Our Forgiveness Blog
I was searching the web for news of forgiveness today when I was faced with “Images of forgiveness,” a series of photos which are supposed to represent this topic. The image that caught my attention was from the national (American) magazine, Psychology Today. It is a plaque-like image with the inscription, “Forgiveness is not something we do for other people. We do it for ourselves to get well and move on.” It is stated so emphatically and so confidently….and it is so incorrect.
If forgiveness is not “for other people,” then it is not one of the moral virtues alongside justice and patience and kindness and love. What is it then? It seems as if the plaque-writer has reduced forgiveness to a psychological technique for oneself as a way to heal emotionally. If the other person who hurt us is not in this healing equation, then apparently we are free to dismiss him or her, to ignore him or her, to be indifferent toward him or her. Forgiveness as dismissiveness. I don’t think so. How can we heal when we still see the other as unworthy of our mercy and love? The plaque, with all of its fine-sounding rhetoric, ultimately is a formula for distortion and a lack of healing in either self or other. Beware the fine-looking and confident-sounding platitudes on plaques.
When you start to forgive someone for an injustice against you, what exactly is it you are and are not doing? This is perhaps the most fundamental issue–to define what we mean by forgiveness before practicing it.
Some would say, as Nietzsche did in the late 19th century, that you are engaging in weakness because only the weak forgive; the strong get even. Some would say that you are opening yourself to abuse as you go back into an unhealthy situation, but this confuses forgiveness and reconciliation. Some would say that you are moving on, even if this means that you are dismissing the person who was unfair to you. None of these captures the essence of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is goodness toward those who have been unfair to us, and this goodness can include the cessation of resentment, the offer of mercy and compassion and even love (which may take time to grow and require small steps in that direction). When people argue about forgiveness, most of the time they are arguing about what it means more than anything else. Know before doing.
Today the music world mourns the passing of the great Whitney Houston, who died at the age of 48. The newspapers are calling her life tragic, marred by drug use and a failed marriage. The fame, beauty, fortune, and admiration were not enough, nor could they ever be, because at our core is a need to love and be loved.
I am just speculating here, but I suspect that at her core, Ms. Houston had much love taken away from her by others across her life. When this happens, we need a way to put back that love in our heart even if others will not reciprocate. Forgiving those who have hurt us is one way of restoring that love deep within our heart.
I do not know if Ms. Houston practiced forgiveness or not. I do suspect that such practice on a deep and consistent basis may have helped her in her struggle with drugs. Maybe, just maybe, we would not be reading the headlines today if this kind of love were more continually present for her as a response to the love taken away from her. It is for reasons such as this that I am so intent on helping others create forgiving communities–as a way to restore love in the heart and help others to thrive in their pain rather than to be crushed by it.
“How can you tell me you’re lonely….and say for you that the sun don’t shine? Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Dublin. I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind.”
The lyrics of that folk-song actually say “London” rather than “Dublin,” but we encountered a similar scene today in the Irish city. A young man asked our friend Lynn for some money and in the damp, pouring rain, she spend 20 minutes talking with him, treating him as a person of unconditional inherent worth. It turns out that he was abused repeatedly as a boy, suffered gravely, and in his extreme pain, cannot get a job and climb up out of the pit.
If I could give him one thing, it would be the insight to forgive (rightly understood, without the error of reconciliation at all costs) those who have abused him. It would give him the strength and purpose to go on. Lynn was suffering with and for this man as she sheltered him from the rain with her umbrella and in essence mothered him. I could tell by his eyes that he was surprised, delighted, and humbled that someone would pay attention to him and love him like this.
It was the lack of love in his past that brought him low. It will be the strength to forgive that very well might pull him out of this. Lynn’s stance in the Dublin rain shows us what is possible—to love those who do not necessarily consider themselves to be lovable. As he forgives, he will find that those forgiven are lovable and (surprise!) the one who forgives also is lovable.
Here is a question that I get frequently: When I forgive, should I go to the person and let him or her know that I have forgiven? Can I forgive from my heart and not say anything at all about forgiveness? What if my saying something will only make things worse? Do I have to go to the person under this circumstance and say I have forgiven?
OK, rather than the IFI giving the answer, what are your views? Let us allow the answer to emerge from the discussion.