What is Forgiveness?
Stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.
Forgiveness is the renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offence, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. The Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness as ‘to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offence or debt’. The concept and benefits of forgiveness have been explored in religious thought, the social sciences and medicine. Forgiveness may be considered simply in terms of the person who forgives including forgiving themselves, in terms of the person forgiven or in terms of the relationship between the forgiver and the person forgiven. In most contexts, forgiveness is granted without any expectation of restorative justice, and without any response on the part of the offender (for example, one may forgive a person who is incommunicado or dead). In practical terms, it may be necessary for the offender to offer some form of acknowledgment, an apology, or even just ask for forgiveness, in order for the wronged person to believe himself able to forgive.
The Forgiveness Problem
I recently read a book authored by Harold S. Kushner called How Good Do We Have to Be? http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/133804.How_Good_Do_We_Have_to_Be_
The context is that my grandmother passed away and her sister provided me some valuable and powerful insight that allowed me to sleep on and think deeply about forgiveness. My objective is not to offend anyone here and it may happen as I have allowed my frustration and anger to bubble up to the top in order for me to just deal with it.
An Excerpt from How Good Do We Have to Be: A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness by Harold S. Kushner
Rabbi Harold Kushner proclaims that God’s forgiveness enables us to accept our flaws and the failings of others. In this excerpt, he writes about transformation or to be whole before God.
“To be whole before God means to stand before Him with all of our faults as well as all of our virtues, and to hear the message of our acceptability. To be whole means to rise beyond the need to pretend that we are perfect, to rise above the fear that we will be rejected for not being perfect. And it means having the integrity not to let the inevitable moments of weakness and selfishness become permanent parts of our character. Know what is good and what is evil, and when you do wrong, realize that that was not the essential you. It was because the challenge of being human is so great that no one gets it right every time. God asks no more of us that that.
“The philosopher Immanuel Kant once wrote, “Out of timber as crooked as that which man is made of, nothing perfectly straight can be carved.” He is probably right, but the lesson to be learned from that insight is not to give up on humanity, but to give up on the search for perfection. Maybe human beings can’t fashion anything perfectly straight. But maybe what we are able to fashion, with its curves and knotholes, will be more interesting, more satisfying.
“Life is not a trap set for us by God, so that He can condemn us for failing. Life is not a spelling bee, where no one matter how many words you have gotten right, if you make one mistake you are qualified. Life is more like a baseball season, where even the best team loses one-third of all its games and even the worst team has its days of brilliance. Our goal is not to go all year without ever losing a game. Our goal is to win more than we lose, and if we can do that consistently enough, then when the end comes, we will have won it all.
“In the beginning, in the infancy of the human race as in the infancy of an individual human being, life was simple. Then we ate of the fruit of that tree and we gained the knowledge that some things are good and others are bad. We learned how painfully complex life could be.
“But, at the end, if we are brave enough to love, if we are strong enough to forgive, if we are generous enough to rejoice in another’s happiness, and if we are wise enough to know that there is enough love to go around for us all, then we can achieve a fulfillment that no other living creature will ever know. We can reenter Paradise.”
We aren’t perfect. In fact we do bad things to each other to get what WE want. My friends that are religious and have deep faith will have a solid position on forgiveness. In fact, most people I know that I have spoken with have a very clear position on forgiveness. I thought that I did until I read this book and now that I did, I am backtracking. When I say backtracking, I mean reassessing forgiveness.
