While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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On the Nature of Forgiveness, Part II

Does a circumstance exist where forgiving is not recommended?   Is there a situation where forgiving is a mistake?  Can forgiving cause more harm than good in some circumstances?

These questions have occurred recently, and I find that I cannot arrive at an answer.  Specifically, in cases of abuse; if the abuser never admits what they have done, and instead, accuses the abused of lying, making false accusations, and of manipulation of facts – is it appropriate to forgive the abuser and try to rebuild the relationship?  If the abuser claims not to remember the damage they have caused and instead tries to elicit sympathy from the abused for current problems, should this be forgiven?

I have always felt a strong pull towards forgiving, towards compassion and understanding.  After all, I have made many mistakes throughout my life and have apologized multiple times for these mistakes.  But I struggle with forgiving when faced with someone whose words are so profoundly at odds with their actions that they seem to be lying.  I struggle in cases where the abuser is a deeply religious person and claims, repeatedly, that their faith prevents them from lying or harming anyone – even as they continue the dishonest words and behavior.   I struggle in situations where the abuser has verbally harmed someone in the past, and a third individual has defended the abused – years later the abuser and their victim attack the third individual because the abuser has shared his/her dislike of that person with the initial victim.  Can this situation be forgiven?  Should it be forgiven?  And if forgiving is possible, should the relationship be rebuilt?

To forgive is a very personal decision, and one with a path that is long, difficult, and at times very painful.  In addition, I have discovered that forgiving does not always heal the wounds created by abuse.  I have been told that true forgiveness can take years to achieve, and that until it is achieved emotions will fluctuate between peace and pain.  At times, you will think you have forgiven only to feel the harm resurface and create even deeper pain.  However, I can’t help but wonder, could not forgiving be a healthier option in some circumstances – especially when continued contact with the abuser cannot be avoided?  Is it healthier to forgo forgiving altogether?

And, possibly most pertinent, can we forgive someone we no longer trust?


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On the Nature of Forgiveness

To begin – a few explanations will help define this most important aspect of human life.
Buddhists define forgiveness as an act of genuine love; an act that requires immense courage and strength but one that, ultimately, is the only path to peace. To forgive harm does not mean we condone the harm or that we make ourselves feel better by retaliating. Instead, we commit to disallow the harm from happening to us in the future, to accept that all beings are capable of harm and kindness and that all have done both, and will do both, and to allow ourselves to let go of the harm in order to proceed with life. The path to forgiving someone for the harm they have done may include multiple levels or stages – grief and deep sorrow, confusion, anger, an immense sense of betrayal, and eventual acceptance. One or a combination of these emotions will be experienced during healing, and the entire process may take a short time or years of dedicated, intentional work. In Buddhism, forgiveness meditation performed daily during the time of healing brings both immediate and long-term benefits. Insight meditation will be of benefit, but should be performed after the initial pain has subsided and thinking is clearer.
In Islam, responsibility is a crucial component of forgiveness. Accepting responsibility for ones’ actions is directly correlated with the intellect of the actor. For example, young children are not held responsible for their actions until they are old enough – until their intellect is developed enough – to understand the consequences of their actions. If an adult has limited intellect, he/she is not held completely responsible for actions that may cause harm. A fully functioning adult is responsible for his/her actions, intention(s) motivating the action, and its consequences. Islamic teachings state that humans need two types of forgiveness – from God and from other humans – and admonishes the guilty to work and pray for both.
In Christianity, Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness have received multiple interpretations over many centuries. Ultimately, however, we are taught that God’s forgiveness is inclusive and unending if we actively work towards forgiveness. This work usually requires confessing ones’ sins and praying for forgiveness. Unfortunately, modern interpretation of these teachings does not emphasize making reparations or sincere attempts to make amends to the harmed individual. God’s forgiveness is said to be the most important – sometimes the only – requirement needed to be cleansed of a harmful act. Again, this is a contemporary interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, and one that I find not in keeping with the historic reasons behind his teachings.

As with most any adult I know, I have a long history with learning to forgive. From childhood through adulthood, I have spent the majority of my life learning how to forgive.  At times forgiving was easy; I would keep in mind a favorite expression of my father’s – Consider the Source. This kept many wounds from developing into major, destructive injuries. At other times, however, I was presented with or observed a struggle that continued for years. I have questioned more than once how humankind can forgive God – after all, if we approach the concept of God to be correct as taught, doesn’t He have a responsibility to His creation? If so, from my point of view He has abdicated His responsibility with each sincere but ignored prayer.

Forgiving someone we love who has harmed us is even more difficult – kin, friend, lover – the relationship is secondary to the act of harm.  The fact that we assume love to be reciprocated in action sets us up for further hurt when we are betrayed.  Because even though someone we have trusted has harmed us or those we love, our love for that person remains intact.  It may be diminished, it may be reticent, but it remains.

And therein lies the rub.  This aspect of forgiveness is rarely addressed – when people we love abuse us or someone close to us, forgiving is even more difficult because we continue to love them.  And just because we love someone, we assume that love is reciprocated. When we discover it is not, and face the deep harm that has occurred over a lifetime, we are left with rubble. What do we do then? It is not a matter of rebuilding a life; rather, it becomes a process of building a new life. If this happens to you, what do you do? Remove the harm from your life. In whatever form that harm has taken and by whatever safe and healthy means available, remove the harm permanently. And then look closely at all you have, not what you have lost. Look closely at those you love and who reciprocate your love. Look closely at your strength, your honesty, your integrity, and your gifts. Look closely, and acknowledge them. Honor all you have been given. But most important – forgive. By whatever means is easiest, kindest, and most effective for you, forgive. Give those who have caused such harm nothing more of your life.  As Rabbi Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Law. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”
All I can add is this – be kind, enjoy each day, and live your life in love.