What Forgiveness is
We all have an obligation to be just or fair. If you decide to disobey traffic laws, for example, you could get fined or arrested. To be fair is your obligation. Yet, we are not under an obligation to be merciful. For example, if you receive a phone call to contribute to the local food pantry, no one will issue a fine or arrest you for saying “no.”
Yet, I think there are two instances in which mercy (and we turn now specifically to one form of mercy, forgiveness) becomes obligatory. The first instance is your overall pattern of living a life that includes forgiveness. It may be true that you are not under an obligation to forgive *this* particular person on *this* particular day for *this* particular offense, but if you are never forgiving to anyone under any circumstances, there is something there to criticize. Forgiveness, as a part of mercy, is a form of goodness and if it is ignored entirely then an aspect of goodness is ignored entirely. If we are to grow as persons, we are cutting ourselves off from one important pathway to moral growth.
The second instance occurs once you have deeply and consistently practiced forgiveness. Once practiced and accepted as good, forgiveness becomes a part of whom you are as a person. When this happens, to not be forgiving is to contradict the self, to go against who you are. It is here that you hold yourself to the high standard of making this virtue obligatory for you, even when it is difficult to do so. Of course, this does not mean that you quickly jump into the practice of this virtue when you have just been deeply hurt. Instead, the point is that you know you will practice it at some time when you are ready. It seems to me that the more deeply you understand and practice forgiveness, then the more quickly you will be ready even in the face of considerable injustice.
A recent news item in the New York Times reported on an American hockey player now playing for a German team. Read the article here. The important aspect of this story is that this hockey player, Evan Kaufmann, is Jewish and he lost grandparents during the Holocaust. He talked of forgiveness. The burning questions are two: 1) Whom does he forgive? 2) For what offense does he forgive? I do not think that he has to forgive Germans now with whom he interacts if they have had nothing to do with the Holocaust and if they are not offending him now. After all, they have committed no injustice. Perhaps he is forgiving the actual Nazis who executed his grandparents.
Does he then forgive on behalf of his grandparents? That decision would seem to be in the hands of the grandparents themselves who are not present on this earth to make such a decision. Does this mean that he cannot forgive the Nazis? I think he can. He can forgive them for all of the pain that they have caused him as he walks the streets of Dusseldorf, recalls the hatred, recalls the loss of growing up without the grandparents. He can forgive the Nazis, even if they are deceased, even if he does not know them personally or even know their names. He can forgive them for the pain he now carries as a result of the atrocity perpetrated on his grandparents.
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.