Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
language, ideas, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
How do we address this very important topic of forgiveness? We have only to open the newspaper to see the countless ways our world craves for forgiveness. Historically this has always been true and it is true today. We are hungry for forgiveness, between nations, between peoples, religions, genders, races, political groups, communities, families. The need for forgiveness is ubiquitous. But are the laborers few?
How do religious and community leaders and conscientious individuals cultivate a culture of forgiveness or practice forgiveness in tangible, practical ways. I will leave you to determine what you feel called to do at the community and societal level. Because as much as we need forgiveness on a global scale, I believe a cultural of forgiveness starts with the individual. I will be discussing the individual aspect of forgiveness because working in the field of psychology that has been my experience. But my hope is that we also find ways to cultivate forgiveness as a community and on a larger scale.
And as a psychotherapist I have seen firsthand the power of forgiveness in couples, in families and groups; and most of all for individuals when they forgive themselves.
One of my favorite quotes from Gandhi is “resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.” So true! Resentment and unforgiveness often poisons us more than anyone else. I wrote a very short poem that exemplifies the power of forgiveness on the individual themselves who is doing the forgiving.
Read my poem, “The Cell” for a story on this.
I love this image of the prison cell and the idea that it is really us that keep ourselves bound. It’s really very freeing because often when we’ve been deeply hurt or wronged by another we feel very powerless and helpless. Seeing that forgiveness is the key that sets us free is very empowering. We are not held down by someone’s actions or words or apologies or lack thereof. Now I’m not saying it’s easy. And it can’t be rushed. Healing takes time. Often we want to put the cart before the horse. Trying to force forgiveness without healing is like trying to build a waterfall or a river without water. Water is the fuel, the life force, behind what happens downstream. Just so forgiveness is often a natural byproduct that flows from healing. When true healing happens from within and the dam breaks, it’s kind of hard to stop the outpouring of forgiveness and compassion that is shed on those downstream. And on the flip side when we haven’t yeah processed through the hurt, the emotions, the beliefs, the expectations, the impact it’s had on us, it’s really hard to see over the dam. Sometimes our pain can be like a wall and it’s really hard to see over the other side to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, see it from their perspective, or understand where they might have been coming from.
So in some sense resentment might be a gift to us. Rather than beat up on ourselves and say “why am I not more forgiving and compassionate? Why can’t I get over this? Why can’t I forget this person? Why can’t I let this go?” Instead we can be grateful that it is a sign, an opportunity for healing. Like the car dashboard lights that are helpful indicators of what’s going on down below. Rather than being frustrated that we can’t get to where we want to go, we can stop and pay attention to the check engine light. And take some time to do some work internally under the hood.
I think it’s also important not to frustrate ourselves with unrealistic expectations. If you’re anything like my type A personality, you want to get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. You want forgiveness to be this linear process. “I do this and then this happens and I get this result.” Healing isn’t linear. It’s often cyclical. Like an onion we heal on one level and then life and circumstances give us an opportunity to go deeper and heal on another layer.
Like the story of the novice monk who’s talking with his spiritual director about how frustrated he is with himself that he is still dealing with the same issues. Why he isn’t more virtuous yet? Why can’t he overcome these weaknesses? When is he ever going to arrive?
And the next morning the novice is awoken by yelling and shouting. He looks out and sees his spiritual director in the garden. He goes outside and the monk out there yelling and shouting at this little bitty tomato plant, “Where are your tomatoes? What value can you have just standing there? Why haven’t you grown yet?!” And the novice comes up to him and says “Master what are you doing? Why are you yelling at this poor plant? We’ve just come out of a long winter. The ground is just beginning to warm. It’s not time yet for this plant to bear fruit.” And the monk turns and looks him in the eyes with such gentleness and says, “Then why do you yell at yourself when you are still growing?”
So we can start the process of healing and forgiveness but I think we have to treat ourselves with gentleness. Anger is often a secondary emotion and underneath can be hurt, fear, loneliness, a whole host of other emotions. Like an iceberg, there can be a lot under the surface. And although we all seem to be melting like crazy around here in this heat, melting needs to be a gradual process so we don’t flood ourselves with emotions, memories, or difficult symptoms. Like Anne Lamont has said, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood I try not to go there alone”. Sometimes we need support. Anger is often easier because it’s a more powerful emotion and when we are hurt, we often feel vulnerable and powerless. Anger is safer than those vulnerable feelings. Paradoxically it takes strength to crack the iceberg, to dig in deep and get to work.
And forgiveness is not a foreign concept to any of you. I think you know forgiveness very well and can tap your own experience. Because it’s something we all do all of the time. If we are in relationship with others we are practicing forgiveness. No matter how well-intentioned or virtuous we try to be, ultimately we make mistakes, and hurt one another. Being in relationship means practicing forgiveness on a regular basis, giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, empathizing with what they are going through, acknowledging they are doing the best they can with the capacity they have at the moment.
And on the other side, I can say from personal experience that the times that I have felt the most loved have been the times I have been forgiven rather than receiving judgment, shame, or shunning from my mistakes. The times that I have received compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance I have felt the most touched, the most unconditionally loved.
It has been said that the greatest attribute of love is mercy. And mercy is given and received as forgiveness. We have so many powerful religious texts about forgiveness.
“Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
“And let them pardon and overlook. Would you not like that Allah should forgive you?”
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”
“Hatred never ceases by Hatred, but by love alone is healed. this is the ancient and eternal law”
Forgiveness is our daily bread. It call us to practice love without limits, judgements, or expectations. It calls us to drop judgmental attitudes and live compassion in large and small ways.
Some say friendship is not shown in great big ways but in countless small everyday ways. And I think that could be said for forgiveness as well. I like to think of it not so much is something that we do but an attitude, an orientation towards others, an attitude of compassion, generosity, non-judgment, respect. And as love always does, it challenges us to growth and an ever greater capacity. And the capacity for love and forgiveness are only grown close to the heart, where we are vulnerable, where it hurts. And just as it is often easier to show charity to a stranger than perhaps someone in our own home, it is often hardest to forgive those closest to us, precisely because of the place they hold in our heart. But when we open the door and carve a place in our heart for love, for forgiveness, grace surely flows.