How To Forgive Others, Redux

forgiveness

Photo: Hamed Saber

A few years ago I found myself thinking about what would happen if as an adult I encountered some of the children who terrorized me when I was in 7th grade (an experience I wrote about in an earlier post, Breaking Free Of The Past), wondering if I’d be able to forgive them for what they did to me.  I’d like to think I would, but the truth is I’m not sure.  As a result, I found myself thinking about the nature of forgiveness and of the power and value of being able to forgive.

WHY IS FORGIVENESS HARD?

Forgiveness is hard.  But why?  Perhaps for the following reasons:

  1. We’re often reluctant to let go of our anger.  As I argued in a previous post, How To Manage Anger, the second of the four main reasons people get angry is to achieve or regain control.  If we still feel harmed in the now—even years after we actually were—we frequently continue to feel angry.  And it’s inherently difficult, if not impossible, to forgive someone with whom we’re still angry.  This is true even if the predominant reason we’re angry isn’t due to frustration at having lost control but in outrage at the injustice committed against us (anger at injustice representing the fourth of the four main reasons people become angry).  But in the same way soft tissue inflammation is helpful only in the first few days after an injury occurs, often causing even more damage than the original injury if it’s allowed to become chronic, anger—no matter what its cause—if allowed to boil without being harnessed to accomplish anything worthwhile, can cause us far more harm than good.
  2. We want to satisfy our sense of justice.  Even if we’re not angry, if we believe our offender doesn’t deserve our forgiveness, we may find ourselves withholding it to avoid appearing to condone what they did to us.
  3. Forgiveness may feel like letting our offender off the hook without punishment.  Even if we don’t feel that forgiveness implies we condone the injustice committed against us, to release our anger and forgive our offender may feel like letting them get away without being punished, especially if no other punishment is forthcoming.
  4. We wish to harm as we’ve been harmed.  An eye for an eye often feels viscerally satisfying (remember, anger must be discharged in a way that feels satisfying).  If we lack the power to deliver actual harm, harboring anger may feel like a second-best option.  Holding a grudge does in a certain sense feel good.
  5. They haven’t apologized.  The power of an apology to open the path to forgiveness can’t be overestimated.  Nor can the ability of withholding an apology—of the refusal to acknowledge a wrong was committed—to block it.
  6. When someone commits an injustice, we often cease to see or believe they could be capable of any good. We tend to abstract those who harm us, as I wrote about in The True Cause Of Cruelty, diminishing them from full-fledged human beings into merely “our offenders.”  This enables us to refuse to allow into our conception of them any room for the possibility that they have positive characteristics or have the capability to do good (much in the same way they abstracted our full-fledged humanity into some label that enabled them to harm us in the first place).

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO FORGIVE?

To my way of thinking, forgiveness involves recognizing that the person who harmed us is more than just the person who harmed us.  He or she is in fact, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, a full-fledged human being whose full dimension isn’t defined by their foolish decision to harm us in some way (as much as we may wish it were).  At its core I believe forgiveness is an acknowledgment that a person who’s harmed us still has the capacity for good.

Forgiveness requires us to view our offender not as malevolent but as confused—so much so that they would actually believe that by harming us they could somehow become happier (though they would almost certainly be incapable of articulating that as the reason).  Secondly, forgiving requires us to let go—of our anger; of our desire to punish or teach a lesson; of our need to harm our harmer; of the notion that by choosing to forgive an offense we’re in some way condoning an unjust action committed against us or committing an injustice ourselves; of the need for an apology; and of the need for our harmer to change.  For in forgiving another their transgression against us, we’re ultimately seeking to free ourselves.  Forgiving, as the saying also goes, doesn’t mean forgetting.  Nor does it have to mean returning the person we’ve forgiven to their former status in our lives.  It means we move on healed from the hurt that’s been done to us.

HOW DOES FORGIVING OTHERS BENEFIT US?

  1. Forgiving others is the only way to break a cycle of violence (whether physical or otherwise).  As complex as it may be, consider the core reason why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict continues to this day.
  2. In order to forgive, we must manifest a life-condition of compassion.  In Nichiren Buddhism this is called the life-condition of the bodhisattva.  A bodhisattva is someone whose most pressing concern lies with the happiness of others.  Attaining this life-condition benefits no one more than it does us, as it is a life-condition of joy.
  3. In order to forgive we must let go of our anger.  If we continue to hold onto anger, it often leaks out against others who’ve committed no crime against us, as well as colors all our experiences, often ruining our ability to feel joy in many aspects of life.

FINDING THE COMPASSION TO FORGIVE

In order to muster compassion for one who’s harmed us, we must first believe with our lives that all people originally desire to become happy.  From there we must find a way to realize our offender has simply gone completely awry in their pursuit of their own happiness and pity them as we would a misguided child.  For no matter how sophisticated a person may seem, how confident and wise and successful, how could an intent to harm arise from anything other than a delusion?

The question will naturally arise:  are some people’s crimes so heinous that they don’t merit forgiveness?  Parents who’ve abused us?  Children who’ve rebelled against us?  Spouses who’ve abandoned us?  Friends who’ve betrayed us?  Strangers who harmed us or our loved ones?  Or even tyrants who’ve killed our families?  Is Hitler, for example, forgivable?  Can one forgive a person without forgiving their actions?

I would suggest only this:  that if you find yourself holding onto a grudge against someone who’s grievously harmed you, for you to find a way to forgive them—for you to become the kind of person who can—will not only first and foremost benefit you, but ultimately may have the power to transform the life of the person you’re forgiving.  Not always of course.  But sometimes.  And if it does, in forgiving them you’re not only setting yourself free, you’re actually contributing to something of greater importance, something the world is literally crying out for in more places than you could probably name:  peace.

Next Week: Insomnia

12 comments to How To Forgive Others, Redux

  • What a lovely and optimistic post, thank you. Those 7 points are spot on I think. 2 and 3 make loads of sense but had never occurred to me before. I wonder if, from a Buddhist / cause & effect point of view, revenge is unnecessary because ‘what goes around comes around’ and so the ‘offender’ will, in the end, reap what they sow? Re: no. 4 I love Gandhi’s point that ‘an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’

    Alex, just wondering if, after thinking and writing about forgiveness you now feel different about the kids who terrorized you in 7th grade? BTW, our fellow SGI Buddhist Marina Cantacuzino has a fabulous movement called the forgivenessproject.com

    Funnily enough the post I put on my blog earlier today addresses many of the same themes you touch on above :-)
    http://thankingthespoon.com/2013/12/01/conflict-resolution-and-the-buddha-in-you/

  • JD

    Isn’t it pretty to think so? I admire your compassion Alex, but if the worst that has happened to you at the hands of others is being teased as ten year old, I can grasp why you have difficulty getting your hands around those who have been wronged but who do not embrace forgiveness. Certainly one should let go, move on, but this does NOT require forgiveness. Indeed forgiveness can be as dangerous as seeking revenge for revenge’s sake. Not all wrongs are comparable; many wrongs should not be forgiven especially if they simply enable evil to persist. And yes unfortunately, there is true evil, malevolence and iniquity in the world. The healthy, sane, insightful, practical and ultimately constructive world view is a nuanced, flexible understanding of these distinctions, not a fantastic zen apparition that all human beings are basically good people (have you ever been mugged? Please explain to me how a rapist is just “misunderstood”?)

  • It would seem to me you are putting a lot of weight or intelligence on some seventh-grade kids who did you some perceived insult. I guess I keep thinking of your fear as if they were dangerous. Surely you can’t still think they are a danger to you. And if the whole thing is just your hurt feelings over some child hood sexist, racist, insult and you are still stewing over it at this point in your life you may have a bigger problem then they did.

    I remember a kid in high school who did some “bad” thing to me and I told him I was Christian and turned the other cheek and dared him to do it again. He immediately backed off. But even more important he is dead. I think he died in Vietnam and if I was still harboring a grudge it would really be a bad thing for me. Forgive? Who knows? It was so long ago it isn’t even important anymore. Much like yours I suspect.

  • Mina

    Thank you for writing this post. I needed to read this today!

  • Jan

    For me, this post is helpful in that it describes an emotional subject in logical terms. In my experience, it’s often relatively easy to forgive when someone acknowledges their behavior. The folks that inflict the greatest harm to others seem to lack either self-awareness or empathy or both. I find the idea of letting go of anger, accepting what happened, and moving on more useful than “forgiveness.” For me, forgiveness implies engaging with that person on some level. I do think it’s useful to see them as more than their bad behavior and hope that they find a better path, but “forgive” is less helpful to me than “accept, let go and move on.” Am I missing something?

