As We Forgive
I attended Yom Kippur this past year, with my Jewish wife, Mia. It’s the holiest day of the year for Jews. My wife is Jewish. The theme is repentance and atonement for sin. These folks know how to do repentance. Three hours of singing about how they have hurt others through acts of commission and omission. It was a powerful ceremony. It made me think that Christianity is Judaism light.
We hurt each other. God forgives. That’s the conclusion of all major religions. But do we? Forgive that is? Should we? We’re not God, after all. Do we unconditionally forgive? If there are conditions, what are they? What do we do with our broken hearts? Is there a difference between finding compassion for our perpetrator and forgiving that person? Can we ever heal without forgiving our perpetrators?
In The Tears of the Ancestors, Danan van Kampenhout interviews a highly respected rabbi about the difference between the two. A Nazi prison guard in a concentration camp had murdered the rabbi’s father and countless other Jews. The man responsible, now in his late eighties, was appearing before an international tribunal. The rabbi saw the old man, bent over, shuffling into the courtroom, and waving at members of his family as he passed them. He felt genuine compassion for the old man, for his sore back, for how he was just being an obedient soldier during the war in order to feed his family. He felt compassion for the grandchildren seeing their beloved grandpa having to undergo this interrogation. And then the rabbi says: “But still, if they had decided to hang him, and I was asked to push the lever that would make him fall and die, I would do it. I would do it, if they would ask it from me, without hesitation.”
This shocks us because we are so accustomed to hearing only dramatic stories of forgiveness. But there is something about the rabbi’s perspective that represents an important corrective.I’ve wrestled with forgiveness all of my career as a Christian minister. I advocated forgiving others for the reasons we’ve all heard trotted out: It’s not about the person who wronged us, it’s about our own spiritual wellbeing and freedom. By holding onto our grudge, we’re hurting ourselves and giving our perpetrator power to control us. Hell, we might end up with cancer.
All this may be true, but there’s something about the rush to forgive that I distrust. This is particularly true when the person who has mistreated us either is not asking for forgiveness or asks forgiveness without any interest in hearing about the impact his or her actions has had on us.
Why the pressure to get so quickly to forgiveness? My hunch is that this is what lies behind those stories of mothers who forgive the murderer of their daughter a week after the crime. Invariably, they are conservative Christians.
There is considerable pressure, from within and without, to get to forgiveness. From within, they want to be faithful disciples of Jesus and didn’t he tell us to forgive seven times seventy times? From without, I sense a pastor who perceives it as his role to encourage forgiveness as soon as possible. The cynical preacher in me knows that forgiveness testimonies make for the best sermons.
I confess that I now take these public gestures of forgiveness with a grain of salt. I’ve come through an intense few years where I was taken deeply into early trauma. It took me a couple more years to uncover the true impact of my own trauma on my life. If I had jumped to forgiveness too quickly I would have forfeited the opportunity for deep integration, before, that is, I even knew the full impact on my life.
There is a concept called “flight to transcendence”, which describes the tendency, when dealing with heart-breaking acts of violence against self, to leave the body and occupy the mind of God. We jump out of our skin and into the mind and heart of God. It’s actually possible to do this. We can enter into so-called non-dual states through meditation, and get a view of the situation from 60,000 feet. From this lofty vantage point, we see the whole history of violence. We understand that the murderer himself was traumatized as a child as was his father before him. We see this murderer from perspective of unity consciousness as a child of God. Who are we not to forgive?
As humans we are spirit, psyche and body. Once you step out of spirit into soul or psyche, and then again, into body, there is work to be done. This work takes time. To ignore this work is the very definition of spiritual bypassing. Prematurely forgiving our perpetrator robs us of a unique opportunity to get to know comprehensively its impact on our life, and to bring compassion to ourselves.
The temptation for bypassing is powerful. We want to escape the bottomless pit of grief, sorrow, rage and hatred we feel in response to such indignity. While this natural tendency to try and escape what’s happened to us, or our loved ones, is understandable, in the long run the only way out is the way through. I would have never known the depth of my sorrow, and why people often commented about an energetic sadness they saw in me—even when things were going well. I also had a pool of rage in me that was never far from the surface. Without awareness of the origin of these feelings, I unconsciously created the conditions in my life so that I could justify being sad, enraged, and I could justify hatred, cynicism and pessimism about the human condition.
