Notes on Forgiveness

I have long hesitated to write about forgiveness because of the difficulty to talk about forgiveness without simultaneously confronting an honest discussion about hatred- a subject that carries taboo and complexity, to say the least. But with polarizing messaging in our wider world that increasingly incapacitates constructive conversation and feeds the illusion of separation rather than the truth of our interdependence, it becomes harder and harder to set the topic of forgiveness aside in my “someday list”- for some imagined day when I have reconciled every single differing perspective and philosophy on subjects of anger, hatred, and forgiveness, sparing myself of any risk of something I write being misunderstood, oversimplified, or taken out of context. Such a day will never come, and so I choose to write about it now, in the midst of process. After all, writing is and always will be process for me- an attempt to make sense of this shared human realm.

Teachings such as that of Buddhist psychology and Stoic philosophy name forgiveness as a necessary component of mental freedom and well-being. But like any pathway to mental freedom, forgiveness is a practice, rather than a one-stop arrival. When we are open enough to the potentiality of forgiveness within ourselves and others, it is an unfolding process that cannot be rushed or forced, rather than a pressured obligation or moral commandment. Forgiveness does not condone the harmfulness of others or the ways that we’ve been hurt, nor does forgiveness toward ourselves deny ownership of our past mistakes or sources of regret. Forgiveness does not mean we have to like another person, or think highly of their choices or how they represent themselves- in fact, we can simultaneously dislike someone and forgive them, too. It’s not something that we embark on as a gift to others, but instead is, as Jack Kornfield teaches, “fundamentally for our own sake, for our own mental health”.

Suppressing and denying hurt or rage, or the sometimes amounted weight of these emotions as hatred is not the pathway to forgiveness. The shame associated with feeling something as taboo as hatred impedes our ability to exercise a mindful eye with it, and the more we repulse it, the more it tends to amplify without the transformation we long for in our internal world. This is a recipe for pain proliferating pain within ourselves and with each other. Some may need time with the emotional experience of hatred without the added burden of shame for carrying such an emotion. Such can be true in the aftermath of an overt trauma, and for others still, with recognizing only in hindsight a more covert trauma that has taken place in an insidious, chronically invalidating, or cumulative way. Coming into contact with previously inaccessible rage may very well be the product of reaching a thoroughly full perception of one’s inherent worth as a human being that simultaneously brings a clear recognition of having deserved better- that whichever set of deplorable words or acts endured was fundamentally not okay. As such, hatred may be a necessary stepping stone along the journey in healing from traumatic or painful interpersonal experiences as one reclaims full visibility of their self-worth. But we know in our cells that for the sake of our mind, body, heart, and soul, hatred is not the final stop in the aftermath of experiences we were not given choice about enduring. Hatred keeps us bound to what we endured and to the past, and yet hating our hatred binds us only more so and further blocks us from being free in the present.

We can start by giving ourselves permission for whatever emotion arises to be part of our experience, rather than fighting with it. Whether we choose to allow it or not, whatever has arisen, has arisen. And with the knowing that whatever has the nature to arise also has the nature to pass away, we can hold energies as charged as hatred with a relentless kindness for ourselves, remembering that an emotion is not a representation of who we are, nor of others. In this way, we can give highly charged emotions the space that they need to transform without necessitating an agenda or timeline that only facilitates their persistence. Permission to feel hatred is not the same as an endorsement to speak or act from it- the former is redemptive when paired with compassionate awareness, the latter is not. The revered Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh spoke about having a right to feel anger, but also a responsibility to practice mindful awareness with it so as to know our capacity to transform it, rather than unnecessarily perpetuate more suffering out of ignorance. As we heal through forgiveness as a gift first and foremost to ourselves, our wider world naturally heals along the way. If we are a single drop in the ocean, aren’t we also the ocean? Forgiveness for our own sake is a kind of radical reach of our dignity. Our capacity to attend to ourselves to make such a reach is, as I heard recently put in an oh-so resonant way, “a fucking miracle.”

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