Recently released from nearly 30 years in prison, anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, right, and state president of South Africa Frederik de Klerk shake hands at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 1992. Photo: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia

Is there a path that can lead us out of the bitterness that makes daily headway in so many lives? Is there no end to taking offense and forming grudges? Where is this now accepted social standard of getting even taking us? Does resentment build up within us over smaller and smaller things? And for those who have truly been hurt, where over time will their bitterness take them if left unchecked?

Consider an ancient solution — a way through —today’s vengeful cultural climate. Without taking on a preachy tone, and in the hope of sharing some thoughts on a complicated topic, this writer hopes to shed some light on forgiveness, and the inner peace, and the enhanced physical and mental health it can bring to anyone who decides to forgive.

Forgiveness has been explained in many ways, from the ancients to the Bible to scientific journals. Some describe it as the most important contribution one can make to the healing of the world. So let’s define forgiveness as the active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings, whether the wrongdoer deserves it or not. This definition captures an often overlooked quality of forgiveness: it primarily helps the forgiver, usually far more than the forgiven, for the wrong done.

Wrongs that another does to us will often cause anger, or stress, or anxiety. This is not always the case, as some people, studies have found, are naturally more forgiving. Life for them, research shows, is much more satisfying, with less depression. Dr. Martin Luther King’s words come to mind: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”

Overall, those more inclined to forgive will spare themselves the sometimes disabling burden that hurt and disappointment impose. Nelson Mandela, who left behind him almost 30 years of harsh imprisonment for his political activism, shared this about his lack of anger: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping that it will kill your enemies.”

Here’s where an interesting, recent survey comes in: performed by the non-profit Fetzer Institute, it shows that 62 percent of Americans say they need more forgiveness in their lives. So forgiveness has come to mean for them a release of anger, and of the resentment and hostility that go with it. In that release, there is then ample room for the feeling of empathy, compassion, and at times affection for the person who wronged you.

For many, calling it a “wrong” is a term that seems to minimize the cause enormous hurt some can cause. In his compelling as well as instructive book, “Why Forgive,” Johann C. Arnold wisely recognizes the near impossibility of forgiving such grim behavior as violent crime, abuse, bigotry, even what happens in war.

But here again, there’s something about forgiveness that the Houston Chronicle, in its review of this book, calls an eye-opening simplicity: forgiveness helps to check a side of our nature that can otherwise devour us.

The ancient, spiritual gift to those who forgive now has science to support it. Johns Hopkins Hospital’s director of their Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic, Karen Swartz, MD, reports that a decision to forgive, and to keep forgiving, lowers the risk of heart attack, improves sleep, even cholesterol levels, and in turn reduces blood pressure and the intensity of anxiety and stress.

Moreover, this forgiveness/health connection, Dr. Swartz tells us, increases with age. Conversely, getting older with continuous unforgiving through life brings far more harm to us than to the person we need to forgive.

So when wronged, whether it’s a slight of some social sort, or strained family relationships, or gossip that gets back to us, or workplace tensions, or far more serious actions with even tragic outcomes, that is when we are presented a number of paths:

Some will take the path of adding to their collection of grudges, building upon a catalog of people and things to resent; some will go further, and weigh themselves down with plans on how to get even; some will remember and dwell on the wrong’s tiniest details, letting the bitterness grow over a long period of time; and some will believe, largely from self-pity, that they have been hurt too often or too deeply, so much so in their minds that they are an exception from the need to forgive.

All these paths, for those who choose them, lead to one miserable place – their own self-incarceration.

The path of forgiveness, however, offers recovery from an injury. It’s not based on fairness — fairness has nothing to do with it. Nor does it excuse the pain that is a part of life and relationships, and it’s certainly not forgetting or condoning a wrong.

Forgiving still acknowledges a hurtful act, but we see beyond it. That is the path to a new lease on life, a conscious decision to stop hating, in turn giving rise to a sense of inner peace. When this injury is done to us, we’ll never truly recover until we forgive. And as we have already seen, it is also a path to better health, and quite literally, a way to happiness.

What seems the most durable aspect of forgiveness is that it invariably proves to be a gift to ourselves. When we move past the resentment, the target of that resentment no longer has influence. It’s the conscious decision to stop hating that frees us from a compounding misery. Forgiveness puts in check a consuming side of our nature.

And forgiving can be incredibly hard, one of the hardest things a person can do. Mahatma Ghandi remarked about this: “The weak can never forgive — forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

So here’s a common sense, step-by-step formula, cobbled together, if you will, from various scientific studies, as well as the Bible, Buddhism, and Confucius: first, reflect and remember the event, how you reacted, and how it has affected you since. Then decide to forgive, and expect absolutely nothing in return. Even if the offender refuses forgiveness, still offer it unconditionally. And if you cannot tell the person, tell someone else in confidence, or simply write it in a journal to yourself.

Set no limits on whom you forgive, or how often in life you will forgive. Expel from your mind any thought of one-ups-manship or getting even. Confucius put it this way: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” His even better point: “To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.” And Jesus told us we should forgive “seventy times seventy times,” meaning how often we forgive has no limit.

Forgiveness gives to us a simple, liberating way to live in this increasingly fractured world. To forgive both our enemies and our friends, and to make it our attitude, opens a new world for each of us, and a truly new outlook on life.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg