Forgiveness seems difficult because often it is confused with condoning the action that has harmed us. Or, we think that we are obliged to love the perpetrator as though “love” meant affectionate regard. These misunderstandings make forgiveness nearly impossible, if not downright repugnant. To forgive in these contexts would open us to charges of weakness and moral cowardice. So to appear strong, we cultivate hatred and thus lose our humanity.
The problem with condoning a harmful action or feeling affection for the perpetrator is that both of these postures are emotionally reactive. Siding with the wrongdoer is borne of fear—if I act like I’m one of them, maybe they will leave me alone. Or, if I pretend to like them, maybe they will like me back and stop hurting me. Both of these strategies give power away to the aggressor and can only perpetuate the problem. Therefore, they have nothing whatsoever to do with forgiveness.
The concept of forgiveness can also be misconstrued to mean excusing the malicious acts of another person, to simply overlook them as though they did not matter—to “rise above” them. But just as anger cannot be ignored or suppressed, neither can the negative traits of another be swept aside as though they did not exist. Instead, they can be allowed to be what they are. Instead of resisting what you do not like in the other person, give it space—allow it to be what it is. Give, as in give way. Do not resist—do not try to superimpose your sense of right and wrong onto the other person. If you do, you will always be disappointed, and eventually your disappointment will turn into indignation.
Indignation blinds us to what is and makes us ineffective. In the movie, The Godfather, Michael Corleone says, “Never hate your enemy—it affects your judgment. ”We are offended by those things that reveal our own weaknesses. Real strength is never—can never be—offended. So look for the lesson. Your adversary is your teacher.
This is the opposite of pressurizing or trying to contain what other people are putting out. Not pressurizing them is the same as not judging them. Judgment is trying to force other people to be as you would have them be. No one responds well to that. Do you?
Forgiveness acknowledges that there is more to the other person than you are seeing and is therefore an aspect of humility. Carelessness, malice, greed, ignorance—these are all symptoms of deeper problems. We cannot ignore them, but we can look past them to see what is really there. The ego is always in competition with other egos. When we look for the divinity in the other person, we are bypassing his or her ego, and our indignation begins to fall away.
What can you accurately say about a violent person? What is the “what is” of him? Violence is the outgrowth of anger. Anger is the outgrowth of the sense of having been wronged. The sense of having been wronged is the outgrowth of the violation of a preconceived idea of how things should be. You might call this the wounded wounder—it is a human tendency to act out the abuses suffered earlier in life. This doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but it does give us a way to understand it, and by understanding it we can deal with it more effectively.
By understanding bad behavior, we demonstrate humility by putting our energy into effective action rather than letting it inflame our already indignant ego.
Here is another way to understand a violent person. Take, for example, the pathological killer. When people are split within themselves, they tend to see their separated part as the enemy. But in their insanity, they are unable to understand that their tormentor is a part of themselves, so they project it outward onto other people. By killing the other, they mistakenly believe that they are killing the part of themselves that is causing them pain. This is obviously insane, but such is the belief of a fragmented personality.
This is why in hostage situations, hostages are encouraged to talk to their abductors, to try to get them to see that they are real people rather than faceless, nameless “things” to be abused. The more real the other person becomes in the mind of the perpetrator, the harder it is to project his inner demons upon them.
Again, this is not an excuse for deranged behavior, but rather a way to understand and thereby be more effective in one’s response to a dangerous situation.
Jesus said not to fear those who can kill your body but to be [damned afraid] of those who can cast your soul into hell. No one can cast our soul into hell, but they can induce us to do that to ourselves. And that is the danger Jesus warns us about. When we regard an insane person as an “evil” person, we start to hate him. Hatred is the “fire of hell.” Hatred corrupts the hater, making him identical, spiritually speaking, to the object of his hatred.
Mastering forgiveness does not mean there won’t be a fight—in only enables you to keep a clear head. So, never go into a fight blindfolded. The violent person believes that there is something wrong with the world and is attempting to fix it. If you know that, you are in a much better position to deal with him effectively.
According to George Lamsa, expert in Aramaic and Middle Eastern idioms, the saying, “Turn the other cheek,” means do not start a fight—do not react. Reaction is powerless, because you are letting the other person state the terms of engagement. It is better to walk away and wait for the opportunity to begin a new round, one that will allow you to take the high ground.
Historically, the fiercest warriors have been the Samurai—the armies of the warlords of feudal Japan. The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, tells the story of one Samurai sent to assassinate the rival warlord of his master. He takes the warlord by surprise, and just as he is about to cut off his head, the desperate warlord spits in his face. The Samurai warrior immediately sheaths his sword and walks away, leaving the warlord unharmed. Why? Because it is against the Samurai code of honor to kill in anger.
Forgiveness abates anger. And while anger can induce us to act, to pry us out of a rut, it must be quickly sublimated into willpower, or it will work against us and lead us into bigger problems.
Action is powerful when it operates at the level of cause. But re-action only gives power away. Reaction makes us want to hurt the other person back, instead of focusing our attention on taking an appropriate response. Turning the other cheek does not mean letting the other person continue to hurt you. What would be the purpose of that?