To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.Lewis Smedes
Most Christmases, I float around in a carb and wine-induced haze, catching up with family and friends with whom I genuinely enjoy spending time. The ham turns out glazed and juicy, the mashed potatoes are buttery and smooth (with just enough lumps that I know they were made from real potatoes and not the instant powdered kind my mom once tried to pass off as real), and the pie-to-person ratio is 1:1 or greater.
Listen, I hope I’ve just described your holiday – really, I do.
But if perfectly cooked swine and warm conversation aren’t typically abundant in your festivities, let me remind you that you aren’t alone. Far from it. Maybe uncle Jerry loudly proclaimed that global warming is fake news. Maybe aunt Ellen sneaked a slice of pecan pie to the host’s diabetic dog. I don’t know. A million things can go wrong. Family is complicated, life is messy, and for some reason the holidays can magnify our issues with one another.
I think we can all agree that holiday gatherings would be much more peaceful – and enjoyable – if we could just forgive (or at least tolerate) our rude, judgmental, uninformed, or arrogant relatives for being such miserable nitwits. Easier said than done, I concede. How can we forgive without so much as an apology from them or acknowledgement of the hurt they’ve caused us? Why should we be asked to put up with their abhorrent behavior? Why can’t they just change?
The path to letting go, it seems, lies in developing our ability to define forgiveness and learning how to understand why others act the way they do. For one thing, forgiveness might not mean what you think it means. It’s a word that’s been thrown around and misused in American culture for so long that many of us have trouble defining it. Once we get a handle on the true meaning of forgiveness, we can work on understanding why people are so… annoying. Luckily, science can help us with this part. Research suggests that the way we behave is – at least in part – out of our control. The studies that have been done might not provide a direct explanation for your sister-in-law’s snarky, judgmental comments, but once you gain a basic understanding of the ways in which our life experiences and the experiences of those who came before us can affect the way we think and act, you’ll be better poised to extend a little grace her way.
Defining Forgiveness and Forgiving Even Without An Apology
First, remember that forgiveness is for your benefit, not for the benefit of the person who has wronged you. Don’t confuse forgiveness – which is a conscious decision you make to release feelings of resentment – with reconciliation, which is a shared decision to mend the relationship. This is not to say that forgiveness can’t or shouldn’t progress to reconciliation in the right circumstances (that happens all the time), but it’s by no means a requirement.
Because forgiveness is for your sake, don’t worry about whether it’s “fair”. You might not feel that your hypocritical brother deserves anything from you – including your mercy – but since your choice to forgive is done for the purpose of mending your own heart, fairness doesn’t apply here. It’s not a pardon of the guilty party. Justice is served only when you break free from the tyranny of your own anger about their bad behavior.
We Are Doing the Best We Can
Understanding what forgiveness is (and what it isn’t) is a good first step to peace, but once we learn to accept that we’re all just doing the best we can, even when it doesn’t look that way? That’s when the magic happens.
I’m not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I’m pretty sure I squeaked by with a C (gasp!) in high school chemistry. I am, however, a curious person with a penchant for research. To that end, I’ve begun to dive into emerging research on epigenetics, which is the study of the biological mechanisms that switch our genes on and off. A basic understanding, fortunately, is all we need in order to comprehend how these biological changes can make it nearly impossible for some people to behave the way we think they ought to.
In her book, The Epigenetics Revolution (affiliate link), Nessa Carey gives us an easy-to-digest way to understand this theory using something we’re all familiar with: Hollywood.
Think of the human lifespan as a very long movie. The cells would be the actors and actresses, essential units that make up the movie. DNA, in turn, would be the script — instructions for all the participants of the movie to perform their roles. Subsequently, the DNA sequence would be the words on the script, and certain blocks of these words that instruct key actions or events to take place would be the genes. The concept of genetics would be like screenwriting. Follow the analogy so far? Great. The concept of epigenetics, then, would be like directing. The script can be the same, but the director can choose to eliminate or tweak certain scenes or dialogue, altering the movie for better or worse. After all, Steven Spielberg’s finished product would be drastically different than Woody Allen’s for the same movie script, wouldn’t it?
These “tweaks” Carey refers to can be set off by things like what we eat, where we live, who we talk to, how we sleep, and what kind of exercise we get. But what’s truly fascinating is that they can also be brought on by something called transgenerational transmission of trauma, or TTT. In simple terms (for us non-science folk), it means that the life experiences of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, can actually seep into our DNA and affect the way we think and act.
Natan Kellermann, a Swedish psychologist who is one of the foremost researchers on this topic, wrote an eye-opening paper about the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. “The Holocaust left its visible and invisible marks not only on the survivors, but also on their children,” Kellermann writes. “Instead of numbers tattooed on their forearms, however, they are marked epigenetically with a chemical coating upon their chromosomes, which represent a kind of biological memory of what the parents experienced.”
The Holocaust was a time of extreme suffering that carried with it immense trauma, which explains why it has attracted epigenetic researchers interested in TTT. But our relatives don’t have to be survivors of a major atrocity to pass down their experiences to us. All it takes is a traumatic event or chain of events in the life of one of our ancestors to create the potential for their biological memory to attach itself to our genetic code.
So, what does all this mean for us when we’re sitting across from outspoken uncle Jerry? It means that his ideas, and the way he communicates them, may have been influenced not only by his life experiences but by the experiences of those who came before him; experiences which may cause him to distrust others out of learned or inherited fear, anxiety, or stress. Put simply, it means he’s doing the best he can with what he has.
If the definition of forgiveness is your personal decision to release feelings of resentment, and if we’re all just doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt (which may have even been shaped by inherited family experiences, including trauma), doesn’t it just make sense to let it go?
How could family gatherings be better if everyone chose forgiveness over resentment? Would Christmas dinner be any less stressful? What could you do with the time and energy you’re currently spending on anger?
And for the record, global warming is totally real, uncle Jerry. Because science.
Writer's note: For the record, I don't have an uncle Jerry, an aunt Ellen, or a brother. I do, however, have a sister-in-law (whom I adore).