In the recent past, I was asking a very religious friend of mine to forgive someone else for his transgressions. I asked for my friend to consider that this other person has grown up a lot and experienced new life altering events and that this person is essentially a newer version of himself. My friend looked at me and said “I don’t have to forgive him , G-d forgives, not me.” I argued my position (which was different) but ultimately religion itself is a boundary or barrier to conflict resolution and he would keep his stance. As a matter of perspective aren’t most wars about religion? Most conflict can be tied one way or another to religion and even if you seek religion as a crutch you may become bound by it. Even the very basic 10 commandments is open to multiple interpretations http://www.godstenlaws.com/ten-commandments/#.UisuUWR4Zhk
I have started to think that forgiveness may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing for humans. I said “for humans” because I am starting to think that forgiveness isn’t for us holistically. Forgiveness is an activity. You have to do something to forgive and you have to be aware of why you are forgiving. You have to be able to put what bothered or hurt you behind you. It is about closure. I read the book and I spent some time thinking about it. Frankly, it wasn’t days or weeks but it was enough for me to start to pull ideas together that were powerful to me. I sat down and wrote to my aunt. My thoughts were clear and literally poured out of me very quickly. While I was writing, I discovered that ignorance was connected to forgiveness. It was Kushner himself that pointed this out in the story of Adam and Eve. I wrote this to my aunt:
Do I have forgiveness in my heart? I have forgiveness for people that make an effort and a choice to be better. When Rabbi Kushner advised the woman to forgive her father(for abandoning her), I found the idea that she should forgive him ridiculous. Would you morn for Hitler? The constant barrage of emotional abuse and destructive behavior is a holocaust on a persons emotion and psychological condition. It forever changes that person. We should forgive the deed of the rape but not condemn the rapist for he is human and people make mistakes. If he never were to rape again and repent for his ways and realize that what he did was wrong.. we should forgive him not for him but for ourselves because we shouldn’t carry this anger. It is destructive to us. When I was a child, I was quick to forgive and I realized that forgiveness allowed for me (us) to move on. The reason why it did was because there was closure. Closure is an end to these feelings that you have about something and that you put those feelings behind you and move forward with a clean plate, a new start and a clear perspective. Allow me to offer you a different idea on forgiveness. What if forgiveness was tied to ignorance? I would guess that you have never seen the movie Memento but in that movie a man has no short term memory. He was left only with his long term memory in place and he is on a quest to solve his wife’s murder. He marks his body with tattoos to tell himself the story of where he is when he forgets what happens to him. He has to interpret the markings every time he forgets. He loses his memory within minutes of an event. In the end, WE find that he sees the world differently than the world sees him and that his view of the world as unkind as it is, it much kinder than the reality of the world. I think that is ground truth. We are ignorant of most things and when we get to see the truth, it is mostly unkind. That is not to say that there isn’t good in the world but that reality is much harsher than our ignorance allows us to perceive. There is good in not knowing. If you knew that you were going to die a painful and un-purposeful death tomorrow what would you do today? After all faith itself is belief without knowing. I would like to think that my grandmother loved me very much, my knowledge of her tells me she didn’t and my ignorance tells me that she could have. If I stick with my ignorance, the less I know about her the more I could embrace and love her. The more I could find myself forgiving. I could close the door and start fresh, except she is gone now so there isn’t anything new to start.
What if you didn’t know to hate? The picture above was posted by my friend Kimani on Facebook one day ago. What if the knowledge tree was the curse? I am angry but not a G-d. I am angry at man. If a person does something over and again and exhibits consistent unrelenting behavior, should we forgive them? We should forgive the person and not the deed itself? I have written about conflict on this blog in the past. An oversimplification of the work (in conflict) is that intractable conflicts are extremely complex in nature, so complex that it is difficult to sustain a mental map of factors that influence the conflict. We act to simplify conflict, and, in fact, the tendency is to over-simplify, to reduce the conflict to a simple us/them, pro/con, I’m right/you’re wrong. The complexity of the conflict is too much to handle cognitively. Once the conflict is simplified, opposing forces can dig in, increasing intractability.
An easy way to simplify intractable conflict is to forgive. What if we don’t seek to forgive? What if we can’t forgive? What if forgiveness itself doesn’t matter? How about we turn forgiveness over to G-d and we just realize that for most of humanity that forgiveness is something we would like to aim for but depending on the deed in question may never attain.
Ignorance = ?
I wouldn’t say that ignorance is bliss per se but I would say that if we put less effort into having to forgive and more effort in having to forget then maybe we would simply be happier. Maybe the demons that keep you up at night wouldn’t haunt you if you didn’t know they existed. I told my aunt that the punishment for being disconnected is being forgotten. Think about this.. in less than a few generations it is very possible that YOU will be forgotten. All of your good and all of your bad could be nothing but a moment in time that no longer exists that no one knows of. The interesting thing about this is that if you carried hate, love or indifference those tacit inside feelings and emotion may itself convey. This historical narrative of people will carry across the generations. Where is forgiveness there?