The Meaning and Power of Forgiveness

11/08/2008 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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In light of everything that is going on in our country and the world right now, including the financial crisis and political discord that are now on center stage, it may be a good time to talk about a topic that usually gets ignored when the "blame game" is in full swing. I'm talking about forgiveness. Indeed, getting to forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult and challenging thing that we can do to go beyond ourselves when we are so fixated on our problems, our needs, and our demands. Let's face it, when things are spinning out of control -- and especially out of our control -- it's at least comforting and cathartic, even if it doesn't really resolve anything, to be able to point the blame on others for our situation. Of course, getting to forgiveness under such circumstances is much easier said than done. But it can be done! And, importantly, our capacity to forgive actually provides us with a pathway to true freedom and self-empowerment that, at the same time, is a platform for healing what ails us and for confronting what challenges us.

Forgiveness means "letting go" of our suffering. In effect, it has much more to do with our own well-being than that of the person or persons we forgive. When we hold on to our suffering -- our resentment, hurt, anger -- we are inside ourselves with self-pity. It becomes a veil through which we see ourselves and others; it becomes something we have to feed, keep alive, and justify. If we don't, we think we allow the other person or people to be "right" in their unjust treatment of us.

But forgiveness can be one of the most powerful things we do. Like any muscle, however, it has to be exercised to work well. Forgiveness can be very complicated. Sometimes we think that it equates forgetting, diminishing, or condoning the misdeed, but it really doesn't. It has much more to do with freeing ourselves from its hold. Our ability to live our lives with love, understanding, and generosity is impeded when we don't forgive. It doesn't mean that we have to love and be generous to the woman who was disloyal to us at work or the man who belittled our ideas at a staff meeting. Neither does it mean that we have to love and be generous to those government officials who dropped the ball by not managing the public's business with integrity and accountability or to those corporate executives on Wall Street who dangerously let the will to money trump the will to meaning at the public's expense. No, this is not it. But what it does mean is that we forgive them and liberate ourselves from further captivity. Love and generosity, as well as understanding, will return in their own time and on their own terms (the same holds true for things that happen to us in our personal lives and relationships).

There is another aspect of forgiveness that I would like to share with you. It involves what is referred to as "collective guilt." In this regard, Viktor Frankl, who had survived four Nazi concentration camps, had spoken out all his life against the theory of the collective guilt of the German people. Frankl, in point of fact, had given a now famous speech in which he urged Jews to go and confirm that there were both kinds of people under the Nazi regime, decent people and unprincipled people. Therefore, he argued that it would be unjust to condemn them all, lock, stock, and barrel. By the same token, it would also be unjust to condemn all future generations of Germans for the deeds of those who were, to use Frankl's descriptor, unprincipled.

Fast forward to the present day and ponder the temptation to use the notion of collective guilt against all Saudi Arabians or Muslims for what occurred on September 11, 2001, or against all corporate executives, especially those who make a living on Wall Street, and all government bureaucrats for what is now happening in our economy. Can you see how collective guilt only serves to exacerbate what may be an already bad situation by making it worse? Can you also see how our motivation to forgive or not forgive is tied to collective guilt in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways?

Importantly, when we go beyond ourselves--whether to forgiveness, unselfishness, thoughtfulness, generosity, and understanding toward others--we enter into the spiritual realm of meaning. By giving beyond ourselves, we make our own lives richer. This is a truth long understood at the heart of all meaningful spiritual traditions. It's a mystery that can only be experienced. And when we do experience it, we are in the heart of meaning. We are no longer Prisoners of Our Thoughts (I will share more on this topic in a future post on "Living with Meaning"). And, remember, forgiveness, in the final analysis, is also good for your health!


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