Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How To Forgive Others

The freedom forgiveness brings

The other day I found myself thinking about what would happen if as an adult I encountered some of the children who terrorized me when I was in 7th grade (an experience I wrote about in an earlier post, Breaking Free Of The Past), wondering if I'd be able to forgive them for what they did to me. I'd like to think I would, but the truth is I'm not sure. As a result, I found myself thinking about the nature of forgiveness and of the power and value of being able to forgive.

WHY IS FORGIVENESS HARD?

Forgiveness is hard. But why? Perhaps for the following reasons:

  1. We're often reluctant to let go of our anger. As I argued in a previous post, How To Manage Anger, the second of the four main reasons people get angry is to achieve or regain control. If we still feel harmed in the now—even years after we actually were—we frequently continue to feel angry. And it's inherently difficult, if not impossible, to forgive someone with whom we're still angry. This is true even if the predominant reason we're angry isn't due to frustration at having lost control but in outrage at the injustice committed against us (anger at injustice representing the fourth of the four main reasons people become angry). But in the same way soft tissue inflammation is helpful only in the first few days after an injury occurs, often causing even more damage than the original injury if it's allowed to become chronic, anger—no matter what its cause—if allowed to boil without being harnessed to accomplish anything worthwhile, can cause us far more harm than good.
  2. We want to satisfy our sense of justice. Even if we're not angry, if we believe our offender doesn't deserve our forgiveness, we may find ourselves withholding it to avoid appearing to condone what they did to us.
  3. Forgiveness may feel like letting our offender off the hook without punishment. Even if we don't feel that forgiveness implies we condone the injustice committed against us, to release our anger and forgive our offender may feel like letting them get away without being punished, especially if no other punishment is forthcoming.
  4. We wish to harm as we've been harmed. An eye for an eye often feels viscerally satisfying (remember, anger must be discharged in a way that feels satisfying). If we lack the power to deliver actual harm, harboring anger may feel like a second-best option. Holding a grudge does in a certain sense feel good.
  5. They haven't apologized. The power of an apology to open the path to forgiveness can't be overestimated. Nor can the ability of withholding an apology—of the refusal to acknowledge a wrong was committed—to block it.
  6. When someone commits an injustice, we often cease to see or believe they could be capable of any good. We tend to abstract those who harm us, as I wrote about in The True Cause Of Cruelty, diminishing them from full-fledged human beings into merely "our offenders." This enables us to refuse to allow into our conception of them any room for the possibility that they have positive characteristics or have the capability to do good (much in the same way they abstracted our full-fledged humanity into some label that enabled them to harm us in the first place).

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO FORGIVE?

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To my way of thinking, forgiveness involves recognizing that the person who harmed us is more than just the person who harmed us. He or she is in fact, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, a full-fledged human being whose full dimension isn't defined by their foolish decision to harm us in some way (as much as we may wish it were). At its core I believe forgiveness is an acknowledgment that a person who's harmed us still has the capacity for good.

Forgiveness requires us to view our offender not as malevolent but as confused—so much so that they would actually believe that by harming us they could somehow become happier (though they would almost certainly be incapable of articulating that as the reason). Secondly, forgiving requires us to let go—of our anger; of our desire to punish or teach a lesson; of our need to harm our harmer; of the notion that by choosing to forgive an offense we're in some way condoning an unjust action committed against us or committing an injustice ourselves; of the need for an apology; and of the need for our harmer to change. For in forgiving another their transgression against us, we're ultimately seeking to free ourselves. Forgiving, as the saying also goes, doesn't mean forgetting. Nor does it have to mean returning the person we've forgiven to their former status in our lives. It means we move on healed from the hurt that's been done to us.

HOW DOES FORGIVING OTHERS BENEFIT US?

  1. Forgiving others is the only way to break a cycle of violence (whether physical or otherwise). As complex as it may be, consider the core reason why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict continues to this day.
  2. In order to forgive, we must manifest a life-condition of compassion. In Nichiren Buddhism this is called the life-condition of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is someone whose most pressing concern lies with the happiness of others. Attaining this life-condition benefits no one more than it does us, as it is a life-condition of joy.
  3. In order to forgive we must let go of our anger. If we continue to hold onto anger, it often leaks out against others who've committed no crime against us, as well as colors all our experiences, often ruining our ability to feel joy in many aspects of life.

FINDING THE COMPASSION TO FORGIVE

In order to muster compassion for one who's harmed us, we must first believe with our lives that all people originally desire to become happy. From there we must find a way to realize our offender has simply gone completely awry in their pursuit of their own happiness and pity them as we would a misguided child. For no matter how sophisticated a person may seem, how confident and wise and successful, how could an intent to harm arise from anything other than a delusion?

The question will naturally arise: are some people's crimes so heinous that they don't merit forgiveness? Parents who've abused us? Children who've rebelled against us? Spouses who've abandoned us? Friends who've betrayed us? Strangers who harmed us or our loved ones? Or even tyrants who've killed our families? Is Hitler, for example, forgivable? Can one forgive a person without forgiving their actions?

I would suggest only this: that if you find yourself holding onto a grudge against someone who's grievously harmed you, for you to find a way to forgive them—for you to become the kind of person who can—will not only first and foremost benefit you, but ultimately may have the power to transform the life of the person you're forgiving. Not always of course. But sometimes. And if it does, in forgiving them you're not only setting yourself free, you're actually contributing to something of greater importance, something the world is literally crying out for in more places than you could probably name: peace.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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