How do you forgive a wrong? and why bother? someone asked in the previous post. Herewith an essay, an attempt, at describing why and how I go about practicing forgiveness.
1. To excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon.
2. To renounce anger or resentment against.
3. To absolve from payment of (a debt, for example).
If someone has done something you think is absolutely wrong, and you harbor anger and resentment, your feelings will cause you harm. Does repressed resentment cause illness? I don't have scientific data for it, but resentment causes all kinds of emotional problems, and those can cause illness. People in physical crisis are often asked to practice forgiving old angers and resentments as part of gaining peace of mind, which contributes to healing.
You could try to forgive your enemies out of a sense of duty or moral righteousness: "to be a good person, I must forgive this criminal." But many of us might question why? Why bother with this charade?
If you only forgive in order to feel that you are doing the right thing, you won't get the benefit of forgiveness. It will be a kind of performance, a fake, an act in the sense of doing something that is not felt sincerely, in order to please or entertain others.
In forgiving, you renounce anger or resentment against someone else. The act of forgiveness, genuine forgiveness, causes a change in the forgiver. Try it. Personally, I have felt a physical release from practicing forgiveness. I also feel emotional relief.
Judy in comments below asks how are we to forgive (for instance) Israelis who cause such suffering to Palestinians in Gaza today? Perhaps an Israeli suffering from the aftereffects of a bombing may ask the same - how to forgive Palestinians who cause his neighbors pain?
This question matters a great deal to me, because I am struggling with metastatic cancer to my liver, and believe that forgiving my enemies will help me heal. My father died in September of 2006, just after the Israeli attack on Lebanon. This war seemed to accelerate his final illness, which proceeded with terrifying rapidity.
The barrage of cluster bombs Israel left upon the fields and mountainsides of South Lebanon has felt like an unforgivable sin to me. Somehow the seeding of the land of Lebanon with a million pellets of death has appeared the most insurmountable obstacle to forgiving and moving on. I associate it with the whole horror of that war and my father's sudden decline and death. The land of Lebanon was poisoned, my father died of poison/cancer, and now here I am fighting innumerable tiny lesions in my liver, like mirrors of the cluster bombs embedded into my organs. Some things feel unforgivable; for me, this is one.
Here is how I can forgive. First of all, it's not me alone. My ego wants to be right. I will not truly forgive of my own unaided will, so I ask that some larger force - whatever you want to call it - help me forgive.
Second, I consider that the persons who ordered and carried out the attacks on Lebanon act out of fear and error. They possess a constellation of ideas about conflict, and about Lebanon and its people, that are simply in error. Those erroneous ideas lead them to harbor fears for their own destruction and that of their people (the Israelis). So, driven by fear and error, these military and political leaders ordered this action which I find so terrible.
Have I ever acted rashly, driven by my own fear and mistaken ideas? Yes. I have never caused so much harm (I hope). I have never killed anyone or caused such destruction. But it's only a matter of degree. I have harbored terrible fears, terrible prejudices, enormous mistakes in judgment or perception that have driven me to irrational behavior. I can forgive myself for such errors (with difficulty). I know I am only human.
Next, I observe people around me, some of whom I love dearly, who also harbor fears that lead them to say or condone actions I cannot accept. Let's give the example of a hypothetical relative (nobody in real life, I assure you), who harbors fears and resentments left over from a terrible mugging on a city street. That person may say things against ethnic or social groups that I cannot accept. I do not accept that person's words or ideas; however I can see how their ideas are shaped by their fears and their history. So I let it go. I forgive them their mistakes. (This example is entirely fictional by the way)
It is not too far to move from forgiving a beloved relative or friend for her/his failings, to forgiving a stranger. If I think I cannot do it, then I imagine my small child. If he is seized with a terrifying fear of some teacher, and expresses hatred for that teacher, and the desire to spear her with his Star Wars light saber, I don't reject my child for this. I try to understand what is driving his fears; at the same time I attempt not to cater to the emotional storm. Let it pass. I can forgive my child for his unskillful reaction to his fear of a teacher.
In forgiving the stranger who has caused so much harm, I also have to stop arguing with myself: but they SHOULD know better. They SHOULD NOT be so fearful, violent, willing to kill for retribution, and so forth.
My job is to give up anger and resentment. I can only do this when I can see the other for the flawed, frightened human being he is - my alter ego.
My enemy is my mirror. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." I trespass against others and need forgiveness. So must I forgive others for their trespasses. It all goes around and around. The cycle of forgiveness is the only way to break the cycle of violence.
And by the way, it never helps me to say "but he needs to say he's sorry first." Or, "he has to change before I can forgive him." This makes my power to forgive conditional upon somebody else's behavior. I always have the power to forgive. The other party has no power to keep me from forgiveness.
Now if I am trying to forgive somebody who continues to do things that harm me, I don't continue to put myself in the way of that harm. I take what measures I can to protect myself, or remove myself from that person's orbit. Forgiveness does not mean allowing myself to be beaten if I can help it.
"Resist not evil" is a kind of Zen concept. Make yourself like water and flow around and away. Fighting evil directly just gives it power. It doesn't really have power. Let it dissolve in your indifference, move around and away from the appearance of evil as if you are a running stream flowing around a rock and down to the sea. The rock will wear away one day; meanwhile you can keep flowing.