Saturday, June 8, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Forgiveness

“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” —Oscar Wilde

The other day my friend Lori at 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?
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  1. I do have a hard time forgiving, but that's also because the transgression has to be pretty huge for me to need to grant forgiveness. In other words, you have to do a lot to piss me off, and if you've pissed me off, you have probably done something that has irreparable damage. I can think of a few people in my life who would like forgiveness, and while I could give them forgiveness, life wouldn't look differently before or after that forgiveness. The damage is irreparable. There is also the situation that you are speaking about: forgiving without the person asking for forgiveness. And in that case, I think it's impossible. At least, for me. Forgiveness comes from a person owning what they've done. Without the request for forgiveness, there is no ownership.

    I have a similar situation to the one you are speaking of, and I haven't forgiven him OR the system. There certainly hasn't been forgetting either. But I've placed it in a box in my mental basement. I couldn't do that until I was sure that whatever was in the box wasn't going to create a mess of my storage room.

  2. I like that: the mental basement. Even better than the attic. Less likely to start to sag with the weight of too much storage.

    I don't think I tend to get really angry at people that easily, either, unless they've done something that is (in my view) pretty awful. There are people who have done things that I've felt were wrong, but I've gotten better over the years at just cutting them (and myself) loose, instead of getting angry. I'm guessing that you disagree with the "anger/resentment eats away at you" school of thought?
    Being able to forgive someone definitely gives you the upper hand in a relationship, if the person *wants* it. It's interesting how many people seem to talk about forgiving without someone asking them to or owning their wrong ... both in Western and Eastern traditions. During that discussion my friends and I were talking about some Christian denominations where it seems people simply (well, it appears simple to me, anyway) pray for the people who hurt them, and they "find" forgiveness. In some respects, I admire that, I wish I had a belief that allowed me to change my heart that easily, but on the other hand, that seems super-human to be. And do they forgive because their religion dictates forgiveness, or because they *feel*/experience forgiveness? Is there a difference?

  3. I read this, this morning and needed to let it marinate a bit. These are such difficult questions and for me, no clear cut answers... I feel like we have talked about this in person, but if we haven't I look forward to doing so with you when we are together next month. I struggle a lot with the concept of forgiveness.

    I try and pray everyday to forgive those who have hurt me, as well as to live a life worthy of the forgiveness I have been granted for my transgressions. But it is not easy for me.

    I pray The Our Father often and also zero in on "...and forgive us our trespasses. As we forgive those who trespass against us." I have heard some inspiring quotes about forgiving others to help ourselves, because holding onto what happened is so painful.

    I appreciate Mel's comment about ownership, as I agree that matters when it comes to forgiveness. That doesn't mean, for me, that I am incapable of forgiving someone who hasn't asked for my forgiveness, but it certainly makes it more challenging for me to do so.

    I recall being in a yoga class over a year ago and at the end our teacher encouraged us to pray for (or send positive thoughts to) someone that we find it difficult to love. I really appreciated that instruction, as it helped me to approach some of the people/strained relationships in my life from a different place/perspective.

    So have I truly forgiven all those who have hurt me over the years? I wish I could say with confidence and truth, "yes." But it is still a daily battle for me to make peace with what has happened and everyone's roles in the altercations that led to me needing to potentially forgive and be forgiven.

    For me, I have to try to forgive and pray for forgiveness every day and do the best that I can to accept wherever that leaves me and those involved. That is how I am able to live with myself and those who I still have to interact with who have not asked for my forgiveness.

    Thank you for sharing and go you on doing NaBlo again! :)

  4. I firmly believe that anyone who hurts another, especially if it's out of contempt and not just because they don't realize they are doing it, is unhappy, so in that sense, they are getting what comes around. I also think that for most of us who hurt others, it's unknowingly and out of fears, whether realized or deep seated. We are protecting ourselves. And are so fearful that we don't even realize the affects our actions have on others. I do believe in the power of forgiveness but I also have to acknowledge the hurts in order to be fair to myself and move on. Thought provoking post to say the least.

  5. Late commenting on this one, but I agree, I love Lollipop's, "But I've placed it in a box in my mental basement."

    Many years ago, when I was in my college years, I was ranting about some injustice over women's issues (if I remember correctly), and my dad replied something like this:

    "Yes, there are lots of things that are wrong and unfair. But if you insist on being angry about all of them, it just makes YOU unhappy. You need to pick and choose what you are going to invest emotional energy on, as you just drive yourself nuts if you get upset about them all."

    I didn't really get it at the time, but the sentiment stuck in my head and resonates more and more as time goes on. There are still things that have happened to me, times when someone was incredibly unfair. And while I am still angry, I have managed to put those things in a box in my mental basement. I don't invest the emotional energy in them anymore. But if you ask me, I am still pissed about it/them. But I have figured out how to not stew over it. That takes time though.

  6. This, what Mel said: "Forgiveness comes from a person owning what they've done. Without the request for forgiveness, there is no ownership."

    I find it incredibly hard to forgive in the sense of forgiving and forgetting. I need the elements Mel wrote about above in order to forgive. Unfortunately, that's not how life works.

    Also love the idea of putting a box in the basement. Once I tidy up my mental space, I expect I'll have boxes to file as well.


  7. Incredible post, Justine. So much to think about here.

    I agree with this, and in fact, it might be the key for me of deciding whether a transgression can be forgiven: "Forgiveness doesn't preclude justice-seeking, especially if the wrong-doing continues...That's how real, deep change gets made in the world."

    I also agree with Melissa that it's much easier to forgive someone who has ASKED for forgiveness, but among those who I try to forgive for wrongdoing personally, none asked for forgiveness. Which makes forgiveness almost hypothetical? Yet forgiving may provide peace for me personally, instead of forever harboring anger and stress and making my life less enjoyable.

    Perhaps the answer to forgiveness is both parts of this: exposing transgressions that continue to cause evil in the world yet practicing forgiveness too to heal our own hearts?

    Really thought-provoking...I can tell I'll be chewing on this for a while.

  8. Forgiving is much more for the forgiver than the forgivee. That's why I am able to get behind it :-)

    This is one of the harder questions to answer: Do you forgive someone who continues to hurt people?

    There is a fine line between doing (the masculine) and being (the feminine). With the former, there is no peace, but with the latter, there is no justice.

    You've made me think. What if forgiveness is simply getting out of orbit, energetically, with a nemesis?

  9. I think the answer to this is individual, but I forgive because it feels better to me to let go of anger. It has nothing to do with the person who has wronged me. I don't want their wrong to take over my life.

    That does not mean I don't seek justice, particularly if they could hurt someone else and I am an aggressive justice seeker. But I let anger go from my heart and seek justice because it is a rational consideration of my head. If I feel too emotional about it, in fact, I suspect that I may not really be able to evaluate what is just.

    I now work on waiting and working it out- giving myself some time to let the anger ebb, so I can more acurately evaluate what happened. Therapy probably helps with this a lot. I've also started just point-blank telling people when they hurt me and asking their perspective. What I find is that so often the story sounds very different in their telling.

  10. This is more or less what Mel wrote today in a follow up post over at her blog ... the necessity of time (and sometimes space) to figure out how we really feel, to make it more rational than purely emotional.

    And I'm wondering, too, if it's possible to separate the act from the perpetrator, so one could forgive/feel compassion for the perpetrator, even if the act were unforgiveable.

    In the group, we were talking about the Amish people "forgiving" after the shooting of their children ... and marveling at how that could be possible, how people could really feel that way, offer comfort to the mother of the shooter ... and agreeing that not one among us would be capable of that at this point in our lives. Maybe there are people who are able to do this better than others, and it's not bad to be one way or the other ... it's just the way we're put together?

    Rich conversation here ... thank you, everyone!


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