Some Other Lenses
Perhaps the most common articles on forgiveness are those that offer ’10 tips towards forgiving’ or ‘The four principles of forgiving’ or the ‘286 steps towards a forgiving life’ … basically, some random number that then relates somehow to forgiving. Below, we’ve compiled some of our favorite tips and frames in a scattershot fashion – meant to inspire thoughts, and offer potential reframes from the smaller impasses.
Don’t Get Rid of Guilt
Guilt is the general term given to a set of emotions that arise within ourselves when we have deviated from who we want to be. Feeling guilt is the small tugging at the back of our mind that something is off about a choice that we made, or a situation that we created. Refusing to feel guilt, or wanting to move past guilt, is like treating the symptoms instead of treating the cause.
Shame, on the other hand, is a pessimistic association of the actions with the self as a whole (i.e., ‘feeling worthless’). Shame is also associated with defensive strategies like denial and avoidance. Holding on to shame, and believing that you’re a bad person at your core can actually undermine efforts to change – as it tends to lead to despair (dead-end).
Guilt, by contrast, involves truly feeling our ‘negative’ emotional reaction and understanding the relationship between our actions and the consequences.
This falls under 100% responsibility, and offers that avoidance and denial are paths away from forgiveness and power. Owning up, like 100% responsibility, is the process of recognizing our part in the event.
If we are the ‘perpetrator,’ it also invites us to recognize that we have a responsibility to the emotional health of the other person. We can ‘own up’ to the fact that calling that person a pejorative term likely hurt them. Yes, they can take responsibility for their own reactions – and their own journey might take them there – and we are not beings in isolation.
Owning up to how we interact with others, and receiving the feedback on those interactions (both verbal and non-verbal) is key to our own development.
Vengeance and Forgiveness are both Human Nature
Back to some brain chemistry and anthropology, we’ve recently found that there are hard-wired biochemical responses that lead to revenge – and these pathways are also present in primates. Speculation around these pathways suggests that evolutionarily, those primates that assert dominance and enact vengeance are the ones who maintain a safe environment for the rest of the clan.
However, we’ve also found that forgiveness also has its pathways as well as its corollaries in primate behavior. Again we speculate that forgiveness is necessary for keeping the group together, allowing for minor and major transgressions in ‘normal’ behavior, and ensuring the liveliness of the group.
What does this all mean? It means that humans have the capacity for bother vengeance and for forgiveness hardwired in to us – and that we similarly have the ability to choose one over the other. If we would like to be more forgiving, we simply need to practice and strengthen the pathways that are already present within our genes. It’s the ‘Two Wolves’ story – on an evolutionary level!
Pay Your Dues
A trickier concept, because it is so closely related to punishment – and yet there is a healthy way to make restitution for past actions.
In punishment, we’re assigned a random ‘bad’ thing in order to balance out the ‘badness’ we did in the world. You stole someone’s TV? Spend four years locked up in a place where you won’t be able to steal – and think about what you did!
Forgiveness, in its power-with structure, treats restitution slightly differently. In this case, the restitution arises naturally out of balanced requests that may or may not happen when the two parties meet each other. Let’s say someone stole your TV, and through the forgiveness process – you released your attachment to a certain story, opened up your options, and owned your emotions. You then have an opportunity to meet the other person – within forgiveness, this conversation would have an open and curious tenor – you would be wondering about the other person, and potentially but not necessarily invested in supporting them through their own journey to forgiveness. During this conversation, you might make a request – that the other person returns your television – again, the request is made in the 100% sense, in which you’re willing to hear no, and then collaborate on the difference.
Paying dues or restitution is never about ‘having the upper hand’ or ‘deserving something.’ It is about opening a space for the other person (or yourself) to balance out and symbolically or literally amend the past story through writing a new present one.
Foster Empathy for the Victim
A potentially easy frame if we think of ‘legitimate’ victimhood – or those whom we would normally associate with being aggrieved. It may be easy for us to feel empathy for the victim of abuse, for example. And, this becomes a trickier tool when we deny the victimhood of the other person.
