Like me, did you miss the call to forgive somebody at an early age? It took me a lifetime to learn the brain’s ability to embrace genuine reconciliation. Need to forgive, be forgiven, or both?
In addition to our basal ganglia storehouse to stockpile forgiveness – our brains come with equipment that segues into peace and recaptures gratitude, hope and joy. It’s rarely easy to pardon though, and has little to do with showing our side of a story in defense.
Forgiveness literally alters the brain’s wiring – and builds new neuron pathways into physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Some of us take longer than others to don its superpower.
Two months after my mother died of cancer, I found myself at 14 alone on Barrington Street in Halifax in April. For weeks as mom deteriorated, I saw safety slip away. I watched six siblings crumble and felt myself falling, like frail wooden structures burned and melted into ashes outside our living room window when lightning struck at night and ignited a fire over at McCullough’s lumberyard.
Just after dinner, my sister, two older brothers and I, slipped out the back door without a sound. The closed door separated us from dad’s vulgar taunts about who’d get to work and pay him rent, and who’d run the house and prepare his meals. In spite of the fact we were all still in school he assured us we’d work now, and he let us know any salary made was his. All of it.
Without words or luggage all four teens trudged together toward dusk that hovered over the city center. Too afraid to speak or speculate where we’d be when darkness closed in around us, I sneaked into a busy bus depot. With chicken-fried steak scents near the depot’s café, it reeked of stale whiskey near its long, wooden pews edged against metal lockers with graffiti not worth repeating. I tried not to think about darkness closing in around me, or worry about the others when my sister announced, “We’ll need to separate to survive.” Fear etched haunting graffiti images across screens along the back of my mind, and with it came a seeming inability to let go of disappointments and memories of domestic violence.
We shift our focus to move ahead only after we drop blame or let go of the need to explain our perspective. A brain forgives after we find even a drop of compassion for a person we still care about or anyone who hurt us, for that matter. Have you been there?
Forgiveness was the last thing on my mind, as, I laid my head on a bus depot bench and closed my eyes near a noisy family, who promised a crying toddler and malnourished teen that they’d be boarding a midnight bus to Truro.
I awoke alone, and far away from family or any mental benefits that emerge in forgiveness. Thanks to a teacher, Sister Ligouri, who knew my mom had died recently, and must have sensed home fell apart, kindness gradually became more important than hostility. Ligouri helped me find a room to finish the school year, and restored the benefits of a healthy adult relationship to me.
By the term’s end, I’d turned 15, skinny as the white plastic skeleton that hung from a hat rack in science class, had gotten kicked out of my rooming house for late rent payments, and had accepted Ligouri’s offer to clean at her convent in return for a room during the coming year. She also helped me to enroll in university after 11th grade based on good standing and a trial offer at Mount Saint Vincent University.
With a student loan bankrolled and Ligouri’s support, I caught the CN train and worked for the summer in a Jasper Park Lodge office. In September I moved into my college dorm, enthused to begin my study of human brains but too young and broke to pause, reflect, or avoid the stress that follows lingering grudges.
Anxiety only added to mental hostility during that year. While it gets dubbed by many names stress literally shrinks the brain and anxiety drains mental life. Toxic chemicals rob our courage to embrace kindness or show genuine care we feel.
Research shows dangerous effects of stress caused by unforgiveness . Sure, it masks as savior, but it strikes as killer! Luckily, I gradually discovered it doesn’t have to be that way.
Forgiveness, restores wonder, because it leads to:
- Healthy relationships where others see efforts to make peace larger than personal gain.
- Restoration of a past relationship that we broke or damaged by missteps we may not even understand.
- Fewer loneliness tanks and higher spiritual and psychological peaks to wellbeing
- Stress-free friendships that sidestep hostilities by yielding personal desires for shared harmony
- Fewer risks associated with depression, stress, and substance abuse that follows
We crave trusted relationships, yet sometimes we seem unable to attain these, because fear confuses us and distorts perceptions about what’s really going on, mentally. When hurt by people we trusted or loved, our brain slips into confusion and sadness tends to follow.
We begin to replay painful incidents mentally, or dwell on hurtful events, and negative feelings begin to crowd out possibilities until we begin to drown in a sense of sorrow or regret. The brain’s basal ganglia stores every reaction to severe disappointments. And if negative or bitter – these reactions limit our chances for finding well-being, because we lash out with blame in similar situations. If we repeatedly find ourselves drowning in a sense of injustice or bitter disappointment as I did – we create a pattern of bitterness.
It’s no surprise that stored mental toxins follow us into new relationships, and the cost tends to be far higher than the pain of disappointment. Our actions become tainted by the sense of loss – so that we lose sight of our ability to enjoy the present. Unable to understand our feelings, we use anger to cover up our hurt. Depression and anxiety spring from an inability to forgive. We begin to sense our life lacks meaning to others we love most, and we seem to be at odds with all that we hold dear. Unless checked – we begin to lose ongoing connections with those we care about most.
Holidays can be the worst time for depression and loneliness to spawn! But it doesn’t have to be this way, if we create space for mindfulness, forgiveness follows and stress shrinks by default!
How does the brain deal with forgiveness?
Laugh like three year olds, who stay active, curious and ready to be surprised by joy from others. Forgive fast before we grasp onto the need to be right. Make it daily!
Forgiveness is measured in health and well-being, in spite of injustices and disappointments. To forgive a person who judges or hurts us is to refuse the role of victim and to unleash a new chemical and electrical circuitry for letting go of grudges. Once we limp past hurdles of anger or grief, we often begin to enter new doors of compassion and understanding for others who face let-downs or disappointments.
If we demand justice as a door into wellbeing as I did, we’ll likely find it harder to forgive folks who fail to see the problem or admit the pain it caused. If we value a person deeply, forgiving that person is likely harder because our amygdala stores its memory and our mind replays each sting. It takes a stronger desire for integrity, peace and wellbeing to move forward.
We can sense forgiveness if we no longer feel stress or tension in a person’s presence. No longer will we need to be understood, when we begin to understand, what Khalil Gibrand pointed out:
If you love somebody, let them go. If they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.
Here’s where an open mind helps to sustain forgiveness – and it doesn’t depend on another person feeling regret or sharing in our hurt. Admit our own mistakes quickly and treat others as if we walked in their shoes when conflicts arise. The brain responds with a warmth of compassion, care and curiosity – as forgiveness reconnects us to people we cherish.
When face with the choice to let go or get even, I’m learning to choose forgive and let go. You?
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