with family or close friends, the only thing you can control is your response. Feel your feelings, acknowledge them, and cherish your loved ones as they are. Your love, kindness, and acceptance trump all.
In my view, we build the closest bonds of social connection through our vulnerability. Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is a hero of mine, and I recall that a high school student once wrote to him asking, “What was the greatest event in American history?â€‌ He replied: “I can't say. However, I suspect that like so many â€کgreat’ events, it was something very simple and very quiet with little or no fanfare (such as someone forgiving someone else for a deep hurt that eventually changed the course of history).
Forgiveness is a critical and sometimes misunderstood part of living a whole and connected life. We can all think of times when we've been hurt by others or have hurt others ourselves, and our culture tells us that forgiveness is important. But usually our awareness of the power of forgiveness stops there. Forgiveness is not about pretending that what happened is OK or “letting someone off the hookâ€‌ for hurting you. Instead, it's about letting go of the way that past hurt is continuing to hurt you. Forgiving others means that you are releasing yourself in order to move forward.
Of course, this can be a challenging process for many of us. Luckily, there are exercises available to us to strengthen our “forgiveness muscles,â€‌ and I've included some of these at the end of this chapter. I hope you will consider them a part of your journey as you foster strong social bonds with your family, your friends, and your community.

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