If You’re Not Doing This, You’re Forgiving Wrong
True Forgiveness: Correcting Misapplications of Forgiveness
I find that forgiveness is often misunderstood. I often misapply it (but I’m forgiving myself for it).
The First Mistake: Forgiveness Means Someone Else Screwed Up
First, there is the common notion that forgiveness means pardoning someone for the wrong they have committed. For example: You lied to me, and that is wrong. I forgive you (but I still think you are a piece of sh** for lying and I am awesome for forgiving you).
As you can see this is still a very judgemental and conflicted stance. I do not think this it will help anyone. Most of the time this form of “forgiveness” is a very subtle way of repressing feelings of anger, betrayal, vulnerability, or even guilt. If they are still wrong, how you can let go of anger? And if you hold on to anger, how can be happy? As the Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
What can we do instead?
True Forgiveness is Forgiving Yourself
True forgiveness is realizing that no wrong can be done, or ever has been. It may sound crazy, and I do not really know how to explain it outside of a spiritual context. Our truest nature is one that is invulnerable; our true self is perfectly innocent.
Maybe you conceive of this in Christian terminology as God’s mercy, symbolized by Jesus’s sacrifice, maybe you think of this in terms of enlightenment. In all of these conceptions, the world of form, the material world we believe in, the thought that we can possibly screw something up and commit a sin or violation of act of bad karma, is always an illusion, maya, subverted and superseded by the truth of the Divine. In this truth we are all one—equally loved, equally liberated. This is the point of view that true forgiveness comes from.
From this point of view we can see that when someone commits some act of violence—let’s stick with the act of lying—it is just a piece of information. It is inherently neutral. It is in this recognition that true forgiveness arises. Because the true forgiveness is always forgiving yourself.
Shifting from the Victim to the Creator
Now we see that we have given value to this neutral piece of information, thereby unconsciously creating our own unhappiness. The forgiveness is in recognizing the projection of our own fears, angers, and guilts and letting those go. Maybe you let those go through awareness and acceptance, maybe through connecting with the higher power and our universality, maybe through connecting with the feeling of tension in your body. The process is only important in that you find one that works for you.
This recognition is empowering. We are no longer the victim of someone else’s whims, someone who will inevitably lie again and therefore incite more judgment and forgiveness. Seeing how we are creating our own unhappiness by levying importance on some piece of information is what liberates us from the pain of “being wronged.”
But what about the lie!? That person should be punished and reprimanded, right?
The Second Mistake: Forgiveness Means I Should Not Intervene
This is where we get to the second common misunderstanding and misapplication of forgiveness: that forgiveness means non-action.
I cannot tell you how pervasive this misunderstanding is in spiritual and self-help circles. I cannot tell you how often I have made this mistake, and continue to make it. It is a simple concept but complex and nuanced in practice, because there is no set formula for action.
As we identified earlier, the act of true forgiveness has nothing to do with the physical world “out there.” It is an internal process that you do by shifting your perception of information and by shifting your perception of yourself. Well, since forgiveness does not have to do with the world “out there” is also does not say what to do with the world “out there.” Forgiveness has no prescription for letting someone go or locking them up; that is outside of its domain.
Let’s go back to the example of lying, and imagine it is a co-worker. Should you continue working with them? Should you call them out on it? Should you quit? Should you talk to your boss, or the HR people, or fire them? Should you call the police? Their mom? Or should you ignore it and do nothing? If you think “forgiveness” means that you do nothing, you are making a mistake. You are confusing what forgiveness is really about and perpetuating unhappiness by making it “out there.” You are giving away your power.
It is Impossible to Do Nothing
It is impossible to do nothing in the experience of being alive. You can sit in a chair, you can breathe, you can stay very still, you can go to sleep, you can avoid talking to someone, but these are all actions. They are not “nothing.” So when you react to a lie or any other “offense,” you are never choosing between “doing something” or “not doing something,” since “not doing something” is completely impossible. You are choosing between a variety of options of what to do.
What do you do?
There is no way to discuss specifics since every situation is different, but we can discuss principles to uphold. We look for the relative truths in absence of universals, guided by the understanding of true forgiveness.
Principles of Forgiveness
1. Whatever choice you make, try to make it with love.
This still may be a confrontation (as in the case where someone has committed a crime), it just comes from a motivation of care instead of fear.
2. Try to communicate it in a way the person can understand.
Yelling at someone might be called for—if that is the only way they will listen. Other times you write a thoughtful note. Sometimes you have to honk your horn in traffic. Other times you wave. Again, it is not so much the action that is important but the motivation behind it. Are you coming from a place of forgiveness or judgement? Love or fear?
This is another place the integral view is useful, because even those of us that speak the same language do not always see the same world.
3. Remember to take care of yourself.
One very common mistake for people trying to practice true forgiveness is to take care of the other person in lieu of taking care of themselves. “I can deal with this lie,” for example, “it’s not that much skin off of my back.” If it is not that much skin off of your back, then it should not be a big deal to confront the person and ask for a change, right?
If confrontation seems difficult, then this is a perfect area to grow. This is a perfect place to practice true forgiveness. How am I projecting my own fears and pains and desires out onto the world? How is that keeping me from the most appropriate action, one that would equally honor and love myself, the other person, and the world at large?
Forgiveness is an internal process of becoming aware of your own judgments, fears, anxieties, guilts, and so on, viewing them without judgement, and remembering that your true identity is one of perfect love.
From this perspective any specific action—confrontation, reconciliation, conversation, setting boundaries, etc.—could or could not be appropriate given the situation. There are no rules for what to do, but the best actions are usually motivated by love, communicated in a way people can understand, and take care of the forgiver as much as the forgivee.