Our Forgiveness Blog
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.
Imagine for a moment that a homeless person knocks on your door and wants to talk with you. Are you: afraid or somewhat apprehensive or welcoming? A show of hand from all of you who admitted fear or apprehension.
Do you think that homeless people: are completely unconcerned about their appearance or rather neutral about it or are concerned about their public appearance?
We all have a perception of the entire group known as “the homeless.” I am challenging your perceptions today because forgiveness is about challenging perceptions, specifically toward people whose actions we resent.
Let me tell you first about a homeless friend and then we will turn to forgiveness. My homeless friend, a woman in her 30’s, is gentle and kind. “Hi, Hon,” is her typical greeting to her friends. I picked her up recently to bring her to the Salvation Army shelter. She had two bags with her….which constituted most of her worldly possessions.
“How is it going for you today?” I asked with worry.
With a deep and smiling sincerity she responded, “It is going great,” and she meant it. She will have a place to sleep tonight. She will be in drug treatment soon. It is going great.
Here is the rest of the story. Her mother was a serious heroine addict. The police were called too often for conduct that was very disorderly. Dad? He was not in the picture. Her sibling committed suicide and so she is now isolated from family. Yet, she is a person crying out for love and finding it in only a very few who see her for whom she is—an upbeat person with a very soft heart.
You see, too many look at her and see the two bags that constitute her worldly possessions. They see rough edges. They see someone who might ask something of them, and the needs are great for the homeless. They see inconvenience, they see a loser. My friend is no loser. She is someone who is crying out for love, receiving little, and so she drowns her sorrows in drugs and drink. Each substance that she throws into her body is a teardrop of pain, in the hope that the pain will end. The tragic irony is that each ingestion of drugs or drink intensifies the pain until she is powerless over these substances. And all the while all she asks is to be loved.
The next time you see a homeless person on the street, please remember my friend (“Hi, Hon.”)
Now we turn to you, the reader. What are your preconceived perceptions toward one person—-just one for now—-who has hurt you, who has been unfair, perhaps even cruel? Can you see beyond the fog of resentment to the wounds that he or she carries, perhaps trying to mask those wounds, as my homeless friend does? Her method is drugs and drink. The method by the one who hurt you might be displaced words or actions. He or she is trying to rid the self of wounds and in turn is wounding you. Was he or she hurt, wounded by others? Is there a “Hi, Hon” within that person waiting to come out? Is there a cry for love, sadly coming out wrongly?
The next time you see or think about this person, please remember my friend and her cry for love and ask yourself: Is the one who wounded me now crying out for love? What little gesture can I make: a smile, a prayer for him or her if your worldview includes this, a kind word?
My homeless friend is more than those two tattered bags by her side. The one who wounded you is more than his or her actions and words against you.
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.