For example – if someone overdosed from a drug you sold them, and the parents were furious at you, claiming they were the victims of your drug-peddling. You might hear inside you a voice saying ‘but your son bought the drugs! And took to many… he’s an idiot… I’m a businessman.’ Or you might think ‘wait! The victim here is the guy who overdosed – you two are just bad parents who didn’t keep a close enough eye on your son.’ Or even ‘you’re just blaming me because you’re too mad at yourselves to realize the truth – that your son was a screw-up’ In these phrases, we’re shifting our responsibility in the moment, and denying the reality of those parents. In doing so, we’re perpetuating a cycle of vengeance and anger.
In this case, cultivating empathy for the victim looks more like tuning in to the world of the parents and leaving behind my own excuses, defenses and realities. This does not mean that I agree, or that I’m validating the truth of the parents. It simply means that I’m validating the experience that they’re having, and empathically connecting with what may be coming up for them at this time. In this movement, we’ve planted the seeds for forgiveness and taken the defensiveness and stonewalling out of our own lives. We’ve moved to a place of peace and eventually, that peace might lead to forgiveness.
The past becomes the future
The second half of this statement is “…for as long as you let it.” If we have powerful moments still painfully present for ourselves, then those past events are going to continue to affect how we engage with our future – until we make a movement (however gradual) to interrupt that cycle. Remember When memory controls us, then we are the puppet of the past.
If we let go of the pain of the memory, then we can have the memory, without the trigger. To think through this more, check out the story earlier in this manual where a person is beaten up in a bar – how does that action continue to control his actions? Similarly, allegorically, think through the ‘Red Lion’ story – our ‘red lion’ can be a past trauma that keeps coming around, because we have yet to forgive.
We are all Wounded
One of the premises of tonglen, and a tricky statement to embrace in its entirety.
What does this mean? It means that judging people’s performance based on a hypothetical state of perfection, or affirming that if you were them you would have made a different/better choice, are two ways to shut-down your personal growth. These are road-blocks to development that carry a strong sense of ‘should.’
The alternative, however, is not utter permissibility. It’s just as self-defeating to affirm that ‘no one is responsible for anything ‘cause we’re all messed up!’ or that ‘they were trying their best, so I can’t fault them.’
Between rigid perfectionism, and apologetic permissibility, is a state in which we honor and appreciate that we are all wounded in some fashion – that there is not a human on the planet who has not experienced suffering of some kind – and to use that fact as a bridge to build empathy with those around you. Plant the seeds of forgiveness in the acknowledgement that to be human is to strive to do the best within the circumstances, and to carry within us pain and hurt even as we seek out peace and balance.
Forgiveness, like grieving, has its stages
When we’re in pain, we may be tempted to embrace solace and temporary respite. The quick goodness of a lovely possibility may be attractive, especially over the long-term process of deep forgiveness. And yet, forgiveness is not a quick-fix. It moves through steps, as we have seen, that can take time – sometimes a lot of time. Forgiveness involves patience with ourselves, and with those around us – and it involves sitting in spaces of discomfort and pain, often for longer than we may wish.
And, forgiveness is about learning and practicing those spaces of patience. Forgiveness is about sitting in those places of pain and finding the peace and rawness therein. Rushing through to the end, or ‘uprooting your forgiveness tree,’ will not offer you the balance and growth you’re striving for.
True forgiveness is a process, more than a destination.
Related to the above, forgiveness is not about getting to forgiveness (paradox ahoy!). Forgiveness is about the journey between your pain and your release. In any event that occurs within our life in which forgiveness comes into play, each step we take is as valuable to our overall development and peace as the previous step. Step One for example, can take weeks, yet in that week of honing our attention, and being mindful to our emotional state, we’re practicing skills that will serve us for a lifetime. Each step, and each situation, brings with it new and valuable lessons about our being in the world. Focusing on the destination of ‘forgiving’ or ‘being forgiven’ will blunt those lessons in the present.
This principle also invites us to remember that each moment of forgiveness occupies a place within our larger life. We go on from each moment to a new one, and those new moments might be filled with new opportunities to forgive, and be forgiven. In this way, forgiveness is a pattern and trajectory throughout our entire lives – rather than a onetime place that we arrive in. See also ‘soul nature.’
For more ‘lists’ and ‘tips’ see the following: