The Essence of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is not so much an act as an attitude. As an act, forgiveness raises the forgiver above the forgiven; it empowers the one even as it disempowers the other. I know this isn’t the way we normally think about forgiveness, but explore this with me a bit. If you don’t like what I have to say, you can always stop reading.
The only way someone can hurt you is if you have given them power over you. When my son was a toddler and I refused him candy as we stood in the checkout line at our local market, he would often cry out, "I hate you. I hate you." While this might have been a bit embarrassing, it wasn't hurtful. He had no power over me, and his assessment of my character and parenting skills meant nothing to me. While you might argue that he should have apologized for his outburst, there is no need for me to forgive him for it. He just did what any three-year-old kid would do when forced to stand in an aisle stacked from his head to his toe with candy.
Now imagine a different scenario. You're standing with a friend who is under the misunderstanding that you have done her some harm. She too cries out, "I hate you, I hate you." Because you are innocent and because you know that she is misinformed you will most likely forgive her for her outburst, especially when she realizes her error and asks for your forgiveness. The difference here is that you have power over her. She was in the wrong, even if she didn't know it, and she may have hurt you with her anger. You bestow forgiveness upon her the way a governor may bestow a pardon on a criminal. Your friend humbles herself before you in asking for forgiveness, and you, with noblesse oblige, graciously grant her wish.
Forgiveness is yours to give, and in giving it you assert your superiority over the one forgiven.
Bear with me for a third scenario. Imagine you have hurt someone you love. He is angry with you, and his anger is making your life miserable. So you apologize, humbly and sincerely. Yet you expect something for this act of contrition. You expect to be forgiven. Your apology, no matter how sincere, is still a tactic. You want to be free from the guilt and the anxiety the other’s anger produces in you, and so you own up to your mistake and apologize. If forgiveness is forthcoming you are freed from the weight of your guilt and free to reengage with the other person as an equal.
But what happens if you ask for forgiveness and forgiveness is not forthcoming? You get angry. Now you are the one who feels slighted. Now you are the one owed an apology. Now you are the one who has been raised, at least in your own mind, to the moral high ground: you occupy the superior status of the wronged.
When we focus on forgiveness as an act it all too often becomes a tactic, and a manipulative one at that. But when we understand forgiveness as an attitude something else altogether happens.
I expect to be hurt. Not all the time and not by everyone, but often enough by those I love that it isn’t a shock—even when the cause of the hurt is a surprise. I expect to be hurt not because I think people are mean and hurtful, but because I know that people are most often victims of their own inner turmoil, and this turmoil just erupts now and again in ways that hurt me.
While I know there are people who set out to deliberately hurt others, I don’t think I personally know anyone like this. I have some troublesome acquaintances and even friends, but none of them are sociopaths or psychopaths. They are just people like me. Often we are caught up in the madness of our lives in such a way that now and again we do something hurtful — often and especially to those we love. Welcome to the major leagues.
Does this mean I don’t have to forgive them? On the contrary, it means that not forgiving them isn’t even an option. This is what I mean by forgiveness as an attitude. Forgiveness isn’t a tactic; it is your default level of engagement. You forgive because you know we are all trapped in our own madness over which we have no control. Not forgiving simply locks you into additional layers of suffering that have no beneficial results at all.
Am I saying that you should forgive everybody for everything they do? What about the person who mugs you or rapes you or murders your child? Are you supposed to forgive that person as well?
If I say, “yes,” I am talking theory, and you should reject my ideas out of hand. It would be absurd of me to dismiss your anger and your grief over tragedies of this magnitude, and I won’t do that. While it might be in your best interest to forgive even these evil people, I would not ask you to do so. There are no limits to forgiveness, but there are limits to forgiving. Follow your heart, not my philosophy.
If I say, “no,” then we have to decide when it is right to forgive and when it is wrong to forgive. But there is no way I can define this for you. You simply have to discover it for itself, and then have compassion on yourself when you do.
Could you forgive Charles Roberts, the man who shot up a one-room schoolhouse killing five Amish girls and wounding five others, if one of those girls was your daughter? Their Amish parents did. I can’t say what I would do. Knowing that Roberts was the victim of his own madness would help me move on without having to bury myself in hatred of the killer, but is that the same as forgiveness? Perhaps it is. But I am not going to tell you that you should or should not forgive Mr. Roberts. That is not my call to make. What I can say is that I will have compassion for you regardless of the choice you make.
But how many of us face this level of horror? So let’s consider a lesser tragedy. Over my twenty years as a congregational rabbi I have worked with several families of suicides. These family members are often very angry: with themselves — “I should have seen this coming, and never should have left him alone;” with each other — “How did you not see this coming? How could you have possibly left him alone?” and most of all, with the loved one who committed suicide — “Why didn’t he let us know how bad things were? Why didn’t he reach out to us for help? Why did he do this to us? He’s gone, but we have to live with this horror for the rest of our lives!”
All of this anger assumes a level of premeditation that most likely didn’t exist. If you could have seen how desperate a loved one was, you would have seen it and taken action regarding it. If the person suffering so much pain that her only outlet is death could have seen another way out, she would have taken it. Most of the hurts we experience are not meant for us. They are by-products of the suffering others are feeling. The truth is that most of the pain and suffering we feel isn’t directed at us at all.
I don’t think you can escape suffering, nor should you want to. Life is what it is: a blend of joy and sorrow, happiness and horror. Forgiveness won’t change that. But it can free you from dragging the sorrow into your moments of joy, and allowing the horror to corrode your moments of happiness, and that is no small thing at all. If we had more space here we would delve into the nature of self and you would see that you aren’t who you think you are, and when you stop thinking you are who you are not, forgiveness happens: no method, no steps, no willful thinking or feeling one way or another; just a freeing of Self from the confines of self and realizing that freedom from self manifests as forgiveness. But we don’t have space for all that. Just this:
Imagine you are out boating alone on a lake. A fog rolls in and you decide to row to shore for safety’s sake. As you do so, you notice another boat heading straight toward you. You assume the fog is blinding the occupants of the other boat to your presence, and you call out for them to turn aside lest they ram into you and perhaps capsize your boat. The others do not respond and their boat picks up speed as it homes in on you. You begin to panic. No matter which way you turn they seem intent on hitting you. You shout for them to look out, but they don’t, and you are hit hard. Anger bursts through you and you scream at the others, leaning into their boat to make your point all the more strong. It is then that you realize the other boat is empty. Wind and current, not malicious intent, drove the other boat into yours. What happens to your anger?