    BTW, it would be nice if readers could refrain from making judgements about Alex’s personal experiences. It’s helpful to have illustrative examples. Comments intended to minimize someone else’s experience seem inappropriate and unkind.

  • JD

    Jan,
    Perhaps you missed the thrust of my post. One’s personal experiences are precisely at the heart of my comments. Alex’s view—and mine or yours—can ONLY be judged based on one’s personal experiences. I strongly suspect Alex’s personal experiences are vastly different from mine, thus explaining his exhortation for comprehensive and universal forgiveness and my skepticism that this is uniformly applicable, appropriate , or even safe. After all, it is judgement that is at the heart of this discussion/topic. Alex advances the general, even global, perspective that one should not be judgmental—I insist there are components of most peoples lives, that inherently do, and must, involve being judgmental. I suspect anyone who has suffered real loss, pain, injury, trauma, etc. from the undeniable malevolence of another human being will agree with me, and this population is hardly trivial in number. I would like to live in Shangri-la as well. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us don’t. My judgement, based on personal experience, reasonably compels me to NOT forgive certain actions/crimes etc. even as I may move on for my personal benefit. This is not a subtle distinction—it is critical.

  • Holly

    I’ve been reading online about forgiveness a lot lately; and this is among the more helpful articles I’ve found. But it still doesn’t answer the “HOW” question for me.

    My father disowned me and my young child last year for the most ridiculous reason in the world. (I prefer not to get into it here; but it’s equivalent to him deciding that I take too long to shower, or something equally monumental. Imagine having your family torn apart for something like that.)

    The anger I have for him since has been sometimes overwhelming. Also, it’s led to rifts between me almost everyone in extended family—although they think his actions were unjustifiable, they’re perfectly willing to sweep it all under the rug and continue on as if nothing is wrong (he’s welcomed with open arms at all family gatherings, even when I’m there, etc.), and I feel betrayed by their cavalier response to what he did. So the anger spreads.

    Anyway, I understand that the anger is most damaging to me, and I want to be able to forgive…whatever that looks like (I have no idea). But I have no idea how to do it. The anger is all-encompassing; and on a practical level, how/where am I to start?

    I’m not really a Buddhist, but I’ve started practicing mindfulness meditation. So maybe there’s something in the Buddhist tradition that you could elaborate on in a future blog post related to this?? In any case, thanks for writing this and best wishes.

  • For JD,
    A quote from Nelson Mandela:

    “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

    Best wishes,
    David

  • JD

    David—Mandela hardly FORGAVE his captors/tormentors—he was hardly passive in taking down the horror that was apartheid. Yes he let go of his hatred as that would have inhibited his efficacy as a person and political advocate…but he hardly forgave the perpetrators of apartheid—that is wild misreading of history and the man himself. For bettor of worse, Mandela was a realist—his life demonstrates convincingly why anyone who wants to change the world has to be grounded in the reality of the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, e.g., Francis of Assisi was a great human being but could never have accomplished what Mandela did in the sphere of HUMAN versus spiritual action.

  • I could not have written this better! I hope you don’t mind, I have added this as a link to my blog because it seem to be a natural fit. If you don’t feel it is appropriate, let me know and I will remove it. Thank you.

  • David R

    We should have thought of and mentioned Mandela.

  • JD

    Expropriating Mandela is convenient and attractive but a bit sloppy and even erroneous. Mandela was at heart a politician, a brilliant, clever, flexible and pragmatic politician. The fact that he cooperated with de Klerk, e.g., does not negate the fact that he loathed the man by most close accounts throughout his life and during his later years as well. His professional interactions with the leaders of apartheid do not mean he forgave them, only that he knew to achieve his overarching agenda he had to work with his enemies. This is not duplicitous of course, but it is not “forgiveness” in the customarily understood sense. And he was hardly a pacifist or opposed to violence. At many points in his life, for justifiable reasons, he advocated armed resistance to apartheid.

    Again, hatred/revenge is to be eschewed, but that is not equivalent to “forgiveness”: and Mandela, properly and knowledgeably depicted, stood for practical reconciliation, not forgiveness.

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