#43

The second best gift I ever received (you can read about the best one here) came from my younger brother, and was totally unintentional. Mike and I tolerated each other fairly well because I was a kind, compassionate, concerned older brother. Also because he didn’t really start growing until I was in college, so I had about six inches and fifty pounds on him, and Mike was a sharp kid without a death wish.

One afternoon Mike and I were disagreeing about something and I was using my age and size to insure that I would win the disagreement, when he snapped, and in a fit of rage he spit, literally, in my face. I don’t know how we both immediately knew, but we both immediately knew that he had messed up, big time, along the lines of that sad little kid in A Christmas Story who blurts out “the queen mother of dirty words.”

I wiped off my face and declaired simply, “I’m telling Mom,” and he began begging me not to. I suspect the result would have been fairly mild if I had, but he was convinced he had violated one of the cardinal unwritten rules of childhood, along the lines of ‘don’t run with scissors’ or ‘toothbrushes are not for removing mud from shoes unless it’s someone else’s toothbrush.’ Now he was expecting sanctions or a trade embargo or something similarly draconian; he immediately conceded the argument, and the value of this gift slowly dawned on me.

I did not yet know the technical definition of blackmail or coercion or extortion, but the basic concept was crystal clear to me, and in the weeks that followed, my record in disagreements with Mike was 71-0, and I did far less than my fair share of unpleasant tasks around the house, and I suspect the indignity of it all was what finally coaxed Mike’s hormones into action so that today he is both taller and slimmer than me, which, frankly, I resent. The ride finally came to an end that fateful day when I looked at Mike, and for the seventy-second time played the spit card, and he looked back and said, “Go ahead” and the game was up. I never told Mom, and he never spit on me again, but man it was good while it lasted.

My game of brother blackmail does not slot well into my basic worldview, which emphasizes the idea of forgiveness. To my credit, I never tried to blackmail Mike again, mostly because he never again handed me such a golden opportunity. In the years since, I have become convinced of the value of simple forgiveness, not just because it’s good for the person being forgiven, but because it’s really extra good for the person doing the forgiving.

Religious leaders have championed this view for a long time. Jesus taught his followers to ask God for forgiveness as they forgive others, a dichotomy he set up for our benefit, and which fits nicely with the whole “do unto others” idea. Jesus also said that you should forgive each person a full 77 times if necessary, which seems excessive, and far less fun than some of his other teachings. The Buddha (last name Buddha, first name The) put into imagery what most of us have seen or experienced: Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. Ideas like that are probably why those little Buddha statues always look so chill.

And even though they are a few centuries late to the party, scientists are now demonstrating that these ancient ideas are correct, and healthy, and….happy. Scientists at Stanford University (a school with no official mascot, and a tree as their unofficial one) tell us what happens when we don’t forgive. Say a co-worker does something to you, like imprisoning your stapler inside a bowl of Jello. OK, say it’s more serious, like claiming the commission for a sale you made or sending a rude email about you to your boss. This upsets you and makes you feel stressed and unhappy. At that point, you can let it go, or you can hang on to it.

If you choose to hold a grudge, every time you see this colleague you will feel stressed again. Your body will release adrenaline, which makes you feel jittery and tense, and over time you will link that uncomfortable feeling to the person who slighted you. Eventually you may not even remember the original offense, but the tension will remain. This is bad for your organization’s performance and bad for your personal health, as in “name a common health problem and somebody somewhere has done a study linking it to stress” bad.

But when you decide to forgive, you do two key things. First, you break the cycle of stress-stress-stress, since you end it before it becomes entrenched. Second, forgiving someone else is a sign of control in your life, demonstrating that you choose how you feel, and you choose how you respond to others, and a sense of control is almost always calming and relaxing.

Part of the reason we withhold forgiveness is because we have been hurt and these injuries make us feel like we have been short-changed. If life is ‘fair’ (hint: it’s not) we feel like an injury entitles us to some kind of repayment, and the longer we hold out for that repayment (which is unlikely to ever arrive), the more harm we endure. Mary McLeod Bethune captured this idea nicely: Forgiving is not forgetting. It’s letting go of the hurt.

You probably have someone in your life that you need to forgive. Don’t do it for them; do it for yourself. It is much much happier to forgive, than to relive.

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Have you already forgotten what you had for dinner yesterday? Read the amazing story of a man who remembers what he ate for dinner every single day of his life here.

A Christmas Story clip.

And of course the Jello prank.

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