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Forgiveness can act as a miracle cure for your emotional, physical health

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Around 1983, I started the “physician well-being committee” with the intent of helping doctors who were feeling intensely stressed. As this committee took form, I discovered a number of physicians who were overusing alcohol and other substances or were suffering serious psychiatric conditions.

I worked closely with the California Medical Board to help troubled physicians get the care they needed so that they could retain their medical licenses. The committee members and I performed interventions, whereby a physician was confronted with the evidence of their particular problem and was escorted the same day to a residential treatment program. There was 100% compliance because no physician wanted to risk losing their license. Many of them were embarrassed or angry.

One day I received a knock on my office door from Dr. D., who was more than a year into her recovery. She came to apologize for hurling expletives at me during her intervention. She explained that as part of her ongoing healing process, she was addressing the relationships she damaged when she was impaired and was seeking forgiveness for her behavior.

She also thanked me for sending her to get the help she needed.

As we sat together in my office and reflected on that encounter, I shared how difficult it had been for me to stage the intervention. I acknowledged her courage to come talk to me, and I thought about forgiveness.

In addition to the millennia of focus on forgiveness in Jewish theology, countless others have approached the topic from a variety of angles.

In “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” for example, founding father Benjamin Franklin stated: “Doing an injury puts you below your enemy; revenging one makes you but even with him; forgiving it sets you above him.”

Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment.

Eva Kor, who survived Nazi medical experiments under Dr. Josef Mengele, said this about forgiveness: “The day I forgave the Nazis, privately I forgave my parents whom I hated all my life for not having saved me from Auschwitz. Children expect their parents to protect them; mine couldn’t. And then I forgave myself for hating my parents. Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment. I call it a miracle medicine. It is free, it works and has no side effects.”

One modern expert on the art of forgiveness is Frederic Luskin, founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project and author of the book “Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness.”

“Forgiveness means that even though what happened is not okay, you can move on and make peace for yourself,” he writes.

He describes three types of forgiveness. The first kind is the most common. It occurs after someone has committed an offense against you. This is called interpersonal forgiveness. The second type of forgiveness can happen when you are upset with something you did. This is called intra-personal forgiveness — when you forgive yourself. The third type of forgiveness is existential, where you forgive God, fate or the universe for what has been heaped on you.

Throughout his book, Luskin cites numerous references of the health benefits of forgiveness and the downsides of holding onto grievances. For example, those with high levels of anger were found to be three times more likely to develop heart disease compared with those with low levels of anger.

Evidence from the Stanford Forgiveness Project has shown that forgiveness training reduces depression, elevates hopefulness, decreases anger, improves spiritual connection, increases emotional self-confidence and helps heal relationships. Even people with devastating losses can learn to forgive and feel better psychologically and emotionally.

Forgiveness can be a challenging process, and it helps to seek guidance from a psychotherapist or to participate in a structured forgiveness program. Forgiveness, states Luskin, is a “choice to find peace and live life fully. We can choose to either remain stuck in the pain and frustration of the past or to move on to the potential of the future. It is a choice we can all make.”

Getting back to Dr. D: I felt moved that she came to apologize. My understanding of Jewish teachings is that if someone has wronged me and sincerely asks for forgiveness, it is my responsibility to enable their teshuvah (repentance). So, yes, I forgave her.

Dr. Jerry Saliman

Jerry Saliman, MD, retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after a 30-year career and is now a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo.