The stupid neither forgive nor forget, the naïve forgive and forget, the wise forgive, but do not forget.
January 12, 2003
Ashrams provide a simplified life. You don't have to put a lot of energy into daily decisions because a schedule makes most of these for you. You don't have to put energy into worldly distractions because most of those are removed. Your energies are freed up to focus on spiritual matters.
Several decades ago, Ram Dass observed that prisons simplify a person's life. The prisoner doesn't have to put energy into daily decisions because most are made for him. He doesn't have to put energy into worldly distractions because most are removed.
What if a prisoner wanted to use this simplification to look inward and cultivate spiritual freedom rather than just sit around and wait for external freedom?
Ram Dass started the Prison Ashram Project. For inmates who genuinely wanted to use their incarceration for spiritual practice, the Project provided literature, letters, face to face counseling and support for turning their prison cell into an ashram cell.
When I first heard Ram Dass describe this project, he concluded, “If all the prisoners think they are in an ashram, the only people left in prison are the guards.”
I want to talk about forgiveness as a kind of key that can let us out of an internal prison.
All of us have done bad things. Last time I spoke about forgiving ourselves for the harm we have caused others and ourselves.
Just as we have all done bad things, others have done bad things to us. We have all been injured emotionally and physically by other people's malice or confusion. If we can't forgive them, then we are like guards locked inside our own prisons.
But forgiving others is not always easy. So let’s address a few different questions: (1) What is the relationship between forgiveness and spiritual freedom? (2) What is the difference between forgiving and condoning? (3) And finally, what can we do to cultivate forgiveness?
Let me start with spiritual freedom and forgiveness.
The essence of spiritual maturity is an inner consciousness which is often called “freedom” or “liberation.” Our hearts and minds become unfettered and spacious. In theistic traditions, this is achieved by surrender to God. We let go of our self-centeredness and egocentrism and expand into a Will larger than our own.
In non-theistic traditions, we let go into a less-defined spaciousness. The emphasis is more on the release itself and less on what we are released into. Rather then surrender to God, we surrender into love, emptiness or nirvana. Actually “surrender into nirvana” is redundant because nirvana literally means “unclinging.” It's like saying we “uncling into unclinging.”
The opposite of being with God or nirvana is grasping, holding and attachment. We all have places where we grasp, hold or attach. One of the times we do this is when we are injured. If you break your arm, the muscles around the break freeze and hold the bones in place. When hurt emotionally, our minds and hearts tend to tighten, grasp and hold.
Spiritual maturation is about moving from a state of holding and grasping to a state of release and freedom. Forgiving others is a very potent practice that supports this maturation.
For example, let's say someone insults you. It hurts. You hold this against them. If the person cares about you, your grudge may cause them pain. Both of you are in prison. You are the jailer. The key to freedom is forgiveness. You hold this key in your hands (or heart). But both of you are in prison if you don't use that key.
On the other hand, maybe the person feels remorse, but doesn't cling to guilt. They are sorry, but aren’t weighed down by shame. At the same time you harbor resentment. The other person is free but you’re still in prison. Or maybe they don’t know you felt insulted. Or maybe they know but don't really care. Your bitterness may or may not confine them. But it definitely confines you. It keeps your heart dense, heavy, and enclosed.
Sometime we don't think we are holding grudges. We say we are just interested in justice, fairness, or accountability. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” “She made her bed, let her lie in it.” We can come up with religious or philosophical justifications to not forgive. Our prisons become elaborate – plate glass, steel bars, electric locks, and alligators in the moat. And we are prison guards wearing clerical collars and balls and chains.
Conversely, when we forgive, we let go of these complicated thoughts and feelings. Our internal life becomes simpler and less burdened. We are liberated.
This brings us to the second question: Forgiveness is wonderful in theory, but aren't some acts unforgivable?
There are people here who have been raped. There are people who have had a friend or relative injured or killed by malicious acts. There are people who have been robbed by someone unrepentant. How can we forgive such action?
The answer lies in the difference between forgiving and forgetting. There is an old phrase, “forgive and forget.” It is an oxymoron. Forgiving is not the same as forgetting and forgetting is not forgiving. Let's say I tell someone something in confidence and she lets it slip out. I feel betrayed. She says, “Forgive me.” If I say, “forget it,” I have not necessarily forgiven her. I've just said, “let's pretend it never happened and speak no more about it.” I might even say “forget it,” because I don't want to forgive. I'm holding offense.
