For weeks, Karsten Mathiasen had been consumed by rage. Several months earlier, the Danish circus director’s wife had left him to live with another man. Overwhelmed with hatred for his wife’s new lover, the 40 year old lay awake at night, a knot of pain growing in his stomach, angry thoughts swirling. He began drinking in the evenings to get to sleep.
Eventually, it was the concern of his two young children that persuaded Karsten he should meet this man towards whom he felt so much anger.
When the two met at a Copenhagen coffee shop, Karsten knew he would forgive his wife’s new partner. Instead of one cup of coffee, the two men had many, talking for hours.
As Karsten headed home, he was amazed to discover that his anger and sadness were gone. But more than that, he felt physically good – for the first time in months. He slept like a baby that night and awoke with a clear mind and a relaxed body.
“Forgiveness was a great gift I gave myself,” says Karsten.
We often think of forgiveness as something we do for the sake of someone else, but new research shows that’s not the whole story.
“When people engage in forgiveness, it changes their physiology,” says Dr Robert Enright. As the founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and the author of The Forgiving Life and 8 Keys to Forgiveness, Enright has been pioneering the study of the power of forgiveness for three decades.
“Forgiveness helps you get rid of what we call toxic anger,” he says. “The type that can literally kill a person.”
In a 2009 study published in the journal Psychology and Health, Enright and a team of researchers examined the effects of forgiveness on cardiac patients with coronary heart disease. They found that those subjects who had engaged in forgiveness experienced significantly improved cardiac blood flow, even four months after the forgiving had taken place.
In another study, Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, a psychology professor at Hope University, examined the emotional and physiological effects that occur when people rehearsed hurtful memories and nursed grudges. When participants recalled a grudge, their physical arousal soared. Their blood pressure and heart rate increased, and they sweated more. They also found ruminating about their grudges stressful and unpleasant.
However, when Witvliet asked the participants to try to empathise with their offenders or imagine forgiving them, they experienced greater perceived control and lower physiological stress responses. Her results were similar to other studies that suggest chronic unforgiving responses may erode health whereas forgiving responses may enhance it.
A 2011 study presented to the US Society of Behavioral Medicine showed that forgiveness can help relieve sleeplessness, and a study conducted at the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, US, found that forgiveness can strengthen the immune systems of patients with HIV. With every passing year, new research is revealing that forgiveness can help heal everything from insomnia to diseases that have their bases in stress.
Rosalyn Boyce’s life unravelled in 1999 after a man broke into her London home and raped her as her two-year-old daughter slept in the next room. The perpetrator, a serial rapist, was captured three weeks later and given three life sentences.
But for Rosalyn the nightmare was far from over. The memory of the attack filled her mind constantly, and she was forced to move out of her family house to escape it. Eating became impossible. Doctors diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder and reactive depression and prescribed Prozac and tranquillisers. She began drinking a bottle of wine every night to block things out.
As her mental and physical health deteriorated, Rosalyn realised she would have to heal herself. Through therapy, she discovered that the only way was to forgive her attacker.
“To me, forgiveness meant that I no longer had to feel any attachment to my rapist and I could free myself from the crime,” writes Rosalyn. “Once I chose to perceive forgiveness in these terms, a massive burden was lifted.”
In 2014, Rosalyn was able to meet her attacker and forgive him through a restorative justice programme.
“Afterwards, I was euphoric,” she says of the meeting. “I don’t think about the rape anymore. It disappeared in a puff of smoke.”
Few people have a better understanding of what forgiveness is than Marina Cantacuzino. A former journalist, Marina is the founder and director of The Forgiveness Project, a web site and exhibition series which uses personal stories from around the world – including Rosalyn’s – to explore the limits and possibilities of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is not about condoning or excusing,” Cantacuzino says, dispelling the myth that to forgive means to say what happened was acceptable. Another common misconception is that forgiveness demands reconciliation with the perpetrator – it does not. You can forgive and choose not to resume the relationship. Instead, forgiveness demands a reframing of the past – viewing the incident and perpetrator through a wider and more compassionate lens.
She also explains that offering forgiveness does not mean giving up the right to justice. You can forgive someone, but they may still have to go to prison or pay a price for what they have done. One of her favourite definitions actually comes from a prison inmate: “Forgiveness is letting go of all hope for a better past.”
After moving from England to Lebanon in 1966 and watching as the country was torn apart for 15 years by civil war, Alexandra Asseily was consumed by her incredulity at humanity’s capacity for violence.
“I needed to forgive the people who brought Lebanon from being a lovely place to destroying it,” says the psychotherapist. She decided to spend time with men who’d been brutal combatants in the conflict. “When I could see them as human beings instead of monsters, I realised I had passed my own test.”
In 1984 she helped found the Centre for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University, England, where she strives to promote forgiveness as a tool for healing. In her work, Asseily says she often encounters people who have become ill. She describes one woman living in Rome who has remained with her unfaithful husband for many years, and who is now dying of cancer.
“She is bitter, and I think she has eaten herself up inside,” says Asseily, although she acknowledges that a correlation between anger and cancer has not yet been scientifically demonstrated.
That may not be the case for long. Enright has teamed up with Slovakian oncologist Pavel Kotouc?ek to study whether forgiveness can even help in the battle against cancer. Kotouc?ek says he’s had many cases in Slovakia and England in which a patient’s bitterness appeared to be suppressing the immune system. “There is strong evidence that if you can improve the immune profile of a cancer patient, you can control their cancer.”
The study will occur across Europe through the umbrella organisation Myeloma Patients Europe, and will provide cancer patients with guided forgiveness therapy alongside conventional treatments such as marrow and stem cell transplants, radiation and chemotherapy.
For Azaria Botta, a 33-year-old teaching assistant from Vancouver, Canada, it was a falling out with one of her best friends that opened her eyes to the healing powers of forgiveness.
It was the summer of 2004, and Azaria was off on a backpacking trip in Europe with one of her oldest friends. The two young women set off excitedly, travelling through the UK before arriving in Paris. It was there that Azaria’s friend announced she would be taking a week-long romantic trip with a young Colombian backpacker.
Azaria was shocked and infuriated. She passed the week alone in Paris, filled with anger and disappointment. She also developed strange headaches along with an upset stomach. Azaria continued to stew even after her friend returned to Paris, showering her with apologies.
Back in Vancouver, Azaria’s anger stayed with her – and so did her headaches and stomach pain. It was only after a pleading apology from her friend and a tearful reconciliation that Azaria’s head finally cleared and her appetite returned. It was then she made the connection: her anger had been making her sick.
“I felt lighter,” says Azaria. “Letting go of that anger was the first step.”
Experts are adamant that there is no one specific path to forgiveness.
“It’s different for everybody,” cautions Cantacuzino. Over the years, some people [who] become worn down by hatred consciously decide to make a change. Others, she says, might meet someone like the offender or see a TV programme that triggers them to think differently about the situation.
Enright agrees that forgiveness can take many forms, but at its most basic, it is the offer of goodness to the one who has hurt you.
“This can take the form of respect, or a returned phone call, or a kind word about them to someone else,” he says. “The paradox is that as you have mercy on those who have not had mercy on you, you heal emotionally and – sometimes – physically.”