At a roadside picnic area in Sai Kung, a suburb in Hong Kong, Cindy Aufrance, 62, is cheering her team on at the annual Trailwalker race. It's the first pit stop on a 100 kilometre trail participants must finish within 48 hours. Cindy and her friends replenished 11 teams in total.
"This is part of who I am: helping and supporting. Usually in the past, I've been on the teams that were walking. This year it's my turn to give back to the teams," says Cindy, who has completed at least 10 marathons and taken first place three times in her age bracket at the Greenpower 50 km.
Cindy began walking and running in earnest shortly after moving to Hong Kong in 1975, with her husband, to work as an English teacher in a local secondary school. They are currently pastoring River Grace International Christian Fellowship where many refugees and foreign migrant workers attend. Cindy also serves at a counseling centre, Hub and Spokes International, as a Pastoral Care Specialist and Prayer Minister.
Being active is a way of life for Cindy. "I turn off my phone and get out in nature. It's a wonderful way for me to start recognizing and releasing what is in my heart," she said.
It was on one of these walks, Cindy says, that she realized she felt a debilitating anger toward her delinquent father. "Anger and unforgiveness are like rocks we put in our life backpack; it just gets heavier and bigger. Unless you forgive, it just piles up," Cindy said. "When I talk to people who have harboured unforgiveness, almost always they're in misery. There's pain and that pain becomes a shadow that follows them into all of life."
Eufemia Lui, a pastoral counselor at Hub and Spokes International, says unforgiveness is holding onto thoughts of revenge or resentment towards a person who caused a hurt. "A lot of your mind space goes to that. It can incapacitate you in your focus, so when you can't focus well, it's going to impact your working life, it's going to impact your family life."
Cindy says she struggled with a dysfunctional family early on. "I was about 5 or 6 years old and began to notice a lot of tension at home. My dad was often gone for periods of time. There was a lot of anger, explosive anger. My mom would cry a lot."
Cindy says she began to fear, avoid and resent her father who had a bad temper. "One night, I remember he came into the bedroom where I was sleeping and he had a knife. He was chasing my mom and said I'm going to kill you," she said.
Cindy was 7 when her father left her mother for another woman. That strained her relationship with her father ever since. Her 2 sisters and mother rarely mentioned him. "My dad had obviously done some things that weren't good. Not providing for us, breaking trust, leaving our family for someone else," says Cindy.
"One day I was walking down the street and I saw a dad pick up his little girl and just cuddle her. I just stopped right in the street and cried. I never had that and at that point, I realized OK I need to forgive that too. The grief, bitterness, anger, unforgiveness and lack of good relationship with my dad got balled up and I was carrying that around."
Cindy married Dave in 1974 and the two moved to Hong Kong about a year later. "When I got married that's when all that stuff started coming up. And I realized, wow, this is hurting Dave, this is hurting me," Cindy says. "I had a really hard time trusting people, even Dave."
"My dad would drop in every so often and give us a gift. But he wasn't willing to take care of feeding us. It really hindered me from receiving and from giving. Even when Dave wanted to give me something I would think
'What's the string back there?'"
After rarely talking with her father for nearly 35 years, Cindy and Dave set aside a time to see him when they were in the USA for a short time. He had been in a care facility for many years due to a work accident and it wasn't easy to communicate with him. "I had started the process of forgiving him but this time I knew I needed to ask my dad's forgiveness. It was hard to face my own reactions to the hurt and pain he had caused. At a moment where it seemed he was listening, I said 'Dad I am forgiving you for the things that happened in the past. I would like you to forgive me for closing off my heart against you and judging you for what you did. Can you forgive me for that?' And he said yes."
A few years later, her father passed away suddenly and she was not able to say goodbye. "I remember when I stood at the coffin, I was thinking, 'I have peace,'" said Cindy.
Several U.S. health studies point to direct correlations between forgiveness and overall good health. Positive health effects scientifically studied include reduced stress, better heart health, stronger relationships, reduced pain and greater happiness.
Dr. Frederic Luskin of Stanford's Forgiveness Projects says, "Unforgiveness can be a significant source of stress when you haven't forgiven something and it comes back into your mind, there's an instantaneous pouring of stress chemicals because there's something threatening that hasn't been taken care of."
"People who are unforgiving have more back pain than relative if there's an injury to the back. They tend to have more incidents of heart disease."
Luskin has written a book on the health benefits of forgiving others. "Forgiveness, compassion, generosity, they're health enhancing. It's one thing to say if you don't do this stuff you suffer. It's even stronger if you do this stuff you'll flourish. That's what I think is the strongest message of forgiveness research."
Cindy says she suffered long bouts of depression. "I let the unforgiveness, resentment and hidden anger build up and that would start a downward spiral of depression. The worst part of it lasted 3 years right before the time I went and asked for forgiveness from my dad. How can we get rid of and eliminate anger and hatred, it's only through compassion and understanding."
At her church, Cindy counseled Rita Ordona to help her overcome bitterness. "When I heard about her testimony of forgiving her dad, it touched my heart that I have to forgive my children when they rebelled against me," Rita said.
Rita says her 3 children refused to listen to her for years. Thirteen years ago as a young widow, she had to leave them behind in the Philippines to work in Hong Kong as a domestic helper. At one point, Rita isolated herself for 2 months. "When I started forgiving my children, I became more happy and looked at things in a positive way," said Rita.
Cindy says walking on the beach and being outdoors in God's creation brings her a bigger perspective on life, "I see forgiveness and reconciliation as a journey. And like I left my footprints walking across the sand at the beach, I want the footprints I leave behind in life to be for blessing and good. Forgiveness has been a major part of being able to do that."
Sylvia Y. is a journalist and philanthropy advisor in Hong Kong. As a Fund Manager, she has directed investment to anti-trafficking, orphans, migrants and AIDS programs in mainland China and Asia. She is coordinating donors and NGOs for anti-trafficking work and care for children-at-risk from China to the Middle East.