From my youngest days, I remember hearing from church and from my parents how important it was to forgive others. In fact, I remember that was something I worked on trying to improve about myself, not judging other people.

One night in a prayer group someone read from this newsletter. There was something about unforgiveness taking up room in the heart, making less room for love.

However, even though I had already heard all of this stuff, I clearly remember a day that was a turning point, where it really sank in.

I had just gotten this frozen-concoction they make in College Station, Texas. It was like a slurpee with vodka. Anyhow, I drank it up and went to see The Abyss. Sometime during that movie, the following realization came to me:

I have learned it is true that while you are angry and unforgiving with someone, or even something, it takes up room in your heart. You aren't quite as happy as you could be...you can't quite feel as loving towards other people...you are not at your best. This condition is there until you forgive. If you get angry and unforgiving with another person during this time, your heart gets even more crowded, and you are even less able to love and be happy.

What's more, I now know that if you get angry with someone and just go on to other things...this condition is just as much in full bloom as soon as you remember the person or incident. For example, on Monday you have a fight with someone in another department at work whom you don't see very often. You leave angry. Since you don't see the person, by Tuesday you're not really thinking about it. But Friday you run into the person in the hallway. Amazingly, the anger and associated mood reappear. As if by magic. Then a very old name drifted into my consciousness, someone who I left on bad terms with. I was still angry when I left them, and the feelings came back. I made a conscious effort to see the world from this other person's point of view, and tried (successfully) to forgive them. Now, years later, I felt a weight lifted from my heart.

I put these thoughts together and had a frightening realization. What happens to a person who habitually becomes angry, very angry, with other people, then just goes on about life and leaves the incidents behind. In fact, what if this is how I live my life. What will my heart be like in twenty years? Will there be all of these little corners and pieces of my heart that are hard, angry, and taking up space???? Will I become a person less capable of loving????

NO, I don't want to live like that. From this day forward, I thought, I will try to forgive as soon as I can. I will try not to distract myself from the problem. I want to have as free of a heart as I can.

I'm still trying. Sometimes I forget.

Start Again

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Forgiveness is our greatest power.

If one aspires to be some kind of superhero, as many seem to, then one must identify the "super powers" they already possess. Love, charity and forgiveness are super powers when one learns to understand and cultivate them. As human beings we have a tendency towards weakness. If this life and this world are a testing ground, as I believe, then we must cultivate. We must help, love and understand each other. And we must learn to forgive. Too easily we make ourselves the judges of our neighbor. We grow our power, but in the wrong direction, by hoisting ourself into imagined righteousness by downgrading others.

We rush to judgment. We select those who best understand the law of the land to pass judgment. Yet, the law exists for only one reason, to maintain order. Without order there remains only chaos, but this does not validate the law. The law does not validate itself. The people's support of the law is its only validation.

To live outside the law you must be honest

Can we truly forgive those who have committed grave misdeeds and offenses against ourselves and those we hold dear? Do we judge them unworthy of forgiveness because of the nature of their crimes? Is our sentence and penalty just? Will it change the nature of what has happened? Or do we seek to penalize and condemn for reasons of vengeance and retribution? If we do so, then we become less than they. We try to transfer our suffering to them. They become the victim and we become the aggressor.

Those appointed to pass judgment and sentence those who break the law are important to the maintenance of order in the collective reality of individual societies. Their appointment is to serve this purpose. If they execute the functions of their appointment successfully, they maintain order and promote harmony within the collective reality. We are discouraged from breaking the law when we know there will be a penalty for doing so. People, as a societal collective, become prosperous and strong under just laws and penalties.

The passing of judgment by appointed officials of a collective reality and the passing of judgment by individuals against one another are two entirely different concepts. The heart grows heavy with our anger, contempt and hatred for each other. We are all brothers and sisters in this place where we have come to spend some time together. Our purpose here is to learn from each other and to grow from within, to become stronger and more capable of finding our way in what is to follow. To gravitate towards our weaker and more base emotions reduces our ability to follow the path.

I remember when I was destitute. Taking a one day job downtown, I worked late into the evening. All I had was a dollar for the bus and a single cigarette. I held onto the cigarette all day, planning to smoke it when I got home before going to bed. Standing at the bus stop, reading the schedule times, I noted that the last bus home seemed to be late. There were other buses, but they were going in other directions, so I waited. A man with crutches came towards me. He asked if I could spare a cigarette. I took the pack out of my pocket and gave him my last one. We talked for a moment and he asked me which bus I was waiting for. When I told him, he turned around and pointed. It was behind another bus where I could not see it and it was about to leave. I thanked him and ran towards the bus, catching it just before it pulled away. I turned around to look at him again, but he had vanished.

