“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.”
This is the fifth of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
I’ve thought about this for two days now: what exactly is forgiveness? Is it an action? a choice? a feeling? When I “forgive” someone, what does that actually mean?
This is not really what I intended to do with this series of reflections about joy, but the more I thought about the word, the less I understood it. Rather than bore you with the specifics of my linguistic battle, I’ll just share this with you: forgiveness is giving up the desire to punish or retaliate against the offender. It’s not absolving them of responsibility or forgetting the offense; it’s recognizing that punishing them will not fix the injury that was caused. In fact, retaliation tends to multiply the hurt rather than lessen it.
Another aspect of forgiveness that really stuck out to me was this description by the Dalai Lama: part of forgiveness is “cultivating compassion for someone who may not be experiencing acute pain or suffering right now, but who is creating the conditions for their own future suffering.” This really struck me because my ex-wife frequently says very hurtful things and treats other people with great disrespect. What do you do with a person like this? How can you forgive someone who doesn’t stop hurting you and doesn’t take responsibility for doing it? Compassion.
It’s interesting to me that I’ve never really thought of the connection between compassion and forgiveness, but it makes perfect sense. When you realize that the person who injured you did not do it on purpose or by choice, it’s easier to forego the desire for retribution. When I see that my ex-wife says or does hurtful things because she is afraid, I must acknowledge that (at least in some ways) she is not responsible for that fear. She doesn’t live that way entirely by choice, so her reactions to things are not entirely her “fault.” Yes, she’s the one choosing to insult or belittle, but where is that “choice” coming from? It’s almost like a reflex. When the doctor taps your knee, he can’t be angry if you accidentally kick him in the shin.
That’s where it helps to understand what exactly forgiveness is. If I thought that she deserved to be punished for what she has done, it means that I don’t have any compassion at all for the state of fear that she lives in. I certainly don’t think she is completely blameless, but it’s interesting to realize that she does and says such things because that’s what seems right to her.
This leads into a related point, again made by the Dalai Lama. It’s important to draw a distinction between the actor and the action. This is a common refrain among Christians (at least in the US): “hate the sin, not the sinner.” It is presented less glibly in The Book of Joy: “This is where the power of forgiveness lies–not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness.” That word “humanity” is really important. In our current social and political climate, we can see just what happens when we lose sight of this. Rather than rational debates between individual people, what we see going on is a two-way barrage of personal attacks and cruel insults.
Finally, one of the most important things about forgiveness is that is releases the forgiver from the hold of the forgiven. Until we do that, we “are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.” The longer you hold on to that hatred and anger and bitterness, the longer you are a prisoner to it. Letting go of that negativity frees you and your offender, but it’s not always easy. Still, a little compassion can go a long way in recognizing that you have also been on the other side of forgiveness, and you know how good it feels to be let off the hook.
Next up: Gratitude