Some years ago, I saw an old friend at a conference.
He seemed somewhat reserved when I enthusiastically approached him, and eventually he informed me that many years previously, I had done or said something that offended him and he had spent these years angry with me. He even remembered precisely what I did, which I could not recall at all. I was astounded and apologized profusely. I had no idea of his hurt and had continued to hold him in high esteem.
While I now believe the angst has healed, I gave it a great deal of thought afterward. I was blissfully unaware of his pain and was even buoyed by what I thought was his friendship. I discovered that his anger had affected him for years, but had no negative impact on me! He told me later that my apology and his forgiveness had a healing effect on him.
Most of us have had times in our lives when the statements or actions of others have hurt us. If we dwell on the injury, our life will be negatively impacted. While the scriptures have a number of admonitions on this subject, I approach this commentary purely from the point that the inability to forgive is destructive behavior that will affect not only us, but everyone with whom we associate.
An LDS pioneer once said: "There are two courses of action when bitten by a rattlesnake. One may, in anger, fear or resentfulness, pursue the rattlesnake and kill it. Or, he may make full haste to get the venom out of his system. If we pursue the latter, we will be likely to survive, but if we attempt to follow the former we may not be around long enough to finish it."
We must be most careful that we do not cause spiritual or emotional snakebites in the first place. Especially within our families, we can hurt the ones we love most with small arguments and petty criticisms that, if unchecked, can poison relationships and escalate into estrangements, even abuse and divorce.
Forgiveness does not require us to accept or tolerate evil. It does not require us to ignore the wrong that we see in the world around us or in our own lives. But as we fight against wrong, we must not allow hatred or anger to control our thoughts or actions.
That is not to say that forgiveness is easy. When we or someone else is hurt, the pain can almost be overwhelming and can even cause one to seek vengeance. When we forgive others, it frees us to choose how we will live our own lives. Forgiveness means that problems of the past no longer cloud our judgment regarding future actions.
When you experience hurt or harm from someone's actions or words, whether this is intended or not, you may begin experiencing negative feelings such as anger, confusion or sadness, especially when it's someone close to you. These feelings may start out small, however if you don't deal with them quickly, they can grow bigger and more powerful. They may even begin to crowd out positive feelings.
Grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility take root when you dwell on hurtful events or situations, replaying them in your mind many times. Soon, you may find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice. You may feel trapped and may not see a way out. It's very hard to let go of grudges at this point and instead you may remain resentful and unforgiving.
It may be particularly challenging to forgive someone who doesn't admit wrong or doesn't speak of their sorrow. Keep in mind that the key benefits of forgiveness are for you. If you find that a pain that is holding you back cannot be resolved, seek counseling.
Until that resolution, the bitterness and resentful anger will poison your life-giving water. It can cloud every thought and action, preventing you from reaching your full potential and may contaminate all the aspects of your life.
THOMAS L. THORKELSON is director of Interfaith Relations for the Orange County Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He lives in Newport Beach.