We need not rely on others for forgiveness

Forgiveness lies within

We need not rely on others for forgiveness

Sixty-two per cent of American adults say they need more forgiveness in their lives, according to the Fetzer Institute, a US not-for-profit focused on personal and societal transformation. However, in times of crisis, trauma or loss, many of us find ourselves struggling to forgive or be forgiven.

When we need something, we often expect someone else to fulfil that need for us. When we have done something wrong, we apologise, often hoping for – or expecting – a clean slate in return.

The notion of forgiveness as something we are either owed, or owe someone else, is one of forgiveness associated with debt and power.

The American economist Michael Hudson is an expert on the history of lending. He is the author of …and Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year. He writes that in Bronze Age Mesopotamia (about 2,500 BC), the word liberty was directly linked to the forgiveness of debt. The rulers of the day were astute economists and knew that debt grew faster than the economy as a whole. Every now and again they would declare a debt jubilee for those who owed agrarian debts to landowners.

The Buddhist teacher and author Ken McLeod explains that what many understand by forgiveness today is grounded in the language of debt.

Doing wrong to another person, or to society, or to God, has come to be seen as chalking up a debt. I did someone a wrong and am in their debt. I need their absolution – but only if they choose to give it.

Debt and power

Forgiveness then ends up being about power: the power to cancel our debts. In this way, forgiveness is reduced to a transaction. It is interesting that the Greek root of the word forgiveness is ‘to set free’. Like slaves set free in Ancient Greece, when someone says, “I forgive you”, we feel free. We can then move on.

In a study of offenders seeking forgiveness, published last year by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, a negative cycle is started when victims of a crime withhold their forgiveness. The offenders feel like victims themselves; their sense of power is threatened and they are bewildered by the normal practice whereby an apology is repaid with forgiveness.

The award-winning UK journalist Marina Cantacuzino, MBE, founded The Forgiveness Project in 2007. This secular organisation helps those who have been traumatised to forgive their aggressors rather than seek vengeance. It incorporates the principle of remedy by encouraging perpetrators to share their stories about what led them to commit their misdeeds in the first place.

In a similar vein, I was extremely moved by a documentary on forgiveness I saw years ago. Before the sentencing of a serial offender, the victims gave impact statements of the serious crimes inflicted on them. The accused sat stone-faced in defence or denial while these were made.

Unexpectedly, one of the victims opened her statement by declaring “I forgive you”. It was as if the accused had been struck by lightning. His expressionless face contorted and he burst into uncontrollable tears. It appears the forgiveness granted to him helped him finally get in touch with his guilt and remorse. I believe this was a turning point, allowing him to envisage the possibility of redemption and making changes.

Forgiveness and self-forgiveness

Each of us has the power within to set ourselves free. When forgiveness is withheld, we need to find self-forgiveness. Buddhist teachings on purification urge us to hold ourselves to account for the harms we have caused. Purification is a never-ending internal process, powered by four forces. These are: practising regret; renewing our reliance on spiritual values; remedying the harm we have done, by apologising, for example; and resolving to sort out the inner patterns that cause us to do harm in the first place. These create some powerful life lessons which together lead to spiritual evolution.

Forgiveness is very often about reconciliation, remedying harms or disagreements so the parties involved can find closure and move on. It’s a healing process.

Withholding forgiveness of others in a way is withholding forgiveness to ourselves. It’s as if we are blaming ourselves or the universe for the past events we cannot change. Our life force and creative energy gets stuck in the past, instead of present time. When we forgive others, we forgive ourselves. We are liberated from the past heartache and trauma and move forward with peace and self-empowerment.


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