“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” —Oscar Wilde
The other day my friend Lori at Lavenderluz.com posted about a recent conflict on a Google Plus group that she hosts. Though the conflict itself originated in a difference of perspective and lack of regard for some of the ground rules of the group, Lori leaves her post with questions that are larger than the conflict: namely, how do you choose between winning an argument and being the change, or knowing "when to talk and when to walk"?
This problem has been on my mind a lot lately, and the questions seem to find their way into every conversation. The other night, I was talking with some friends about the meaning and extent of forgiveness. These friends happen to be UU, and sometimes it's not easy to be UU: on the one hand, we're called to advocate for change, to work for social justice. On the other hand, we're also called to be peaceful, compassionate people who give difference the benefit of the doubt.
How many times have we heard this: that it's better to let go of negativity, anger, resentment, anything that gets in the way of us being whole people? During the discussion I had with my friends, we read from a short list of quotations drawing a variety of schools of thought and activism, urging us to release the negativity, to forgive in order to free ourselves from the emotional hold they have over us, to love and release people without expecting that they're going to change. This seems to me a very Buddhist way of looking at the world; lots of the quotations reminded me of my yoga teacher, who said at the end of last week's class "May all beings everywhere be happy and free ..." and then, looking directly at me: "even the ones we don't like."
The question is, when someone has done something truly unjust to you (and to other people), how long do you hold on to that rage? Do you allow the anger to become a productive force in the fight for justice? Or do you walk away, seeking a more peaceful world by letting go?
Lewis B. Smedes, a well-known Christian ethicist, writes: “When we forgive evil we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it. ...Forgiving is love's toughest work, and love's biggest risk. If you twist it into something it was never meant to be, it can make you a doormat or an insufferable manipulator. Forgiving seems almost unnatural. Our sense of fairness tells us people should pay for the wrong they do. But forgiving is love's power to break nature's rule.”
I've written before about karma. Much as I don't like it, I know that sometimes people don't "get what's coming to them." They don't all "pay," not in this world or the next. I know that what we put out in the world is what we tend to get back, that if we create compassion, we will tend to live in a more compassionate world. And who doesn't want that?
But what about the times when we think it's in our power to expose injustice? Do we forgive and walk away? Or do we "fight the good fight," even if it means not letting go? Do you forgive someone who continues to hurt people, or to be purposefully misinformed? How do you educate people who don't want to be educated? Do you let them speak even when their words are harmful? Can we forgive someone who is still doing wrong?
For two years, I have tended the fires of rage against injustice. Sometimes, especially at first, they burned like a bonfire. Other times, the embers seemed barely alive. And for the most part, they were finally burning themselves out, until about a month ago, when I stoked the fire again, deciding that I was going to try to pursue some kind of justice, not just for me--or so I told myself--but for others who were treated unjustly and walked away, and for the people whom I left behind, the people who are still suffering the effects of an unjust system.
Last week, we made progress. We outed one small piece of the injustice in public. It shook the perpetrator's hold, but it didn't topple him or the system that supported him.
Hearing about what happened, my therapist said: "well, you must be glad."
"Actually," I replied, "I don't wish the perpetrator ill, exactly. I just wish he we no longer in a position to hurt people. If he wants to be miserable on his own, that's his problem."
She argued that it's only human to wish people ill who caused you suffering, and I argued that it's not nice to do that, that it's better to try to let them go, to forgive them. She asked me if this person was no longer able to commit harm, but was given a very comfortable buyout, whether I'd be satisfied. I said that I'd find this unethical, but that I could be content with the ceasing of suffering, even if it meant this person didn't suffer himself. She pushed at it, saying that it seemed like I felt like I needed to be "nice," and I found myself getting more confused instead of finding clarity.
The thing is, I think I've forgiven this person for the hurt he did to me. While I am, admittedly, angry at having to rebuild, I'm also welcoming the next chapter. I can wish him, as a person, well, even though I suspect that he will never happy. On the other hand, I haven't forgiven him, or the system that supported him, for allowing him to continue to do what he did to me and to others, and that have made it possible for him to do even more harm by promoting him. And if I have forgiven him at all, I'm not going to "forget." Which makes me wonder if I've really forgiven him. If forgiveness is authentic, do we "forget"? Or can remembering be a tool in prevention of future wrongs, even if we forgive?
Is what I'm trying to do right, or should I be walking away?
There are no easy answers to these questions for me. I think there's something to the admonition against allowing rage and resentment destroy us from the inside out. Certainly, I've felt my energy sapped away these past few weeks, trying to do what I thought was right, trying to re-engage, instead of walking away. But I also think that forgiveness doesn't preclude justice-seeking, especially if the wrong-doing continues. For the very reason that we can't rely on the turn of the karmic wheel to make it all right. That's how real, deep change gets made in the world.
I also don't think that change can always be made through constructive, friendly dialogue. Because sometimes your entreaties fall on deaf ears. Peacenik that I am, I think sometimes you have to use your outside voice inside.
Maybe the litmus test is whether the rage can be productive, whether something more broadly positive can come from the fight, rather than personal suffering?
What do you think? Have you ever had a hard time forgiving someone? Have you ever been in a situation in which you felt forgiving was in conflict with justice-seeking?