Why Forgive?


Looking to Forgive and Beyond

Recently while discussing forgiveness practices in a workshop, I was asked about forgiving the unforgivable. It involved a little girl in New Mexico, Victoria Martens, who was senselessly and horrifically murdered. It’s the kind of awful story that forces nearly everyone to question how they could ever forgive something so terrible.

First, and most importantly, heinous behaviors are incredibly difficult to engage, in part because of the visceral and emotional effect they have on us. All of which makes it that much more challenging to consider forgiveness in any way. Truth be told, the closer we are to the person and the events, the less likely it is that the subject of forgiving should be brought up while the emotions and grief are so raw. It may be better to only support someone with their sorrow until a later date. Forgiving will just have to wait.

That said, in the years I have worked with hundreds of people seeking to forgive, or to release some grievance or injury, I’ve seen over and over again that few of us come to forgiveness out of principle or virtue, but rather out of suffering. The price any one of us might pay for unresolved wounds can be terrible in its own right: depression, life failures, broken relationships, self-inflicted injury, and even suicide. Worse still, when unresolved, such deep injuries are sometimes acted out upon others; the victim becomes the perpetrator.

I often say that what we’re seeking is to release injuries, wounds, or grievances that rule and ruin our lives. So to be honest, the first best reason to practice forgiving is intensely personal and practical.

To end suffering is a wonderful outcome. But there could be more. What if it were possible to come to such an understanding about others that we tap into an unknown well of compassion and empathy within us? What if ultimately our responses, our behavior, or our being were fundamentally altered or improved through forgiving? What if we could find that in coming to understand, our perspective is transformed and we realize there is nothing to forgive?

In my experience, this is the truth of forgiveness practice. Our understanding becomes so deep and rich, that we see everything that emerges into human behavior to be perfect for time, place and circumstance, even if it is horrific.

It is then that a miracle falls upon us as empathy and compassion take hold in us. Very likely we will see that were it not for good fortune, we could have been a perpetrator. With that comes incredible humility, and sometimes even great gratitude.

Finally, it becomes possible to act from a vantage that is free from injury or grievance. No wrongs are perceived, so nothing need be forgiven. It is very likely that our actions will then contribute to solutions, rather than continuing cycles of violence. And most certainly we will become more whole, which benefits everyone and everything.

Seeing True

While I am fortunate that the wounds in my own life did not rise to such a horrific degree, there were a number of times over a period of years where states of being unforgiving of others and myself caused me to want to kill myself. Actually, I never had the kind of will that would allow me to commit suicide, instead every month or so I would find myself rocking on a meditation pillow wrapped in a Navajo blanket asking God to kill me. As best I could tell, the suffering would never end. And for reasons that defied my understanding, I was simply unable to let go of my grievances.

I was compelled to engage my own inner demons. I could not kill myself, and yet I could not live without suffering. I wanted release, but was unable to let go. Eventually I found supporters and professionals who were able to walk the path of forgiveness with me and teach me. I became an avid student, practitioner and teacher out of necessity, not out of virtue.

The way of forgiving is not a theory for me. While the idea of healing and release may seem ridiculously idealized as I describe it, it is true to my experience. In the end, why to forgive myself and others became irrelevant. Even the how was unimportant. It was nothing but a stark clarity that either I must forgive or I would perish.

Seeing True in Action

The only place to begin our journey of forgiving is to identify some unsettled matter that is troubling us. If necessary, we may need to break through our own denial by looking honestly within ourselves. If we are avoiding others, or find ourselves regularly at odds with someone or some situation, or notice passive aggressive behavior on our part, or see clearly that we are abusing others in some way, it is quite likely we have something that needs our attention.

Once we’ve gained a glimpse of the person, circumstance or situation, we’ll need to engage it and explore it. This exploration must look beyond the seeming external cause, and turn attention to how it is we are hooked by it, and why we are unable to release it. Sometimes we will need assistance in diagnosis because we are too close to see clearly. Seek out a wise friend, a confidante, a minister or therapist. Healing can take some time, which may require that we remind ourselves of the harm we are perpetuating by holding onto something.

If a beginning is made, great possibilities for healing are ahead of us. Our outcomes are only limited by our ability to release more and more deeply.

Breaking the Silence

What Can We Do to Be Part of the Solution?

In a remarkable development, the unexpected byproduct of a toxic political environment is thousands of women (and a fair number of men) are breaking the silence about the sexual violations they have experienced. The pushback of denial is likewise remarkable in its own right.

In an interesting e-dialogue with a woman responding to one of my posts about the situation, she told me these private matters should not be made public, even by those who had been violated. They should be solved in private.

“But they are telling the truth,” I commented.

To which she replied, “That may very well be, but we certainly don't talk about it.”

Therein lies the problem. Silence allows us to remain comfortable, and thus to avoid facing a difficult reality for which we all have some degree of culpability. After all, cultural norms are a reflection of what we collectively practice or permit. We are the creators and sustainers of the culture.

Worse still, silence creates an environment of shame for those who suffer in the shadows. And because there is no means for discussion, those who need validation and support remain alone with their unhealed wounds and unresolved sorrows.

If we can not, do not, or will not speak of something that needs attention, there is simply no way it can be changed for the better.  There is no solution where there is no acknowledged problem. And sometimes, because of our ignorance or discomfort, we seek to silence or punish those who are suffering. Unresolved violence is met with the subtle and rippling effects of more violence.

I empathize with those who want to somehow avoid or minimize ugly realities. None of us like seeing the painful truth, or experiencing our own psychological discomfort. Regardless, since our denial is not effective, it is time to take a deep breath and engage the challenges we face.

Seeing True

As long as there is silence, there will be shadows, shame and suffering.

Only light can vanquish darkness. Let truth be given a voice and an ear.

Seeing True in Action

Are you talking to someone about your own injuries and history? A trusted confidante, spiritual advisor, minister or priest, or therapist? If not, can you commit to making a start? Sooner rather than later?

Many of us can’t begin to listen well until we’ve first begun to speak our own truth and tell our own stories.

Then, are you listening well? Do you make yourself available to others, or ask sincerely after their well being? If your skills are not well developed, can you seek out tools or training? Are you able to at least get underway toward becoming a more effective listener?

It is so very easy to allow our selves to be oblivious, or to retreat into an undisturbed comfort zone. Strangely, we will find no real freedom there.