It’s also bad for your health. According to a study conducted at the Medical College of Georgia, holding grudges is significantly associated with a history of heart attacks, high blood pressure, arthritis, back problems, headaches, chronic pain, and stomach ulcers.
There is good news for chronic grudge-holders, however. No association was found between that practice and asthma, diabetes, allergies, stroke, and cancer. So if you’re mainly concerned about contracting those five disorders, feel free to hold onto that grudge against Uncle Smartypants for making fun of you over Thanksgiving dinner 20 years ago.
Grudges kill. Forgiveness heals.
Another study conducted at the University of Tennessee asked subjects to tell personal stories about how they were “betrayed” in the past as their blood pressure and heart rates were being monitored. The subjects who had held onto their grudges had significantly higher levels of both measures, whereas those who had been able to forgive those who had affronted or “betrayed” them showed lower levels. In addition, this study found that the grudge-holders made far more disease-induced visits to the doctors than the forgivers.
Subsequent studies have found a number of verifiable health benefits that arise from being able to forgive those who have affronted us in the past. These include reductions in stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure, lower levels of hostility and chronic anger, fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, lower risks of alcohol or drug abuse, more and healthier friendships, and improved psychological, religious, and spiritual well-being.
That’s a big payoff for just being able to get over things.
Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting…just forgiving
Holding a grudge – especially for years or decades – is associated in Buddhist thought with the concept of attachment. It’s a reluctance to ever “let go” of the emotions that a past event triggered in us. Forgiving the offending person is often viewed by grudge holders as giving the offender a “free pass,” as “forgetting” what they did to us, or what we perceived them as doing to us.
But it really isn’t. It’s just “letting go” of the attachment to the event, and to the lingering feelings of resentment, anger, or even downright hatred that we feel towards the other person. You can still remember the event, and feel that the other person should accept some responsibility for their actions, but no matter how long you feel that, you’re never going to be able to “make” the other person feel that. That is out of your control.
What is in your control is whether you are able to take responsibility for prolonging the attachment to the offense. You can forgive the other person without excusing their behavior, or without condoning it. It’s not, after all, as if any of us – ANY of us – have never done something stupid in our lives, right?
Forgiveness cultivates compassion
Relating the science of grudge-holding vs. forgiveness to Buddhist thought again, forgiveness is something we can do to regain control of our anger and our emotions, and prevent them from making us miserable and/or ill. In Buddhism, the concept of compassion is seen as one of the highest goals we can achieve, not because it makes us “holier than thou” or anything like that, but because it makes us happier, and brings a kind of peace that is denied to those who can’t get past…well…the past.
Uncle Smartypants might have just imbibed a bit too much hard cider at that Thanksgiving dinner. He might have thought that making fun of you was screamingly funny, and wasn’t necessarily trying to be mean. Or, he could have been having a bad day, and really was trying to be mean. Either way, it happened 20 years ago, in the past. Pretending that the event is still going on in the present by remaining attached to it isn’t going to make him any more repentant, or get you that apology you feel is 20 years overdue. It’s just going to make you miserable, and possibly ill.