Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

A few years ago, I was really struggling to forgive someone. Looking back on it now, I know why I was having such difficulty, but at the time, it really bothered me. So I spent a lot of time thinking about forgiveness, both what it means and what it doesn’t mean. At one point, in some desperation for a new perspective, I even began combing through my more philosophical nonfiction.

I found what I was looking for in the book Emotional Awareness, which is a conversation between Paul Ekman, who is well known for his work on facial expressions and micro expressions, and the Dalai Lama.


At one point the two of them discuss forgiveness, and to this day I have that place marked in the book. Here is the relevant passage:

EKMAN: It is good for the person who forgives. But does it not remove responsibility?

DALAI LAMA: No, no. For example, now, we mentally give forgiveness to the Chinese. That means we try not to keep negative feeling toward them because of their wrong deeds. But that does not mean we accept it, what they have done. So we have little forgiveness against them, as far as their action is concerned.

DALAI LAMA: Forgiveness means not to forget what they have done. But forgiveness means do not keep your negative feeling toward them. As far as their action is concerned, you use your intelligence. You totally have to take countermeasures, but without negative feeling.

This one passage has entirely changed my understanding and practice of forgiveness.

One of the mistakes I make over and over in my life is being too forgiving. I like people, and I tend to believe the best of them, and I feel friendly towards them. I can almost always see their point of view. So it is incredibly easy for me to think, “Oh, maybe it wasn’t that big a deal” or “Yeah, that really sucked, but I like this person, so….” or “maybe if I do xyz, things will go better” or “They’re doing the best they can” or any of a hundred similar thoughts. This tendency can sometimes be a positive one, but for me, it has also often been a negative one.

In the instance above, when I was struggling so with forgiveness, it was because my natural tendency was to allow the issue to be swept under the rug and go back to the status quo. But at the same time, I now felt unsafe with this person, who I didn’t think had taken appropriate responsibility for their actions and who hadn’t responded well to my boundaries thus far.

So the idea that I could forgive this person, as I both wanted to do and felt a lot of pressure to do, while also keeping myself safe by taking countermeasures (aka setting whatever boundaries I needed to ensure my safety), was, at that time, completely revolutionary for me.

This is when I realized on a deep level the difference between the kind of forgiveness I’d been taught, which meant huge amounts of self-sacrifice and suffering and exhaustion, and the kind of forgiveness the Dalai Lama was talking about, which leads to inner peace and strength and compassion not only towards others but also towards myself.

This is also when I learned that my safety, both physical and emotional, matters. This might seem obvious, but it was not what I was taught, and it is not always how I am treated by others even now. But it is how I strive to treat myself, and that is the most critical–and life-changing–thing. It is when I stop feeling guilty for prioritizing my safety that I find myself surrounded by the supportive and kind people who don’t feel entitled to me, and those are the people I want in my life.

Being given permission to use your intelligence can be a powerful thing.  

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Last weekend my friend apologized to me.

It hadn’t been that big a deal, the thing for which he apologized, but the timing was bad. I didn’t think about an apology. I didn’t ask for one.

He gave me one anyway. He made amends, and then he offered the apology up to me like an unexpected jewel, and then he made some more amends. I watched him take responsibility for his actions, and I watched him not have to take credit for doing so. He did it without any fuss.

The apology was actually for me.

I accepted it, and I took it in, and it changed me. I hadn’t realized how hungry I had been for that very thing until I sucked it down and felt a palpable relief. I had forgotten such a thing was possible. I am used to being asked to dance in a mirror maze in which I am a mere spectre. And here I was, being offered the chance to be me.

I said yes, of course.

I’ve gotten pretty good at being me, in the privacy of these temple bones, in the sanctuary of this muscle heart, in the safety of this rib cage.

He could have said, “You’re too sensitive, Amy.” He could have said, “Well, it only happened because of x and y and z.” He could have gotten angry at me. He could have thought I didn’t think he was a good person. He could have thought for himself that he wasn’t a good person. He could have asked me to comfort him. He could have asked me to pretend nothing had happened, and I might have, because I have larger battles to fight.

He could have left me sitting there alone. The only consequence would have been me staying in my cage of bones, unwilling to come out where I would not be seen.

But he didn’t do that.

And so I have a stronger friendship than I did before.

And so I can begin to see a path to being myself outside these temple bones.

And so I have hope.


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When Forgiveness is Hard

Sometimes when I don’t know what to do, I succumb to weakness and I type my problem into the magical box on the internet otherwise known as Google.

I have found some of the worst possible advice in this way. Because as it turns out, most of the results that turn up are written by people who also don’t know what to do, or alternately by people for whom life is quite simple, black and white and absolute. And because I don’t believe life is simple (I mean, yes, I can spout out aphorisms like “really all anyone wants is to be loved” and even mean them, but that doesn’t automatically cancel out all nuance), this advice is really really terrible for me. Which makes it quite mysterious that I still type my questions into the Google box, but apparently not only am I not simple, I’m also not always rational.

One of the topics I can reliably find bad advice about is forgiveness. I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time, actually, but it seemed like such a can of worms that I procrastinated instead. Until now.

To get this out of the way, yes, forgiveness is freaking fantastic. Letting go of old grudges, old hurts, etc. is healthy and good and takes a huge weight from the shoulders. I am less a fan of the moral weight that forgiveness has acquired in our culture (ie you have to forgive people to be a good person, more on this later), but from a purely practical perspective, forgiveness can be quite empowering and allow us to move forward and free ourselves from old, harmful stories.

