Over the years, I have written often about my not really grasping the concept of “forgiveness.” Here i try to consolidate years of pondering. I will probably have to revisit and edit this many times.
First, what is it that people are doing when they “forgive” someone?
Does “forgive” mean “act as if it never happened”? My approach to life is that what has happened has happened, and all I can do is go on from here. Everything that has happened in my life has contributed to making me what I am, to making my life what it is. Nothing–in the universe as I know it–can change what has happened. It happened. It will forever be part of my past, of the formation of my present and my future. So no, I’m not going to act as if it (whatever) never happened; to do so would be contrary to my concept of what I am, of what my life is.
Does “forgive” mean “make you feel better about what you did wrong” or “take away your guilt”? Sorry; you are responsible for your own reactions. For myself, if I do something wrong, my guilt over it becomes part of who I am and how I live my life. The best description I’ve ever heard of my feeling about this is Captain Kirk’s words in The Final Frontier: I need my pain. It’s part of who I am.
Does “forgive” mean “not hold a grudge”? Well, I either never hold a grudge or always hold a grudge, depending on what the definition of “grudge” is. If you did something unfair to me, in all my future dealings with you, I will take into consideration that you once did something unfair to me. If you acknowledged that you did such a thing and apologized, in all my future dealings with you, I will take that into consideration, and if you never acknowledged it and/or apologized, I’ll take that into consideration. My relationship with you will always be the sum of all its parts.
For me, past experience informs my present rather than controls it. What has happened in the past has shaped the person that I am, but what I, as that person, do in the present is an ever-renewed possibility.
Recently I heard Rabbi Harold Kushner talking about forgiveness. He said that it is something we do for ourselves, not for the other person. We stop permitting other people–their actions, their words, their opinions–to control our emotional lives. When I mentioned this to my spouse (J), he burst out laughing, because he knows that I stopped doing that when I was 11 or 12.
I once wrote, “I try to live my life in such a way that I have as few things as possible to forgive other people for.” People were confused by that statement, and legitimately so. What I was getting at was what Rabbi Kushner talked about: I need not stop giving other people’s words and actions emotional space in my brain because I don’t let them lodge there to begin with. As I wrote above, I absorb an immediate experience into the gestalt of experience and move on. If someone does something that hurts me or harms me, or that hurts or harms someone else and I am aware of it, it has happened; it has become part of the structure of our relationship and it will always remain so. What is, is.
I don’t get offended, and I very seldom feel “hurt” in an emotional sense. I think that “It’s not all about me” is one of the keys to this, and to my feelings about forgiveness. I have a very hard time for myself with the concept of my being hurt by, and even more so with my forgiving someone for, something that person does for their own purposes, out of their own needs, wants, or weaknesses. A person might hurt or harm me as an unintended consequence of doing something to fulfill their own responsibilities to themselves or others. They might even have known that I would be hurt or harmed incidentally, but saw the action as one they had a moral or legal obligation to take. “Forgive” the person for not making my interests their priority, over their own? I don’t see myself as the center of everyone’s universe! So when I say, “I try to live my life in such a way that I have as few things as possible to forgive other people for,” one of the things that I mean is that I try to live with the awareness that people are who they are, not who I think they are, and “forgiving” them for being who they are would be megalomania.
A pertinent quote:
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
–Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
I wouldn’t say “nothing” as in the quote; I’m leery of “always” and “never” applied to human behavior, of universals applied to humans at all. But people do things for their own reasons, from their own needs, wants, desires, experiences, knowledge, hopes… Even in the rare case where someone does something specifically “because” of me, they are still doing it because they want to affect me in some way, for their own reasons.
The more I think about it, the more I look back at what I have written on this over the years, the more I think that “It’s not all about me” is the simple core of my approach to human relationships.