Years ago, while teaching a meditation class, the group was working with a basic lovingkindness practice and in the discussion that ensued, one participant complained about the difficulty and unpleasantness connected with the process of sending positive energy to “a difficult person” in her life, which is what happens during the meditation. We got into a discussion of forgiveness that reminded me of many other similar discussions. It also reminded me of the importance of our getting the concept right.
All those discussions dealt with misunderstandings that are so common to our idea of forgiveness. Ultimately, most of us believe, at least partly, that to forgive is weak and indicates softness, moral ambiguity and often an insufficient “respect” for the seriousness of the sin being forgiven.
It can easily feel like the anger we carry toward those who have offended us justifies a strong, principled stand that we try to maintain against the being(s) whose dark and perhaps insensitive gestures have hurt us. Often, when we are considering capitulation, we may find ourselves feeling weak, ineffectual and lacking in integrity.
It is as if we analogously experience our anger as the motivator we utilize as antagonists, engaged in competition – similar to, let’s say, arm wrestling. Despite the intense feeling we may have of being tired and worn out by our opponent, we try to hold on and not QUIT.
So, there is quite a bit of overgeneralization; quitting is far too often seen as weak. If we look further, the “arm wrestle” is to determine a winner and a loser. In the general world of gesture and behavior, however, there is no winning in that regard. It is far better to understand and accept the legitimacy of the other than to establish superiority.
The idea behind that last statement is incredibly important, as the future of our world depends on our accepting it more fully.
Being bested in a physical battle is completely different from being wounded or offended. In the arm wrestle, the harder and longer you push yourself, the better you do. When we are offended, the sooner we let it go, the less weighted down we are by it.
To forgive is to act on the awareness that we are all fallible human beings who are better off arriving at acceptance than carrying grudges. When it comes to good health, acceptance is right up there with gratitude. And – this is critical – just because I forgive what you did to me does not mean I endorse or in any way approve of what you did. It means I have decided not to carry the weight of the offense around with me anymore. I have freed myself of it. It does not change the nature of the offense; it is a refusal to allow that offense to continue living in me.
A little vignette may help this become clearer: I recently learned of a woman who forgave the man who murdered her son. Outrageous, you may be thinking. But imagine for a moment, unpleasant though it will be, that one of your loved ones was taken from you in that way. Irrespective of the tragic nature of such an occurrence, consider: Would you be more at peace if you reached that point of forgiveness or would it feel better to have not arrived there?
To forgive is to accept that although we often cannot stop things from happening, we can always respond to our experiences with integrity. Nelson Mandela, whose centennial we are now celebrating, made the following statement about forgiveness, which is as personal as it is universal: “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.”
At another point in his life, he said this: “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”
So, please forgive. You will feel better!