There is a tale once told of a man in a boat. The man has filled the boat with all his possessions but the boat as a result doesn’t glide very fast in the water. The man begins to throw items from the boat. And, in return, the boat moves faster. Eventually the man throws everything overboard except for himself and some bare essentials, necessities. The boat then moves quite effortlessly.
I think of this concept when I think about forgiveness and how difficult the act itself can be.
Often our boats are heavy with resentment, anger and sorrow and our boats don’t move as a result. We become stuck in rives, canals and oceans. There is a whole ocean-full of life before us but we can’t partake because we can’t move forward. We are held hostage by upset, anger, and our inability to forgive.
Forgiveness meanwhile means different things to different people. “The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world,” Marianne Williamson, the spiritual author writes. Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer and activist stated that, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” The writer C. S. Lewis wrote, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” While Oprah informs us that “True forgiveness is when you can say, "Thank you for that experience.”
Perhaps forgiveness is relative to time allowed for healing. Thomas Moore stated, "Forgiveness comes in its own time...We can create the conditions under which forgiveness will appear, but it will appear in its own time and in its own way." Forgiveness, it would seem, can be complicated and multifaceted.
But should it be? Luke 17:3-4 informs us, “’Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” I guess mustering up sincere compassion for those who have wronged us and who apologize is no easy feat for some.
Should we forgive a person because they acted in an unconscious manner? “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do,” Jesus Christ spoke from the cross with respect to those who had crucified and tortured him. Was Jesus somehow acknowledging that a lack of self-awareness combined with a healthy amount of ignorance renders an individual somewhat blameless? Is consciousness of what one does key?
Pain may often be a factor of wrongdoing. Joel Osteen informs us to “Keep in mind, hurting people often hurt other people as a result of their own pain. If somebody is rude and inconsiderate, you can almost be certain that they have some unresolved issues inside. They have some major problems, anger, resentment, or some heartache they are trying to cope with or overcome.” Perhaps somewhere in this is embedded an Eckhart Tolle concept that we should remove our own egos well in advance and take nothing personal.
In a documentary entitled, “The Power of Forgiveness,” we encounter multiple facets of forgiveness. The most affecting moments in this movie come in numerous touching stories of those who forgive when forgiveness is most hard. There’s an inspiring example of an exemplary Pennsylvania Amish community who are able to forgive after a man killed five little girls in their school. Also, children from Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland are taught to forgive by watching their parents forgive and model forgiveness for family members murdered.
Another segment tells of the Nobel Peace Laureate, Elie Wiesel, who encouraged the German government to apologize directly to the Jewish people in Israel for the Holocaust. Forgiveness is also explored via a tragedy like 9-11 in New York City where a Rev. Lyndon Harris talks about his idea of building a Garden of Forgiveness near that site where people can meditate. Finally, Everett Worthington, who teaches forgiveness to college students, describes how he and his siblings forgave the violent murder of their mother while the police chief on the case admits that she could never forgive such an act.
In a separate but powerful story I came across some years ago, Alice Walker writes an unforgettable tale of the power of forgiveness in a tribe of South Africa:
“In the Babemba tribe, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly or wrong, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual.
Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days.”
And speaking of tribes, in Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), forgiveness is essential—as is wiping the slate clean. Actually, most 12-step programs involve forgiveness – asking for it, seeking it, and forgiving one’s self. In recovery, post forgiveness an individual is free of all resentments and issues once they have achieved a state of forgiveness in their minds. That’s the clean slate they need to move forward.
Forgiveness it would seem is a state of mind at times. While religions all over the world hold forgiveness in high regard – or even require it as a means of achieving a state of grace or salvation – forgiveness in regards to addiction recovery is more a state of mind. In this respect it doesn’t matter if you are a religious person, practicing or not, an agnostic, or an atheist. Being able to forgive is a mindset that anyone can achieve, but it does take practice.
What if we all approached forgiveness of ourselves and others like recovering addicts, the pre-process at least?
In a blog: “Forgiveness: A Big Part of Addiction Recovery” the major steps in our approach to pre-forgiveness are laid out. We are told there are various stages of readiness to forgive. These are purely subjective, for the most part but you must develop your powers of forgiveness by using these tips:
Let Go of Resentment – Resentment is the accumulation of the real or imagined wrongs we all carry around with us...Resentment just doesn’t accrue any benefits. You have to let go of all your resentment, period. There are several ways to do this, and they’re listed here in order of easiest to more difficult.
Passive Neglect – This sounds bad, but it simply refers to the passage of time and the resulting decrease in importance that certain wrongs hold for us. After a period of months or years, things that used to be bothersome probably don’t hold the same degree of intensity anymore.
Reflection – Looking back at some unkind or harsh words that were spoken to you, or actions you deemed unfair or wrong may benefit from introspection on your part today...What you need to do is reflect on what the person said or did. Did you hear what they were saying or were you too busy racing ahead with your own conclusions and judgment?
Look Into The Matter – Maybe what you thought was said or done wasn’t what really happened. You could easily have misinterpreted the situation. Perhaps you need to gather the facts in order to weigh and balance your resentment – and let it go.
Risk/Reward – As with many decisions you make, doing a risk/reward or cost/benefit analysis is a good way to assess your pile of accumulated resentments. What good (reward) will come from you continuing to hold onto the resentment? On the other hand, what risk do you carry if you let the resentment go?
This all said, I am not saying we confuse forgiveness with justifying the wrong doing or denying the other person’s responsibility for the pain they have caused when in actual fact forgiveness does not excuse any act. Forgiveness is but an act of love whereby one releases any feelings of resentment towards another person.
Pope John Paul II intimated once that forgiveness allows us to create the potential to become people who are based in love instead of fear, which contributes to a better world overall. We could certainly do with that right now. Forgiveness he felt could be done silently in the heart at any time as well as outwardly when we express feelings of compassion towards others who may have hurt us.
What if resentment and anger and an inability to forgive are all a defense mechanism to stop us feeling sadness? Once we forgive others, we must turn inwards, forgive ourselves and possible delve through sorrow.
In conclusion, we can’t make amends and ask for or receive forgiveness – even anonymously – if we still harbor resentment. The key to forgiveness then is letting resentment go.