I wrestled with forgiveness on an isolation retreat I was on in June. I was a mile up a mountain on my own, in a tent, with no food for four days, and a bowl of broth on the next three days, with no contact with human beings. I was dieting an Amazonian plant called ucho sanango. You drink it as a tea. It’s not a psychedelic, but you enter into the consciousness of the plant, and pray to it for a week. This plant is considered a master plant for Amazonian people, a grandfather intelligence that reveals truth. So there’s lots of time to think. But really, it’s more like you are being thought by this intelligence.
I was surprised that the plant asked me to suspend my thinking about forgiveness, and get suffering straightened out first.
Here’s the teaching I received on the medicine:
- Life is suffering
2. It isn’t fair.
3.There’s no escaping it.
R.D. Laing: “There is a great deal of pain in life and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain. ”
Laing is saying that there is the direct suffering of a wrong committed against us, and then there is the indirect suffering that is caused by denying it. This is neurotic, unconscious suffering, that we inflict on ourselves and others. Neurotic pain is the suffering we unconsciously bring on ourselves and others by refusing to accept it—the destructive patterns of intimacy, the addictions, the “depression” and anxiety. When the root cause of these are uncovered and we choose to feel what happened the neurotic suffering ends. Then the clean, healing, suffering begins.
Christians believe in the “passion” of Christ. There’s a whole season, Lent, devoted to tracking Jesus’ journey into his suffering. It doesn’t mean that he was a man of passion, like Zorba the Greek. The word passion is derived from the Latin “passio”, which means to suffer. The word “passive” is also derived from this Latin root. The connection is found in what French priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, called “the passivities”.
These are the vagaries and vicissitudes of life, the stuff we must passively endure or undergo—illnesses, accidents, violence, heart-break, natural catastrophes, and ultimately death. These are the things in life we suffer or undergo. It’s possible to do a metaphysical slight of hand and make the claim that we choose literally everything in life, including being raped by our father, for example. But this new age posturing always strikes me as a way of maintaining the illusion of control, in a world that is clearly not in our control.
This is why the crucifixion is called the passion of Christ. He had to undergo it. When he cries from the cross the words of the Psalmist, “My God, why have you forsaken me”, this was clearly a man crying out to a God in a world that was beyond his control.
It was his passivity to undergo what he did not choose. The author of the gospel of John is unable to accept this, so he presents Jesus as totally in control of his destiny, right up to and including his crucifixion. But then, this gospel is distinct from the others in the way the author presents Jesus as more divine than human.
Teilhard de Chardin estimates that as much as 75% of our life is about undergoing the passivities. In effect, we’re all involved in our own passion play with Christ. If his estimate is anywhere near accurate, the only form of control we have is how respond to being out of control. We can be control freaks and try to maintain the illusion of control. Or we can accept that life is suffering, and within that constraint, be as creative as possible in how we respond.
The second principle, that life isn’t fair, is particularly challenging for me. On the mountain I discovered a deep, yet unconscious, belief that life should be fair.
When we are violated our mind forms a thought that our perpetrator owes us. Those who have wronged us are, effectively, in debt to us. More than this, life itself owes us.
This is why vigilante movies, like Taken or Unforgiven, are so popular. Right before our eyes, we see the story of vengeance being played out. Some evil person is getting exactly what they deserve—death, preferably in as gruesome a form as possible. The debt is being collected on. I’m convinced that these are so satisfying to most of us because most of us are carrying around deeply unconscious violations that have been enacted against us. We are gaining vicarious satisfaction through these films. The debt is finally being paid.
Deep down, in our shadow selves, we all feel like the appropriate response to being hurt by others is to end their lives. We don’t do it, mostly because we realize that we’d end up in prison.
This is why, incidentally, in the Jesus prayer, we ask to have our debts forgiven as we forgive the debts of others. To “forgive debts” means, I believe, to give up the belief that an individual, and by extension life, owes something to us. This belief leads to violence and a life of ingratitude.
What we don’t realize is that even if we were to act out and collect on the debt owed to us, it wouldn’t erase the original wound. That hurt, once it is enacted, is permanent. We must live with the unfairness and the sorrow of having our heart broken for the rest of our lives. Yes, remorse from the perpetrator helps, and yes, if compensation is possible that might make the future a little easier to bear. But we will forever carry within us the wound. Even if the relationship is restored with our perpetrator, the damage that was done cannot be undone. That doesn’t mean that we will remain a victim. Only if we remain unconscious and refuse to suffer what is ours to suffer will we act like a victim.
