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“I’m stressed out.”

“Stress is a silent killer.”

"You need to reduce the stress in your life."

How many times have you heard things like this? I've heard or said them perhaps hundreds of times.

Of course, not all stress is negative. Success and wonderful events like weddings create stress as well. We need a certain amount of stress to be healthy and live purposeful lives. It's the level and kind of stress that warrants our attention.

For me, it's not so much about reducing stress (although that might be a good idea!), but about managing it in a productive manner.

From decades of trying to help myself and others handle stress well, I've learned this: most of our stress tends to come (directly or indirectly) from burdens and wounds of the past.

It's as if we are all issued a suitcase when we come into this world. Bad things happened. Expectations went unmet. We were disappointed. We put these things in our suitcase.

We got hurt. Perhaps we were abused. We hurt someone else. These things were placed in our suitcase.

We experienced loss. We became separated from people close to us by moves, conflicts, distance, divorce, and death. Each loss was loaded into our suitcase.

As we grew older, more painful and disappointing things happened. The stuff in our suitcase continued to accumulate. Along the way, it became the baggage we carry.

Day after day, our baggage exerts its influence. It presses on our minds and hearts. It quietly adds to our stress load and the difficulty of each day. Eventually, it can sabotage our health, both emotionally and physically.

If we want to be healthy, we must find a way to unpack some of this baggage.

How do we do this?

One effective way is forgiveness.

There is some confusion out there about what forgiveness is and what it's not. Here are some key facts:
• Forgiveness doesn’t mean it didn’t matter. Forgiveness says, "It mattered. It hurt. But I will not let it control my mind and heart any longer."
• Forgiveness isn’t the same as forgetting. We remember, but we choose to let go of the pain so healing can begin.
• Forgiveness isn’t just about releasing the other person, but also about freeing the real prisoner – us. Forgiveness is about OUR hearts.
• Forgiveness isn’t weakness. It takes strength to refuse to be driven or negatively influenced by the hurtful words and actions of others.
• Forgiveness isn't just about forgiving the person for what they did, but also for all the consequences in our lives of their behavior. Ouch.
• Forgiveness isn't only about what others have done, but also how we have failed and hurt others. Forgiving ourselves can be the hardest of all.
• Forgiveness is often not a one-time event, but an on-going process. We forgive, and then something triggers the pain and seems to put us right back where we were. And so we forgive again - and again - and again.
• Forgiveness isn’t the same as trust. We need wisdom to know whether or how deeply to engage with those who’ve hurt us.

Someone once compared forgiveness to a serious game of tug-of-war. In this case, the only way to win is to let go of the rope. Once we release the rope, the war is over - for us. The other person might want to continue the war, but we can refuse to pick up the rope again.

Sometimes we have to let go of the rope over and over.

Forgiveness is powerful. It can help us unpack more unwanted baggage than we realize. Life is too short to hang on to this heavy stuff which slowly crushes our hearts and can destroy our health. As it has been said, "Lack of forgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die."

In the end, forgiveness is more about us than about who hurt us or what they did. It’s always in our power to forgive. That’s not saying it’s easy. I have a friend who said, “Forgiving is the toughest work I’ve done. I don’t think people forgive until they’re ready to let go of the pain. Why we would want to hold onto pain, I don’t know. But we do, and it only hurts us.”

In life, we will be hurt, and we will hurt others. Learning to forgive, and to forgive quickly, is a healthy, powerful skill.

So let's open our suitcase, and get rid of the dark stuff. It only hurts us in the end. It's time to let go of the rope, and travel light.
Gary Roe is an author, speaker, and chaplain with Hospice Brazos Valley. Want to talk more about forgiveness? Contact Gary at 979-821-2266, groe@hospicebrazosvalley.org