The Power of Forgiveness
How do we forgive those who have hurt us? How is it possible to reconcile our differences with individuals who have done us harm or hurt our families or those responsible for committing deliberate acts of violence? Is forgiveness imperative in all cases? Or is forgiveness a spiritual absolute we wrestle with but nearly always fall short of, unable to leave grievances behind or let bygones be bygones?
There are no simple answers to these questions. We should not be sentimental about forgiveness: it is often a difficult, knotty spiritual practice that requires us to move beyond an intensely felt but self-destructive mind-set, like swallowing a bitter pill. Furthermore, we commonly use the word forgiveness in an imperative sense, rendering it both compulsory and difficult. We are told, for example, that until we forgive, we will never heal. We forget that forgiveness is a grieving process that often includes the expression and release of negative emotions, especially disappointment and anger. It’s no use trying to avoid these painful feelings. Forgiveness that is insincere, forced, or premature can be more psychologically damaging than authentic bitterness and rage.
Helen Whitney, the director of the documentary film Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate, has said, “We talk about forgiveness as if it were one thing. Instead, we should talk about forgivenesses. There are as many ways to forgive as there are people needing to be forgiven. We have a cultural tendency to want to turn forgiveness into a single, universally desirable thing. But forgiveness is more complex than that.”
This is important to understand. Like any form of healing, forgiveness has its own timetable and should not be rushed or engineered. We cannot force ourselves to “forgive!” any more than we can force ourselves to “let go!” What we can do is create the conditions in which forgiveness is likely to happen, beginning with full acknowledgment of the situation and how we are feeling. Until we are honest with ourselves about our pain or resentment, we cannot hope to leave it behind. Weaned on the notion that forgiveness is a selfless act executed for others at our own expense, we forget that compassion begins at home and that we must attend to our own wounds before we can open our hearts to others.
Many people confuse forgiveness with selflessness and wonder why they can’t seem to manage it. In attempting to transcend their own experience and “do the right thing,” many well-meaning people discover that they cannot forgive if they leave themselves out of the equation. When we understand forgiveness as a compassionate act toward ourselves that we extend to others as we’re able, we begin to grasp what Helen Whitney means by forgivenesses in the plural. Every situation requires its own skillful resolution. If we wait until our motives are completely pure and residual feelings a thing of the past, chances are we will forgive little in our lives. On the other hand, when we can see forgiveness as a survival tool, as well as a spiritual act, our requirements and self-expectations shrink to more realistic proportions.
Whether or not we hold that some acts are unforgivable, there is no doubt that some are so consequential that they can’t easily be included in any conventional approach to forgiveness. This does not mean that we can’t get beyond the actions of our enemies. As one Holocaust survivor put it, “I will never forget, and I will never forgive. But I brought up my children to love and not to hate.”
After having survived that kind of trauma, the commitment to teach your children to love instead of hate is testimony to inherent human goodness. Such “compartmentalized forgiveness,” in which we honor our authentic and pained feelings at the same time that we practice moving beyond the harm, informed the reaction of one 9/11 survivor on learning of the death of Osama bin Laden. Quoted on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Dish, the writer said, “. . . I was on the 62nd floor of Tower One when the first plane struck, and I was in the police command center in [World Trade Center Building 5] when WTC 2 collapsed on top of us. I am also a Catholic.
“When I turned away from the Mets-Phillies game [on TV] Sunday night to watch the President ‘announce’ the news that everyone already seemed to know, I had no mixed emotions. That son a bitch killed my friends, colleagues, fellow New Yorkers, fellow Americans, fellow human beings. Worse still, he inspired thousands, if not more, to take up a blind nihilism as their credo, ostensibly in the name of Allah, ‘the merciful, the compassionate.’ All the pain he has brought to this world has not been reckoned and may not be reckoned in our lifetimes. I sat on my couch Sunday night and poured a large glass of Irish whiskey and toasted the death of the man who had tried to kill me. . . .
“Then I went upstairs and looked in on my three sleeping children—my oldest born in 2002—and I kissed them all. Then I settled in next to my wife—my beautiful wife, who will be married to me 10 years tomorrow and who is carrying our fourth child. She for many long hours thought her husband of five months was crushed to death in the towers. I put my hand upon her belly and I closed my eyes and I prayed that Osama bin Laden would know the fullness of Christ’s mercy.”
I know so many people whose lives have been touched by violence: a friend whose nephew was murdered; a friend whose niece was murdered; another friend whose daughter was murdered; a score of people who have escaped abusive relationships, or have been raped, or have a history of terrible sexual or physical abuse in their childhoods. I have learned from them all that in dealing with our enemies, we need not become agents of revenge with closed hearts and constricted minds; we need not dedicate the rest of our lives to the downfall of those who have wronged us. They have shown me that we can devote ourselves to fostering change—for children, for women, for elders, for anyone vulnerable or afraid—rather than fixating on revenge.
For some that has meant that instead of obsessing on how to make wrongdoers suffer, they focus on standing up for the disenfranchised, for people who feel so hopeless, so deprived of dignity and social support that they lash out at others in the belief that nobody cares about them. Otherwise, these activists say, we remain part of the problem, perpetuating violence in the name of justice, reacting without mindfulness to personal grudges and the seductive call for retribution.
They have taught me that our lives don’t need to be dedicated to getting even. If we can let go of that burning need and our fixation on anger, then we can start to understand the possibility of actually experiencing the generative power of compassion. The force of compassion drives us toward life, openness, renewal, and love. This is how our enemies become our greatest spiritual teachers.