This might explain the brilliance and the resonance of Leonard Cohen’s wildly popular song, Alleluia. It’s been covered by more artists than any other song in history. Everybody wants a shot at that one. I think it’s because Cohen got right to the bone with it, both lyrically and melodically.
Love is not a victory march,
it’s a cold and it’s a broken alleluia.
I’ve presided at hundreds of wedding ceremonies over the years. Probably a dozen times, the happy couple chose to walk down the aisle to this song. I always wondered if they had read the words. The song describes King David’s meeting with Bathsheba. The subtext is that in order to consummate his love, he has ordered Bathsheba’s husband, who is a general in the army, to lead the charge in the next battle—ensuring his death. Any love that David and Bathsheba may enjoy will be forever tinged with this act of violence. And once we’ve suffered heartbreak and/or violence enacted against us, our love with take on the feel of a broken alleluia. It’s not that we will never love again. But it will be textured. The alleluias we sing will be mixed with sadness and sorrow. It will be forever more like “Alleluia anyhow”.
Life isn’t fair. There’s no use arguing with that reality. Life is life. You get what you get. Human beings hurt other innocent human beings. It hurts, but nothing I do is going to change the truth of this. Hurt people, hurt people. The creative response, once this is accepted, is to take an oath to never consciously cause suffering.
This brings me to the third principle: there is no escaping it. That is, we have to face the suffering and accept it. All that is left to do is to suffer what is yours to suffer. There is no escaping this.
The medicine was trying to get me to see two things: first that I was living my life, in terms of my outlook and orientation as if what happened was the only thing that ever happened to me. As long as I didn’t accept it and suffer it, it would feel as though life was nothing but suffering. I was led to understand that it was okay to have a broken-heart, but not okay for my broken heart to have me—that is, to colonize my whole personality. And it was definitely not okay to hurt others unconsciously because of my sorrow.
I saw in that moment that most of my life was spent trying to distract myself from this sorrow—with alcohol, TV, entertainment, and a mind that would not shut off or shut up.
Even my career choice of being a minister of religion was a distraction from the main event. It was an attempt to solve the “problem” of the lack of meaning in my life. But meaning hadn’t gone missing. What had gone missing was love and connection. This was the suffering that I was unconsciously trying to come to terms with, by every means except by accepting it.
If we refuse as adults to suffer what is ours to suffer, we become net takers from life. This is because we continue to hold the belief, unconsciously, that we are owed something for what happened to us.
My hunch is that this is why the Western, developed nations are all net takers from the planet and from each other. Psychological, emotional, and physical trauma is more widespread than we care to imagine. But it is repressed and kept at bay through denial. But it comes out in other ways. The implicit violence of unconsciously being net takers expresses itself as the right to devastate the planet without guilt, the right to take without giving back in relationships, the right to be an asshole, the right to be selfish, the right to accumulate vast amounts of wealth in the midst of so much poverty, the right to take short cuts, the right to be miserable, cynical, and pessimistic. We take because we were taken from. Life owes us.
I noticed a few years ago something about myself of which I am not proud. As a net taker, I was not a grateful human being. One cannot feel both like life owes you something and at the same time be truly grateful. Deep gratitude is born of humility, and this arises from a felt sense that we come into this world already on the receiving end of so much abundance that it is overwhelming.
I have subsequently seen that the universe is like a big Mama’s breast, and when we’re finished with one breast, there’s another one on the other side ready to fill us. But when we don’t feel this in our bones, we operate from the myth of insufficiency. Trauma causes us to feel like there is not enough for us, and that the only way to get enough is to become takers. We become pathologically self-mothering when we weren’t adequately mothered.
We learned that we cannot depend on anybody else or anything else to get by. We stop seeing how much comes to us freely and generously. We start to believe that the only thing that is coming our way is what we can make happen ourselves.
Gratitude, by definition, is the sense that it is all gift, that we are on the receiving end of generosity, and all we had to do was to show up. If we feel gratitude we naturally want to give back. Our life becomes an offering of gratitude. But if we feel like we’re owed something, we’ll just keep taking and taking and taking.
