I used to wonder how someone could forgive another who had caused them great harm. Then, I had an experience that helped me see the path to forgiveness and understand how important it is to my well-being.
It was the biggest snow storm that I could ever remember in my lifetime, the winter of my 20th year. Ninety percent of my small hometown had stayed home that morning and the roads were quite deserted. Imagine my surprise when I got out of my car in the paper company’s parking lot and a ski-masked man approached me. The snow was coming down so hard that I could barely see him; he appeared out of nowhere. He first asked me for directions and when I tried to keep walking, he pulled a gun on me. He insisted that I get back into my vehicle…I offered him my purse and car keys but he informed me he didn’t want that. At that split second, I had a decision to make – to get back in the car and possibly be murdered or to reason with him for my safe release.
As I argued with him out loud, in my mind, I was praying for God to protect me and to give me the wisdom necessary to save my life. After quite some time of reasoning with him, I convinced him to walk out on the street with me (knowing I was walking toward my office). The calming words I spoke to him seemed to be coming from someplace other than my own fearful thoughts. After we had walked the two blocks, I was able to simply walk in front of him and his gun and go into my office building, unharmed. Now, that would seem to be the end of my story, but at that point - when I was finally safe – then began my journey of healing the anger and fear and trying to forgive the man who had almost abducted me.
In this age of 24/7 news, we are constantly being bombarded by terrible stories with far worse outcomes than my story. Recently, Elizabeth Smart was interviewed by Meredith Vieira about her ordeal after being abducted when she was 14 and held captive for nine months. Her great faith in God was certainly what she believes sustained her during those long months of abuse. And, she says her own spirituality and her mother’s advice about forgiveness have been important elements in her healing.
Elizabeth Smart endured a horrific experience that I can barely comprehend. But, with God’s help, she moved forward by first doing mission work, followed by work to help children in crisis situations….always with grace and courage. She said forgiving her captor was instrumental in enabling her to do so. In an interview with LDS Living Magazine, “I’ve forgiven him, but that doesn’t mean I ever want to see him again,” she clarifies. “I know that I have a Heavenly Father who loves me. I have no doubt that justice will be served one day, so there’s no reason for me to hold on to the hurt or anger or to dwell in the past. I trust in God that the best will come out. He is perfectly just and perfectly merciful.” Ms. Smart also urges others who are struggling to never give up. “No matter what happens, we have a Heavenly Father who is always there and will never abandon us.”
Does it matter whether we forgive or not? What’s wrong with holding on to anger, hurt and desire for revenge? Well, researchers are finding a powerful connection between being able to forgive and our well-being and happiness. After my own ordeal, I was an emotional wreck. Only after I forgave the abductor was I able to have peace and live a fully healthy life again. Similarly, in her book, My Story, Elizabeth Smart tells trauma survivors that it is possible to be happy again. And when speaking at a Healthy Women’s Expo in September, she encouraged women to follow her example to “overcome… and go on to be happy” by leaving the past behind and thus improve their well-being. (Ms. Smart’s speech was to Healthy Woman, a program that helps improve the emotional, physical and fiscal well-being of women.)
Florida State University psychologist Nathanial Lambert believes that we all have been guilty of a transgression at one time or another. Add that to the fact that nine out of 10 Americans say they pray. He put these two facts together and further studied what would happen if all that prayer was directed at the people who have wronged us. He wanted to research whether directed prayer might spark forgiveness in those who were doing the praying. Lambert and his colleagues decided to test this scientifically. Their experiments measuring forgiveness appeared in Psychological Science. The scientists defined forgiveness as the diminishing of the initial negative feelings that arise when you’ve been wronged. Their results showed that those who had prayed harbored fewer vengeful thoughts and emotions. They were more ready to pray and move on. They also determined that the healing effects of prayer appeared to shift attention from one’s self back to others, which allows resentments to fade.
Maybe you have been the victim of a terrible crime or maybe there is something in your life for which you need to forgive yourself. For a long time after my incident, I let that man’s actions control my feelings and activities. But, eventually, I knew that the same God I prayed to for protection would help me forgive this man of his crime against me.
Today, each of us can find peace and happiness in our life by forgiving ourselves or others and moving forward. No one can do it for us. It wasn’t easy, but I found that by forgiving him, I was refusing to allow that masked man to have power over me and that was the most powerful – and healthy - choice I could make.
(Debra Chew writes about the connection between thought, spirituality and health. She has been published in the chattanoogan.com, Memphis Commercial Appeal, and in the UK. She is also the media and legislative liaison for Christian Science for TN. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)