I could have looked away from this man. He was dishelved and twisted with an affliction that made it difficult for him to walk. I could have judged him as unworthy of my attention, and in a different time I may have. I certainly could have judged him unworthy of my last cigarette, but I did not. Had I passed judgment on him I would never have made it onto my bus and the walk home would have been a very long one. I didn't expect to receive anything from him in return.

If this man had instead been a thief wanting to steal my last dollar at knifepoint, I would have given it to him. I would have been angry at his transgression, but would have given him my forgiveness. What he received in return for distress upon the nature of his soul would have not been ample, just as no perceived reward for crimes against another are worthy of the damage done within. He would have borne a great weight and my long walk would have been very light. If I were to fill myself with anger and contempt upon my walk it would have grown heavy. I am not my brother's keeper. I cannot control or change what he does, whether what he does is right or wrong. I can only reflect on what it means to me, and the nature of the path I must follow.

Give everything you can to everyone you know
The greatest thing you can give is forgiveness

I have forgiven the woman who falsely accused me of attempted rape. I forgave the father of my childhood best friend, who systematically sexually abused his children when they were young, driving my friend to suicide. I forgave a friend who once betrayed me over a disappointingly small amount of money. I forgave the men who once raped the women I love. I forgave the men who flew planes into the World Trade Center. Still, the person I forgive most often is myself, for I realize each and every one of my transgressions and I labor to move beyond them. The future is not the past. Every time a flower dies, another grows in its place. We are not perfect, but we have an incredible super power known as forgiveness.

Forward

I no longer care.
I'm tired. I'm tired of many things, but mostly I'm tired of pretending it makes a difference who did what to whom.
I forgive you for making me tired. For showing up amongst mutual friends and making me put the effort in to ignoring you so carefully. Specifically avoiding your gaze, and following conversations elsewhere when you began to speak.
I forgive you for disappearing. For not calling or coming out when I called. Some days, because of this, I don't remember you.
I forgive you for wondering of my intentions, and therefor making me wonder what you wonder they are.
I forgive you for hell, which was not your doing, but was made worse by you.
I forgive you for the idea of breaking my heart.
I forgive you because I no longer care about acquiring a debt I feel you owe me. I'm too tired to spend any nights with an elephant in the room.
I forgive you because I can't hardly remember you. I only remember the pleasure of your company.
I forgive you because I want nothing from you but peace.
I forgive you for acting like a grown woman, and mostly, I forgive you for now letting me act like a grown man.
Can you,
now,

forgive me?

Forgiveness is the greatest human capacity. Animals cannot forgive and do not live in a world where such a thing is even relevant; only free men and women can forgive, and hence loose themselves from what might otherwise be a never-ending chain of retribution and counter-retribution in their lives. And forgiveness is one of the greatest political virtues, the one that finally can bring an end to war and hatred. The Arab-Israeli conflict and others like it will never be solved until the two sides forgive one another for the sake of a peaceful future.

Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blucher — two German political thinkers who emigrated to America to escape the Nazi death machine — knew a thing or two about forgiveness. They pointed out that the idea of forgiveness as an indispensible element of life initiated with Jesus of Nazareth; and indeed, Christianity gives us the most potent philosophy of forgiveness that there is. Forgiveness does not play a big role in Old Testament religion, where one is more likely to find God smiting the unworthy. And the Mosaic code — the law set down by Moses that include the Ten Commandments — is a law of retribution against those who go astray.

Retribution is a much more natural response to a transgression than forgiveness. It acts, we think, as a deterrent to future wrongdoing, and it is emotionally satisfying in the crudest way. These are the reasons one hears most often as an argument for the death penalty. But retribution is a poor guide to life — following it involves a simple slavery to one's passions, and it can lead to horrific consequences. We all do and say things without possibly being able to realize all the possible harm we might do others in the process; and unless people exercise their capacity for forgiveness, and often, the world would be stuck in a constant cycle of wrongdoing and retribution.

This is where Jesus comes in, the man who had perhaps the "greatest influence that any single man ever has had" over world history. Blucher said of him:

If we consider him not as the the Son of God (as he is taken by believers) but merely as a man (as he has been taken by many thinkers since the end of the eighteenth century) then we find that as far as personality goes he is the most amazing man that one could ever hope to encounter.

Blucher took the radical step of considering Jesus as a "philosopher", shorn of religious content, who had "something absolutely new and amazing to say". This will sound strange to many ears, but why might it not be so? Centuries of distortion and usurpation of the message of Jesus and the development of Christian religion - of which there was no such thing when Jesus walked the sand of Palestine — might have clouded it and made many react instinctively against the idea of religion and the ideas underpinning it as anything but pernicious. But the message of Jesus has clearly had widespread appeal and has been instrumental in the development of the western world. His message about the importance of forgiveness in human life was as revolutionary as it was long-lasting.

The Catholic tradition of confession does not, if I may be so bold, find any support in the New Testament. The epistle James says: "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed." The crucial part here is "to one another"; and it was the particular power of forgiveness in human relations that Jesus discovered. Jesus does not say that only God can forgive sins — which is what the pharisees say - but rather stresses the necessity of forgiveness between people. For instance, he says at Luke 5:24 that "the Son of man hath the power upon earth to forgive sins", where "son of man" has the meaning of people in general (in Hebrew this phrase is "son of Adam"). And Christians pray to God to "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us".

This is one of the ways that the teachings of Jesus can be seen as promoting the protection of human dignity and freedom; it is what makes him the great philosopher of forgiveness. When Jesus is being crucified, he says "forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do". We usually do not know what we do in life in general; we can never predict the consequences of our actions and how they might affect others. And without forgiveness this unpredictability which is inherent in life would quickly get out of control.

What makes human dignity and freedom so central to this message is the way it stresses forgiving an individual for the sake of that individual, even if one cannot forgive the deed. We are all familiar with this experience, where we forgive a family member or friend because we realize they are much more complex and mean much more to us than the single deed we found so insulting. It means realizing the enormous potential for creativity and flux in every human being, and that no one can ever be perfect; "they know not what they do". We forgive a person for the sake not even necessarily of what they are — certainly not for the aspect of them encapsulated in the deed they committed — but because of what they may be in the future.

This is the way in which forgiveness is so central to politics. And I do not mean politics in the banal, everyday sense, but in extremis. The South Africans have something to teach us about this. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was as much about forgiveness as punishment; it meant eliminating the enormous burden of guilt and the desire for retribution that hung over the country. It meant whites and blacks forgiving each other for the sake of the possibility of their future together and the future of their children — it meant the recognition of the possibility of human change for the better. It inevitably meant that deeds went unpunished, but it was not about retribution: it was fundamentally about forgiveness and human dignity; about freedom, the freedom to forgive and move on rather than unthinkingly retaliate.

Yet there are always things that cannot be forgiven; Arendt writes that these are, in fact, the things we cannot imagine how to punish. Recently in Britain, a man was found guilty of systematically and purposefully murdering five prostitutes: and the relatives of the dead said that they were in favour of the death penalty for him, as no punishment could be too great for such a man. The death penalty was simply the harshest, most fashionable alternative they could imagine — they could have suggested a life of torture, but for obvious reasons did not; in reality they mean he cannot be punished.

Willed evil of the sort this man displayed is a very rare thing, and in a category different to trespass. Arendt says: "Here, where the deed itself dispossesses us of all power, we can only say with Jesus: 'It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea'." We will always feel that when it comes to men such as Hitler, Stalin, or other perpetrators of genocide, that forgiveness indeed can only lie in the realm of the divine; the forgiving capacity of men is repelled at the thought. And for as long as men commit deeds that others feel are unforgivable, that rob them of the very basic humanity that forgiveness aims to save, there shall be an unending cycle of violence in this world.

I want to forgive something
Someone
In fact a group
Something that hurt a lot
I've tried logic
I tell myself
"It was an expression of concern"

My heart doesn't agree
It is sullen
Immobile and grumpy
It whispers
"They have not apologized"
It whispers
"When people say you're crazy
It could be a joke
An expression of concern
It wasn't
It was a palm held out
At arm's length
To distance me."

My head argues
"That's what it felt like to you.
You don't know their intentions."

I want to write
A poem of forgiveness
Hoping my heart will follow

My conscious doesn't write my poems
My conscious wrestles with an idea
The poem comes out of this struggle
I look at the poem I've written
I think,
"That is what I would like
my conscious heart to feel."
My poem is often more generous
than my conscious feels

My poems are not mine
They are a gift
From the unconscious
It is much larger
Than the small conscious me
I dream of feeling envy
I climb into a bathtub
And transform myself
To battle a trickster
We are transported
To the bottom of the ocean

In the ocean
The trickster and I are one
It is unlimited
It is not my unconscious
There is no separation
It is all unconscious

I did not think
A poem would give forgiveness
But pain drove me
Into the sea
I am connected
You gave me these pearls
Thank you

For*give"ness, n. [AS. forgifnes.]

1.

The act of forgiving; the state of being forgiven; as, the forgiveness of sin or of injuries.

To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses. Dan. ix. 9.

In whom we have . . . the forgiveness of sin. Eph. i. 7.

2.

Disposition to pardon; willingness to forgive.

If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. Ps. cxxx. 3, 4.

 

© Webster 1913.

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