On August 18, 1975, 27 year-old Paula D’Arcy and her husband were driving home to Connecticut after visiting with her family in Massachusetts. Their visit was to share the happy news of their second pregnancy. Their almost 2-year-old daughter was in the car with them. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a drunk driver crossed the divided interstate highway at 97 miles per hour and slammed into their car. Both Paula’s husband and daughter died from the accident. Seven years later, Paula had the opportunity to see the man who killed her family members and realized she had forgiven him. Paula is now a writer and speaker who travels the world sharing her story of faith and love.
Forgiveness may not be something you think very much about. Perhaps you’ve forgiven some people in your life and have felt others not “deserving” of your forgiveness. What you may not know is that your forgiveness or un-forgiveness can impact you physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. Studies have shown that individuals who forgive can change their heart rates, lower their blood pressure, strengthen their immune systems, lower their experience of pain and decrease their anger, anxiety and depression. Forgiving people can also experience improvements in relationships and feel more peace, gratitude and hope. In the end, forgiveness is a choice and your freedom is at stake.
Does that feel accurate to you? That forgiveness is a choice? There are many misconceptions about forgiveness, so let’s discuss what it isn’t first.
Forgiveness is not:
reconciliation (although that can happen as a part of the process)
a condoning of actions
an end to seek justice
a once and done decision
a sign of weakness
a pretense of accepting past hurts
Forgiveness is the decision to engage in the process and the experience of letting go of painful emotions and feelings related to past events. Those feelings might be so intense for you that you think there is no way you can simply choose to let them go. Forgiveness is a process and sometimes that process begins when you seek the desire to forgive. It is important to understand that if you forgive, it doesn’t mean you stop pursuing justice or start believing what was done to you is okay. It does mean that as you move forward in your life, you do so from a place of compassion and love.
These concepts come from many years of academic studies. Everett Worthington, Ph.D., is a researcher who has developed a model – REACH – to help you achieve forgiveness. REACH is an acronym for a five-step process:
R - Recall the hurt as objectively as possible while avoiding feeding your feelings of victimization or fantasizing about revenge and apologies. Know that avoiding thoughts of traumatic hurt is a way that we protect ourselves from dealing with too much trauma at one time. Be gentle with yourself as you recall the hurt and seek help when needed.
E - Empathize with the offender; try to understand what they did from their perspective. Find an explanation that will enable you to let go. For example, spend time thinking about how people who hurt others are usually hurt themselves. Acknowledge times when you have hurt others.
A – Altruism. Give an altruistic gift of forgiveness. Remember a time when you felt freedom and gratitude after someone “gave” you their forgiveness. Give this same gift to the offender.
C - Commit to forgive the offender. Share your decision with a group, a friend, in a journal or in a letter to the offender (which you don’t have to send, by the way).
H - Hold onto forgiveness when memories of the hurt return. Remember your decision to forgive and go through the steps again when needed.
Remember that forgiveness is a choice. Worthington found that the depth of forgiveness is greatest when chosen out of altruistic love and the desire to give that gift to the offender. Paula D’Arcy lived that challenge. You can too.
This article originally appeared in Centered Magazine.