Photo Credit: D.Munoz-Santos via Compfight cc

Where I disagree with a lot of conventional wisdom is when we begin to talk about the process of forgiveness. Because there seems to be this idea out there that forgiveness is simple and quick, that we can decide just like that to forgive a person and then it’s done and everything is rainbows and ice cream cones. This belief reinforces the idea of forgiveness as virtue and putting pressure on the person who for whatever reason is in a position to forgive, because why can’t they just get over it already?

But emotional and psychological processes aren’t cookie cutters. We have such a desire to believe that everyone works the way we work, but in fact, we all have our own ways of dealing with things and processing things and thinking about things. And different situations call for different responses that might need to go along with the forgiveness and therefore need to be worked out at the same time. And sometimes forgiveness isn’t instant, isn’t fast and easy. Sometimes difficulty with forgiveness is not a sign of a resentful personality or a desire to make things unpleasant for everyone else. Sometimes forgiveness is messy and complicated, because human relationships are sometimes messy and complicated.

Forgiveness doesn’t look the same every time either. Sometimes we verbalize forgiveness and sometimes we don’t (or can’t). Sometimes forgiveness causes a renewed closeness in a friendship, and sometimes forgiveness happens after a friendship has already ended. Sometimes forgiveness teaches us that a friendship can’t keep going on the way it has; it teaches us the need for change. Sometimes we can’t forgive until we find a way to be safe and respected with a person, and sometimes we forgive at the same time that we say goodbye. Sometimes forgiveness is surprisingly easy and sometimes it takes years. There’s no one blueprint and no one timeline.

Forgiveness is not owed; it is given. And it is something that happens in our own hearts, not because we’re supposed to and not because someone else pressures us into it. Forgiveness is born not from judgment but from compassion, and not only compassion towards the person being forgiven but also towards the one doing the forgiving.

Forgiveness isn’t always simple. When it isn’t, it’s hard but it’s also okay. It’s part of life, this process of feeling and grieving and holding on too tight and learning how to let go and figuring out what you want your next steps to look like. It doesn’t have to hold a value judgment; it is just the work you are doing at the moment.


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Yom Kippur begins at sundown tomorrow.  I don’t have an intimate viewpoint on this holiday, not being Jewish myself and having never attended synagogue on this High Holiday.  I’m pretty far from being an expert, so what I’m offering is an outsider’s perspective on what this holiday has come to mean to me.

For years, all I knew about Yom Kippur was that it was a name on the calendar.  When I first learned a little more about it, I didn’t get it at all.  Fasting all day, droning in a foreign language, lots of tears and catharsis.  It was so different from any other holiday I knew about, I even found it a touch creepy.  As the years have gone by, however, my feelings have undergone a profound shift.  While I don’t celebrate it myself, I love this holiday and what it stands for.  It is also known as the Day of Atonement, and I have deep respect for a religion that has set aside an entire day for this type of introspection.

Where have I gone wrong this past year?  Who have I knowingly or perhaps unknowingly injured?  What could I have handled more skillfully?  To me, this process of reviewing the mistakes and hurts of the past year (whether intentional or not, avoidable or not) celebrates what it is to be human.  We all make mistakes, we all handle things badly, we all say things we shouldn’t have said, or leave things unsaid that we shouldn’t have.  We forget or unable to keep important promises; we tell lies, perhaps to avoid even greater conflict; we don’t have the time or energy or capability to be there the way we wish we could.  We make other people cry; we lose friends through change, neglect, or direct confrontation; we make the wrong decision.  And here’s this holiday that acknowledges this reality we live with, that says: Yes, it’s true, none of us is perfect, and yet we can always strive to improve ourselves, to move on and do better next time.

The way I see it, the process of atonement has three steps.

Step 1: Be aware of your effect on the world. Think about the actions you have taken, the mistakes you have made, how you’ve treated other people.  Reflect on questions of morality.  Remember those times you let your emotions get the better of you.

Step 2: Feel the emotions associated with your actions, and then forgive yourself and let go. This is a hard step, and a critical one.  Atonement isn’t about self-hatred; that will only make your behavior worse over time, not to mention erode at your happiness and well-being.  Atonement is taking responsibility for yourself and your choices, while remembering that you are human and imperfect.  By the end of Yom Kippur, a practicing Jew is considered to be absolved by God.  However, if you don’t believe in a God to be absolved by, you need to find the strength to forgive yourself instead.

Step 3: Learn from your previous behavior and mistakes. Having taken the time to introspect so deeply about your behavior, you can move through life with a cleaner slate.  Not a blank one, of course, but at least a less messy one.  Take the time to think of possible solutions for some of your mistakes.  Sometimes there won’t be a solution, and that’s okay too, but at least you’ll know one way or the other.  Think of how you can become more like the ideal person you wish you were.  Will you ever really become that person?  Perhaps not, but I like to think that throughout life, we draw ever closer to realizing our full potential, as long as we have the willingness to learn from our experience.

I love Yom Kippur because it’s a formalized ritual that helps people go through these steps with the full support of a community behind them.  It means they don’t have to face their faults and shortcomings alone, but can remember that everyone else is in the same boat.

So whether you’re Jewish or not, whether you’re religious or not, I hope that’s what you take away from this post.  We all make mistakes, and it’s important to be aware of them and learn from them.  But we’re also all in this soup of humanity together, capable of learning from what has passed before.

As Anne in L.M. Montgomerie’s Anne of Green Gables says, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

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