On the other hand, if I genuinely say, “I forgive you,” I am acknowledging that the injury happened. I am not saying I am forgetting it. I might be more careful about what I tell her in the future. But I am saying that I am not holding ill will. I have released it.
When I was working as a psychotherapist, I worked with a number of incest survivors: women who as children had been raped repeatedly by their father or another relative. When they learned that I was a minister as well as a therapist, they invariably asked, “Do I have to forgive him?”
My short answer was, “Absolutely not.” I answered this way because they were usually asking, “Do I have to forget what he did to me? Do I have to pretend it never happened?” Many had already spent years trying unsuccessfully to forget it and pretend it didn't happen.
After we had talked about the difference between forgiving and forgetting, I could give my long answer: “You don't have to forgive him ever. However, if you work on the issues deeply enough, one day you may find that you have forgiven him.”
Think about some of the worst things people have done to you. …
Forgiving is not forgetting. It is not saying that what they did was okay. It wasn't. Forgiving is not condoning.
You can forgive and still confront the person. You can forgive and still hold people accountable. You can forgive and still remain vigilant to prevent it from ever happening again.
However, forgiving does not require that you confront the person. It doesn't require you to act as if it didn't happen. It doesn’t even require you to ever see them again.
Forgiveness is just a release. Lily Tomlin said, “Forgiveness is giving up the hope of ever having a better past.”
Wherever there is lack of forgiveness there is holding onto the past. There is a measure of resentment or bitterness that weighs on the heart. Letting go of the hope of changing the past lets go of that weight and allows you to settle into the present. You don’t have to forget. You just accept that it was what it was.
This brings me to the third question: how to cultivate forgiveness. Sometimes you’d like to forgive someone but can't find it in your heart. You'd like to be free of that bitterness, but can't force yourself. What can you do?
First of all, I would commend you for your wisdom. Forgiveness cannot be forced. The pretense of forgiveness can be manufactured. Real forgiveness is not an act of will or intention.
Once a farmer was so eager to help his crops grow that he went out into the fields every night and pulled on the young shoots. Forgiveness can’t be forced. It can be cultivated like anything organic. But force doesn’t help.
The seed wants to grow into a sprout. The sprout wants to grow into a mature plant. The human heart wants to forgive. Its natural state is open and caring. But buried under rocks, deprived of rain and sunlight, planted in infertile soil, it has difficulty doing what is natural. So there are things we can do to cultivate forgiveness. But even in the best conditions, it takes time and patience. It doesn’t help to pull the shoots.
So, if you find yourself unable to forgive, rather than try to force it, you may want to see if there are things you can do to cultivate it. Last time in talking about self-forgiveness, I spoke about the hands, head, gut, and heart: that is actions, thoughts, emotions, and compassion. These same areas apply to forgiving others. The heart can take care of itself. That leaves the hands, the head, and the gut or actions, thoughts, and feelings. We can look in these areas to see if they are providing a good environment for forgiveness to take root and grow.
If you cannot forgive someone, the first thing you might want to ask yourself is, “Is there something I need to do about this?”
For example, if someone makes a joke at your expense in public or borrows something without returning it, you may find you can’t forgive them. You have a lingering resentment you can’t shake. This resentment serves a purpose. It helps you guard against letting it happen again.
If the person expresses regret or asks for forgiveness, it is easier to believe it won’t happen again. It is easier to let down your guard and forgive.
If they don’t express regret, then you may want to be more pro-active. You may want to confront them, hold them accountable, remove yourself from the situation, or take some other steps to reduce the likelihood that you’ll get hurt or taken advantage of again. Once you’ve done this, it is easier to let go of the situation, easier to release the bitterness, and easier for forgiveness to grow.
But sometimes, there is nothing you can do. You still feel unforgiving. You may want to look into the head. What are your thoughts about this person? Have you demonized them? Do you see them as something other than fully human?
If a tree falls down on your house, you probably don't go out in the yard and shake your finger at it. “What are you doing falling on my house? Don't you see what a mess this is making for me? Get off of there right now or I will never forgive you?”
Somehow with acts of nature, we are more accepting. We may not like them, but we don't get into blame and demonizing.
But if people do not behave the way we think they should, there is hell to pay.
And yet, if we really understand the pain and suffering someone has gone through, I don't think we blame them in the same way. We see that they were acting in a way congruent to their inner and outer circumstances.
It can be helpful to develop an empathetic understanding of why the person did what they did. What are their injuries and hurts? Most predators were once victims themselves. This doesn’t make their actions okay. But it does mean they are only human.
Perhaps there is nothing for you to do. Perhaps you have a sympathetic understanding of a person’s psychology. And still you don’t find forgiveness in your heart. In this case, it can be helpful to look into your gut. The most persistent blocks to forgiveness are often in our feelings. Anger, grief, and fear may cloud or encase the heart. These deep feelings may require sensitive, heartful, and courageous attention.
Betsy was an ex-prostitute who came to me for help. When she was little, her father and brother had both raped her repeatedly over a number of years. She remembered a woodshed where they took her. She tried to fight them off, but she was too weak and they were too strong.
Twenty-five years later, her father was dead and her brother was no longer in her life. But I could see in her body that she was still fighting them. There was a kind of bracing, rigidity, and coldness.
When the time was right, I said to her gently, “They got you. They really got to you. You were too little to stop them. But now they are gone. It need not ever happen again. It is safe to feel it now. But they got you.”
Her eyes closed as if she was immersed in the memory. Her body went rigid as if she were little and trying to resist them. Suddenly she began screaming, “I’m not a dirty person. I’m not a dirty person.” Her life as a little girl and her life as a prostitute flashed before my eyes as she kept screaming, “I’m not a dirty person.” Tears streamed down my face.
Then she collapsed into heartbreaking sobs. They had broken her heart in a deep and violent way. At last she could let herself feel the depth of that.
In the weeks and months that followed, the rigidity in her body began to soften. There was more color in her skin and softness in her eyes. She was beginning to reclaim the life force that had been taken from her as a small child. That force had been walled off in her heart.
She never forgave her father or brother in the sense of saying that what they did was okay. It just wasn’t. But she did forgive them in the sense of being able to let go of hoping to have a better childhood. It was what it was.
This freed her up to look more heartfully at what she wanted to do with the remainder of her life. She didn’t have to fight them any more. She forgave them in the sense of releasing the hold they had over her.
All of us have been injured. For some the wounds had more to do with abandonment than abuse. Some of you may have had traumas as powerful as Betsy’s. Many have not. But the process is still the same, if subtler. If you find it difficult to forgive, see if there is some hurt, grief or anger that needs to be embraced more fully.
To the extent you can find the support and courage to let those feelings surface, you clear away the rocks and stones that keep forgiveness from taking root. The tears of your grief moisten the heart and moisten the soil.
I opened with the image of a guard locked in his own prison by unforgiveness. It would be a mistake to think the guard can just decide to walk out of jail.
The most common mistake people make about forgiveness is to think it is an act of will, to think they can decide to forgive someone. But in reality, it is something that happens when the conditions are right. We can cultivate forgiveness, but not create it.
It is like love. You cannot create love. You can only clear away blocks to it. But it must emerge on its own if it is to be genuine.
So if someone asks you if you can forgive them, the most honest thing you can do is look inside and see if there is forgiveness there. You might respond, “Yes, I have forgiven you.” Or “No, I really haven't forgiven you.” Or maybe even, “I'd like to forgive you, but I'm not there yet.”
With this in mind, I offer a closing contemplation that you can come back to again and again to help cultivate forgiveness:
There are many ways we have been injured, insulted, slighted, violated or forgotten. Knowingly or unknowingly, we have been abandoned, abused or both. Through thoughts, words and deeds we’ve been hurt or betrayed.
Let yourself remember ways this is true. You don’t have to forget what happened. See the images.
Is there is a place in you that genuinely would like to be free of this burden? If so, gently consider if there is something you need to say or do. No matter how big or small, is there something to be done? …
See if there is some way you demonize the person. Is there some way you can understand more sympathetically their human nature? Who are they? What forces drive them? …
What are the feelings left in your body and soul? Hurt, anger, fear, tension, vigilance? Don’t turn from these. Touch them gently. Hold them in your heart. …
Your awareness is like sunlight and rain that can soak into dark, dry places. Let your awareness settle in gently. Be patient. Forgiveness will grow in time.
Copyright, 2003 by Doug Kraft. First delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento on Sunday, January 12, 2003
I gave at least one talk on forgiveness each year, often right after New Years. Below are links to some of these talks: