On Forgiveness—Part I

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
― Lao Tzu

The science is telling us more and more that the brain is a muscle. The ancient wisdom is true, what we think and say matters, thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, and habits become character. People that live a life defined by anger and revenge are not only unpleasant to be around, that anger and that desire for revenge corrodes the person for whom anger and revenge becomes a way of life. It is unpleasant and unhealthy, rather like living on top of a leaking, toxic dump.

Forgiveness and gratitude on the other hand, are a joy to live close to. They bring healing. Entire religions are founded on this core principle, that every human needs and craves forgiveness, and every life is enriched by gratitude. But why is this true? What makes anger and revenge destructive, and forgiveness and gratitude their opposites? The most obvious answer is that anger and revenge are themselves violent and destructive, while forgiveness and gratitude are not, but there is a more subtle answer.

Anger and revenge are oppositional, and represent a path that is blocked by something that must be destroyed. Forgiveness and gratitude are a way of removing barriers and clearing a forward path. Revenge depends on factors that are often not in our control, while forgiveness and gratitude are most often well within our control. Anger is often a product of the frustration felt at being unable to reach an objective. For reasons which should be perfectly obvious, revenge is often neither a good idea, nor is it obtainable, not without resorting to actions which are illegal, immoral, and often both.

But the fact that forgiveness and gratitude are possible, does not mean that they are always easy. Far from it.

One thought on “On Forgiveness—Part I

  1. Attributed to many, not sure who said it first: “When you set out on the path of revenge, dig two graves”

    The difficulty for many is that they see forgiveness as biblical absolution– setting free of consequence for the transgressor. It’s not. Forgiveness is inward, peace is found in the acceptance that the action of another is a past action and outside our control in the present. With that is the realization that life is not a zero-sum game.

    To that realization I add an absolute certainty that past harm cannot be undone by any action in the present, unless I  first accept that it is past–not present action. The act of absolution is setting myself free from the action that harmed me.

    What makes it even harder for many to understand is that forgiveness is a choice made regardless of the state/actions of the person who transgressed against me (yes, that choice of language is intentionally evocative– my agnosticism does not mean rejection of a valid teaching).

    There’s a strange self interested reason for this: I cannot forget, my brain isn’t wired that way. I remember any emotionally charged or violent event/action by or against my person with a vividness that results in reliving the experience, if I am not careful. Since I cannot forget and remembrance is often traumatic in its own right, forgiveness, freeing myself from the action I remember is key.

    Forgiveness, in the form of acceptance of that past transgression as a static event, helps to ground me back in the present and end the painful memory loop.

    Revenge does not allow for moving forward. Revenge does not allow for living–it is all consuming trap of memory.

    Harder still, is the realization that self forgiveness follows the same path–the same memory loop applies: If I have caused pain to another by word or deed, I remember it with the same vividness. Interesting to note though that people don’t tend to seek revenge against themselves for their own past transgressions and that takes me right back to the Golden rule… If I can forgive myself my transgressions, I must forgive others that have trespassed against me.

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