On Forgiveness

“Monday Musings” for Monday February 3, 2014

Volume IV. No. 5/161

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FORGIVENESS

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

About a year ago, a 77 year old man came to see me about gradual onset of a devastating depression. Harry (not his real name), always a positive, energetic and productive person, had lost his will to live. He told me that he was experiencing a gnawing sensation at the pit of his stomach. He could not sleep, had lost his appetite causing him to lose a considerable amount of weight. His wife confided in me that she was afraid that “Harry would end it all.” She had carefully removed all firearms from home. This, in itself, caused further escalation of Harry’s anger and irritation. We evaluated Harry and ran appropriate laboratory tests to rule out myriad of physical causes for his depression, including endocrinopathies such as hyperparathyroidism often caused by a parathyroid adenoma, a benign cancer of the parathyroid gland, and others. By the way, this was the cause of the  late US Senator from North Carolina, John East’s depression and suicide, a perfectly curable form of depression by surgery).

In the course psychotherapy, exploring his past and family history, we came across a demon. He casually mentioned that he has not seen eye to eye with one of his sons. As a matter of fact, he became angry that we were spending so much time on that unimportant lost relationship. In the course of therapy, the issue of forgiveness was bought up and explored. Harry took the matter seriously. He had 40 years worth of anger for his estranged son. Finally, as our work progressed, he chose to approach his son. The miraculous process of forgiveness rapidly assisted his total recovery. He became well and was terminated, and his medications were gradually discontinued. In the Christmas card I received from him and his wife, they were thankful to discover the powerful effect of forgiveness. Harry is back enjoying life, being positive, energetic and productive. This process prompted me to write the following essay on “Forgiveness.”

Some Thoughts and Reflections on Forgiveness:

In the ten thousand year annals of Neolithic man, the issue of forgiveness vs. revenge occupies considerable space.  Since Sumerians’ earliest recorded history, the contributions of three stars in the intellectual constellation guide us with their luminosity and brilliance. They are St. Augustin of Hippo, born in 354, the author of The Book of God and Confessions; Moses Maimonides of Cordoba, born in 1137, author of Talmudic Laws; and Ibn Khaldoun, who penned the definitive Islamic Cannons in 1363 (born 1332, died 1405). All three spoke of grace, stoicism, altruism and forgiveness in the most compelling and persuasive manner, throughout their work. Some believe that the Lord’s Prayer, especially the passage: “Forgive us for our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, a staple of Christianity, and the only actual piece of literature ever authored by Jesus of Nazareth, is a hand me down from Zoroaster, the 500 BC Persian prophet and author of Avesta, and Abraham. It has been vastly copied by other major religions of the world, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The celestial books of Torah, the Bible and the Holy Quran, each have hundreds of references to the issue of forgiveness and peace. A celebrated Persian poet and Sufi, Sheikh Mosleh-e-Din Saadi Shirazi, born 1210-1290, in his book, Gulestan-e-Saadi, refers to this subject with the most tender words:   “Forgiveness heals, comforts, transforms, preserves, remembers, promises, buries the dead and raises them once again.  Forgiveness refuses to be quiescent until they have exhausted all possibilities.” 

Psychologically, forgiveness is altruistic and selfless. Forgiveness does not mix with self-centeredness and narcissism. It takes discipline and selfness to be able to forgive. God created us with the gift of forgiveness, compromise and peace. With recent stunning advances in biochemistry and neuroendocrinology, we have come to know that forgiveness plays a major role in preserving the function and the architecture of our brain, our hearts and our souls. Brain research, in the last half of the twentieth century, clearly demonstrates that feelings of enmity, adversity and anxiety produce undesirable and harmful hormones, specifically beta carbolines and the bad kind of catecholamines that increase blood pressure and heart rate; decreases immune response, and lowers the number of precious T-cells that fight infections. On the other hand, data driven seminal articles in peer reviewed medical magazines such as Archives of Internal Medicine, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine demonstrate that forgiveness, peace and a sense of spirituality decrease blood pressure, sharpens body’s immune response and lengthens life span.

One of the most overworked words in English lexicon is the word “communication”. It has almost lost its meaning and effectiveness. The tools necessary for achieving the nirvana of forgiveness are understanding and empathy, both of which are achieved through communication, talking, sharing feelings and ideas. Forgiveness is not achieved through virtual reality. Two people must see each other, talk to each other, and possibly touch each other before forgiveness takes place. One must have not only a sense of sympathy for the other person’s pain and discomfort, but empathy, to feel the pain that the other person is experiencing. There are many alienated children, parents, and in laws who fall prey to this circuitous labyrinth of hatred, intolerance and “I will not say a word to that person as long as I live” diatribe. To hate, to resent, and to avoid wastes enormous emotional energy aimlessly directed at draining, depleting and destroying.

The evil acts of September 11 have posed an unprecedented ethical challenge. How do we, as a decent and civilized nation, respond?  These events have clearly demonstrated that the answer to world ills does not come solely through advanced technology and inflated stock market values. America is the most decent and generous nation on earth. The supremacy of the rule of law, and not of kings, Shahs and Ayatollahs, guaranteeing every American the dignity of individual human right, is unprecedented.

However, In the 1950s, with lingering cold war and the age of Sputnik, America accelerated programs of science, math, and technology. While these advances are essential, we are just beginning to learn that the ultimate answer to the world’s problems lies with better understanding of ourselves and those who hate us. In this terror driven world, we must resolve to learn more about ourselves through introspection, reflection and self- examination. As an act of thanksgiving, it might be a good idea to dedicate ourselves and a portion of our time to be more prayerful, more reflective, more knowledgeable, and more altruistic. Also, it is a good time to go see and call on those family members and friends whom we have long resented. Let’s replace the beta carbolines of our brain with endorphins and dopamines!

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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