A Fresh Perspective
“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”
The idea of forgiveness – asking for it and offering of it – is deeply rooted in many societies and faiths and is often seen as a universal panacea to release otherwise apparently unresolvable resentment, anger or pain. It’s understandable that people are attracted to the idea when it appears to offer a solution of this kind, the release from difficult feelings or inertia. Especially when there seems no other route to peace or reconciliation.
But does it actually work?
We are told by teachers, religious leaders and spiritual guides that forgiveness is the ‘right’ or the ‘good’ thing to do. We are even told that if we forgive others God will forgive us in turn. Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” This kind of judgement hangs over those who are struggling to forgive and often wounds them again, making them feel more inadequate. The social pressure to forgive also often allows the perpetrator an escape from their responsibility and guilt. When the cost of their actions is excluded someone else will pay the price.
People hope that they can ‘forgive and forget’, whether it’s their parents, their enemies, their partners or themselves. However, it is rarely as simple as that and forgiving can cause confusion, resentment and inertia in individuals, families and organisations. Resolution usually requires something more nuanced and more respectful.
Please scroll down for more.
“When someone says to another ‘I forgive you’ he is in that moment pronouncing the other guilty. He raises himself above the other and degrades them. This suspends the human relationship of equal to equal. It endangers the relationship instead of rescuing it.”
The roots of forgiveness
In many of the over 4,000 different religions in the world there are promises of and encouragement for forgiveness. As a result of these faiths, beliefs and doctrines the idea of forgiveness is widely recognised in almost all societies. Despite this universal appeal and idea many people are uncertain or unable to succesfully accomplish it. A recent poll by The Gallup Organisation sampled a large number of people on various religious topics and found that whilst 94% said it was important to forgive, 85% of these said they needed external help and guidance in order to be able to do it. Amongst this sample prayer, even regular repeated prayer, was not found to be effective.
In the Christian faith forgiveness is a central tenet and much teaching and preaching is based on it. Like many others, the Christian faith is built on ideas about right and wrong and so of forgiveness for wrongdoing. These are not ideas that bring peace to a system and so religious elders encourage multiple attempts, as if getting it right takes plenty of practice. This leads to people feeling wounded, not only by the original injury but now also by not being very ‘good’ at forgiveness. This pattern of making followers ‘wrong’ is one that can be seen in many religions and faith systems and it is perhaps an effective way of keeping the flock faithful and regular in their attendance and worship.
‘Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’
‘In contemplating the law of karma, we realize that it is not a matter of seeking revenge but of practicing forgiveness…’
‘Allah forgives what is past: for repetition Allah will exact from him the penalty. For Allah is Exalted, and Lord of Retribution.’
In Hinduism the concept of forgiveness is further refined by contrasting it in feminine and masculine forms. Feminine ‘Lakshmi’ forgives even when the one who does wrong does not repent. Masculine ‘Vishnu’, on the other hand, forgives only when the wrong doer repents. In Hinduism, the feminine forgiveness granted without repentance by Lakshmi is higher and more noble than the masculine forgiveness granted only after there is repentance.
For Hindus in the highest self-realised state, forgiveness becomes the essence of one’s personality.
‘Forgiveness is virtue; forgiveness is sacrifice; forgiveness is the Vedas; forgiveness is the Shruti.
Forgiveness protecteth the ascetic merit of the future; forgiveness is asceticism; forgiveness is holiness; and by forgiveness is it that the universe is held together.’
Mahabharata, Book 3, Vana Parva, Section XXIX
In some religious lives forgiveness can become a ‘get out of jail free’ card, relieving the one who prays for forgiveness of personal responsibility and greatly reducing the chances of there being any learning or growth in the individual or the wider system.
This idea of an inner purge of all wrongdoing is common and popular perhaps most famously in the Catholic Church where confessions resulting in forgiveness – mediated by a priest who is said to be in contact with God – creates the feeling of absolution.
Believing that you have been forgiven by a larger-than-life spiritual presence may cause harm to the one who has been wronged, especially if the perpetrator feels absolved and doesn’t feel they need to carry their responsibility. In this way the priest, god or other ‘higher power’ who forgives becomes the catalyst to yet more pain and confusion in the system.
Many of these different ideas about forgiveness complicate and deepen the already complex, often shameful dynamics around hurt and forgiveness. The pseudo-spiritual quality and overlay of religious constructs is one of the reasons people get stuck in attempts to forgive for many years. Sometimes the search for forgiveness lasts a lifetime.
Forgiveness that’s ‘given’ through a religious system can also burden the one who seeks redemption simply by making the request of a higher authority for forgiveness and of using up his/her/its divine grace. It can become an endless cycle in attempts to find balance and rest which never quite arrives. People can spend their whole lives caught in this trap and they may become increasingly angry, defensive and rigid in their thinking, judgmental in their attitudes to others and themselves.
This sense of righteous anger often couples with a lack of inner serenity and a private concern that they are sinful for being angry, sad or judgmental. And so the pattern repeats and deepens and will often be acted out in other ways.
“People often struggle when they feel they ‘should’ forgive for reasons of religion or culture that encourages forgiveness. The injured party can be left feeling really angry and also stuck, because the aspect of ‘right justice’ has not been attended to. They can also be left with an extra layer of guilt for not having been able to forgive, so feel twice-injured.”