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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.

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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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