The absence of gratitude is the premiere sign of spiritual sickness. Something has gone terribly wrong if we don’t walk around on a daily basis uttering thank you’s as we go. Thank you earth and minerals, thank you air, thank you sun and moon, thank you animals and plants. When we adopt a taker stance, gratitude is the first casualty. Poet, e.e.cummings was overwhelmed with gratitude when he wrote this poem:
I thank you god
for most this amazing day
for the leaping greenly spirits
and the blue true dream of sky.
and for everything that is natural,
that is infinite,
that is yes.
I who had died, am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday,
and the birth day of life, and of love
and of the gay, great happening
Paradoxically, it is in coming to terms with the three principles, life is suffering, it isn’t fair, and there’s no escaping this, that gratitude may return for all that is good and true and beautiful.
What I discovered was that once I’ve truly accepted the above three principles, forgiveness kind of faded into the background. If the purpose of forgiveness is to release us from the past by breaking the ties of resentment, we can accomplish that by simply suffering what is ours to suffer, and then letting it go.
My hunch is that this is what many people mean when they say that they have forgiven a perpetrator. They mean that they no longer are looking for the debt to be repaid. They have let go of the expectation that life owes them something, they have discovered that it no longer has a hold on them, and a sense of peace has been restored. How did they get there? They suffered what was theirs to suffer.
We take Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness very seriously, but ignore his teaching about suffering. If we were to make his teaching on suffering primary, forgiveness would find its rightful and precise place in our spiritual practice.
The disciples repeatedly told his disciples that the “son of man” (the True Human) must suffer and die. In other, even the archetypal Human doesn’t get to do an end run around the passivities. It’s an inescapable feature of being human. Peter protested Jesus’ announcement that even one as innocent as he must suffer. Jesus rebuked him: “Get thee behind me, Satan”. Strong words.
The Satan is the one who tempts away from our true path, and any true path will involve suffering. Jesus, following in the lineage of the suffering servant of the prophet Isaiah, is having none of it. Theologically speaking, there is a teaching that God redeems humanity by identifying with the suffering of humanity, in Jesus. Once we are willing to accept that life is suffering, that it is not fair, and that there is no escaping this, we may discover that we’ve let it go.
When Jesus is dying on the cross he cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the cry of one who is being forced to undergo the terrible ordeal that for reasons we will never fully appreciate, God doesn’t intervene to prevent our suffering, but is with us when we are willing to accept and undergo it.
So then, what is authentic forgiveness? Authentic forgiveness is an exchange between at least two people, a victim and a perpetrator, and not a unilateral proposition. It is not a unilateral declaration by the victim.
.The aforementioned Jewish rabbi outlines the five conditions that the perpetrator must fulfill in a gesture of authentic forgiveness:
- He must admit that the crime happened and that he is guilty.
- He must say he is sorry.
- He must admit that he has created or caused damage.
- He must commit to making amends and he must actually do so.
- He must promise that he will never do it again.
Chloe Madanes is a family therapist in the U.S. She works a lot with sexual abuse. She tells the story of a daughter who confronted her father in therapy of abusing her. The father copped to it, which is very rare. He then asked for forgiveness. Dr. Madanes quickly intervened before the daughter too quickly jumped to forgiveness.
The father had to earn the right to ask forgiveness of his daughter. This is because the daughter naturally feels pressure to take care of her father. Madanes asked the father to get down on his knees and express remorse. Then she asked the daughter to check in with herself as to whether she felt his remorse was authentic. She didn’t and it wasn’t until the father broke down that she saw his remorse. He promised that he would never to do this to her again or to anybody else. Only then, was the daughter was in a position to decide if she could forgive him. Madones made it clear that she was not obliged to forgive him, that it might take her a long time, and it might never happen. As the daughter grieved openly along with the father, there was a palpable softening, a sign that healing had begun.
It is simply untrue that you cannot heal if you do not forgive. If what I am saying is accurate, then you may never be given the opportunity to forgive. But you can grieve and you can heal. You can accept that life is suffering, that it isn’t always fair, and that there’s no escaping this truth. You can feel your body and your heart soften. Life returns. Gratitude returns. You can feel compassion for your perpetrator. Life goes on.
And if the one who has broken your heart comes seeking forgiveness, you may choose to offer it, restore the relationship, or walk away, in full integrity as a whole human being.