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Father's Day - Forgiveness and Not Drinking The Poison

"Daddy," I whispered, feeling my own breath hitch in my throat, "I love you." Just when I was sure he was asleep, the one corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. "I knew that," he murmured. "Always knew that." Morgan Matson, Second Chance Summer.

Recently, John and I attended a small get together – we had bought an auction item which included a singing performance. When it came time for the singer to take a break, I chatted with her husband.

Rather quickly the conversation turned to the husband’s early life.  He - the husband and his family, had been poor because the father had abandoned them.  Despite the tragic story, I sensed no animosity, no bitterness toward the father.

The performer’s husband said he had learned how to forgive which made a huge difference in the man he became. He recounted that saying, I'm sure you've heard it. It has several versions and is attributed to many different people, “Holding on to hatred, revenge, anger, and unforgiveness are like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”  He told how his siblings were still wracked with pain, anger, and suffering over their father’s irresponsible behavior years ago.

Now I know about the concept of forgiveness and unforgiveness.  I know that drinking poison quip. In fact, I don’t think most people even question the truth of the saying. Probably because it seems so right as we look around at those caught in the long term grip of unforgiveness. We now know, indeed, there are serious physical and mental consequences of unforgiveness as characterized by holding on to anger, resentment, and thoughts of revenge.

1. Increased Stress Levels: Unforgiveness is associated with elevated stress responses. Holding onto anger and resentment can activate the body's stress response system, leading to increased levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. It’s associated with elevated blood pressure and heart rate.

2. Cardiovascular Problems: Chronic stress and anger can contribute to cardiovascular issues, such as hypertension, heart disease, and increased risk of heart attacks.

3. Weakened Immune System: Stress and negative emotions associated with unforgiveness can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses.

4. Chronic Pain and Somatic Complaints: Persistent anger and resentment can manifest as chronic pain, headaches, and other somatic complaints.

And how about the mental health consequences? Things are bleak in that area as well.

1. Increased Anxiety and Depression: Unforgiveness can lead to heightened levels of anxiety and depression, as individuals ruminate on negative experiences and emotions.

2. Lower Life Satisfaction and Well-Being: Holding onto grudges and resentment can diminish overall life satisfaction and well-being, leading to a more negative outlook on life.


3. Poorer Relationships: Unforgiveness can damage interpersonal relationships, leading to social isolation and a lack of social support, which are crucial for mental health.

4. Rumination and Cognitive Decline: Persistent rumination on past hurts and grievances can lead to cognitive decline and reduced mental flexibility.

Why? How?  There are a couple of mechanisms at work.

Unforgiveness perpetuates negative emotional states, such as anger, resentment, and hostility – which promote rumination, where individuals repeatedly think about distressing events, exacerbating stress and emotional pain.

From a physiological perspective: The stress response triggered by unforgiveness leads to the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Chronic activation of this response can have harmful effects on various bodily systems, including the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems.

It all seems rather unfair if we feel we have been the victim – seems only right that we want to get the perpetrators back or that some misfortune befall them. And truthfully, we love those movies where the bad guy gets what’s coming to him. I’ve been in movies where people have clapped when justice seems served.

It’s not nearly so satisfying to hear the backstory - that the bad guy was dealing with his own stuff or wasn’t all that bad – was doing the best he could with the hand that was dealt him.

And when it comes to the memories of our fathers or even our present-day interactions, forgiveness can be hard to contemplate. 

My father disappointed me as a kid.  He wasn’t like the fathers I saw on Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best. It’s taken me years to see his virtues, to forgive what I perceived as his failings. It really has helped me to remember that I don’t want to drink the poison.

In addition to remembering all the consequences of unforgiveness, practicing self-compassion has also helped me. In fact, it helps in most scenarios when I am disappointed, angry, hurt, resentful, grieving, or bitter.

Practicing self-compassion acknowledges the legitimacy of our feelings without getting carried away into pity. When I practice self-compassion, I settle into our common humanity.  I realize that I, like many others, sometimes suffer, have suffered, will suffer as a human being. I can direct kindness toward myself and all human beings. “May we be happy, may we be healthy, may we use our suffering to become wiser, kinder, more resilient, and compassionate.”

After I’ve done this practice for a while, I can also look at my memories of my father (or whoever has hurt me) with more love and understanding for both myself and for him. At this moment in time, I can even enjoy some of my dad’s unique quirks - remember funny stories of him being him. Especially, I can appreciate the lengths he went to in his later years to become a man that his daughter could love and respect.

Some of those Father’s Day cards, “You’re number 1, Dad” just don’t fit for me though. They seem dishonest, superficial.  My card, if he were alive and I sent it today, probably would say something like:

Dear Dad, as I see Father’s Day approaching, I’m thinking of you.  There are things I want to thank you for. I’m quite sure it was largely you who gave me the courage to dance to my own drummer, joy in learning and respect for wisdom wherever I find it, eyes to see the value of the outcast, and the deep knowledge that love eventually wins. And though it’s taken me awhile, I am at peace in forgiving you as I know you have forgiven me.

How might we journey together to the Good Life on this Father’s Day practicing forgiveness and self-compassion in any area of our lives where we want healing?

And let me take a moment to appreciate my husband for being “number 1 Dad” and granddad to our children and grandchildren. And may your father's day be healing - full of gratitude or forgiveness or both. What card would you write?


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