Week 40 – 25 June 2012
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
― Nelson Mandela
When I read some months ago that one needs to ‘forgive’ someone a wrong-doing in order to move on, I thought to myself – ‘Why should I? Is forgiveness something that I have to do to move on? Is to be a forgiving person something that I should strive to be? If I did become a forgiving person, is that a good thing for me to be?’
In the beginning I had been thinking of forgiveness in terms of a divine act of exoneration (release from blame) rather than a human act of pardon (release from a debt or punishment). In fact, if you actually look up the dictionary definition meaning of ‘forgiveness’ there is not much reference to the former assumed meaning of exoneration, but rather these meanings:
- Give up resentment of or claim to requital (forgive an insult).
- Grant relief from payment (forgive a debt)
- Cease to feel resentment against an offender
None of these meanings indicate exoneration, excusing or condoning. If you explore philosophical musings, more emerges in three types of forgiveness.
1. Forgiveness is often found in the character of magnanimous high-minded individuals. However, the forgiveness often is related to the preservation of the virtues of the high-minded individual, rather than any real concern for the person being forgiven; borne out of a desire to preserve their own values and a desire to be honored by society as a whole. It can be somewhat of a superiority stance – that the person forgiven is not worthy of any more of your thoughts. The person and the action done is best simply forgotten and discarded.
2. Forgiveness is also found in good-tempered people. People with this character trait tend to not give in to anger and do not insist on vengeance. In that regard, by showing clemency or leniency to those who do them wrong, they are seen to be ‘forgiving’ people. These people are showing passive ‘restraint’ virtues of not giving in to anger and vindictiveness, rather than actively seeking to do ‘good’.
3. A third type of forgiveness is shown by those people who care so much for others – even those who have done them wrong – they actively seek them out and forgive them for their (the perpetrator’s) sake, and from a desire to help him (or her). These people are showing charity, as well as ‘active’ forgiveness.
I thought of my own situation.
I do not regard myself as superior and do not go around acting virtuously for some honored position in society. I do not feel superior to my husband and I do not think of him as so sick or depraved that he did not know what he was doing. The ‘forgive him because he did not realise what he was doing’ does not apply. Category (1) does not work.
There is no point in seeking him out and trying to reform him for his own sake or even to try and convince him or make him realise how much pain he has caused. I was not and am not responsible for his choices or his actions. Category (3) is also out.
All my life I have had a tendency to be a ‘good-tempered’ person. I rarely show anger and I am one who generally readily overlooks misdeeds. Category (2) is definitely me all over.
However, now I was questioning that part of my character. I felt violated, and I felt that it was this ‘good-tempered’ character trait in me that had been the most abused. I wondered to myself whether by failing to take a stand on lessor issues in the past, perhaps I was sending out a message of ‘you may walk all over me and I will not show you any anger and I will forgive you and not seek any vengeance’. By showing ‘restraint’ traits of not becoming angry, of not having a desire for vengeance, was I acting like a victim? Was it this character trait in me that led to the ultimate betrayal?
This trait that I had previously thought of as my strength I now thought of as a weakness. If I ‘forgave’ him, then I would be acting weak. He had shown me so little respect. I would be letting him get away with it. I thought that those so-called virtues of mine (not showing anger and not insisting on vengeance), although not ‘evil’, were maybe not particularly ‘good’ either. They were passive rather than active traits. Maybe, I should have done something. On moral issues, there is much merit in actively speaking out against injustices or acting with prudence and quiet careful deliberation, rather than taking it all and doing nothing. These may be seen as better qualities in life to aim for than simply passively repressing anger and resisting vengeance.
After mulling over that for a while feeling completely negative towards myself and thinking of myself as a victim, my thoughts changed around and I concluded some entirely different things about myself and about forgiveness.
Firstly, not translating angry feelings into angry actions is not being a doormat and it is not being passive. It is an extremely active action. It can take every ounce of one’s energy to follow that path – even more energy than spouting out in anger, or throwing things etc etc. Holding back and restraining takes more thought, more decision and more ‘action’. It is an ‘active’ rather than ‘reactive’ response.
Secondly, showing restraint, is not simply passively ‘allowing the other person to get away with it’. It is nothing to do with the other person at all. It is something that you do for yourself. It is for yourself, your values, your disposition. By showing restraint you are taking back your own control.
Thirdly, I had spoken out and stood my ground. However, I reserved those times for the important issues and then acted with quiet determined careful deliberation, rather than throwing temper tantrums and acting angry.
Lastly, the issue of vengeance – the desire that the other person should in some way be made to suffer, be made to feel some of the pain. That somehow it was all unfair. There was no point in thinking like that. He had moved on. Thinking in terms of vengeance would only keep me holding on to resentment. It would only hurt me.
I have come to realise that ‘forgiveness’ is not for him, it is for me . By forgiving the insult and the ‘debt’ and ceasing to think of his action as requiring some sort of restitution, releases me of the feelings of anger, resentment and victimization. It gives me back control.
My actions and my next step forward as ‘me’ are to forgive and to:
Forever Give up the feelings of resentment and betrayal.
Forever Give up thinking of myself as a victim.
Forever Give up the thought of being responsible for his actions past or present.
Forever Give up being tied to him and being defined by the separation.
“Not forgiving is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. ”**
Note: I have seen this last quote attributed to Carrie Fisher, McCourt, Nelson Mandela, Buddhist teachings, and the bible. Can anyone confirm the original author?