“The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.”
Thomas S. Szasz
Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus
State University of New York Health Science Center
Forgiveness is often associated with religion, worse, of being a wholly religious idea or of religious origin.
Forgiveness is a human quality, not divine, although, it can feel very powerful when forgiveness is freely given – especially unencumbered by expectation or conditions that the other party apologize, change their behaviour or even minimally acknowledge their actions and/or the outcome/impact of their actions upon you.
Forgiveness is difficult, because we often think only in terms of what we cannot forgive – sometimes anticipating, sometimes after the fact. Lines drawn in the sand, lines that cannot be crossed or broken, lines lines lines, in intersecting circles of what’s forgivable and what’s not, often shifting depending upon who crossed them and under what circumstance and with what intention.
Although, we are generally more concerned with how actions impact us rather than what the person’s intention was – we understand the importance of intention, since that’s how we judge ourselves and asked to be judged.
Thus, forgiveness is partly being willing to accept the other person’s intention as more important or rather than the outcome as the determination of the relationship status. Asking and knowing the others intention may well be the first step towards forgiveness; it is the first step to mutual understanding.
That kind of forgiveness is with or under conditions – what if the person who causes you harm denies your reality of the harm and doesn’t claim the responsibility for their intention, action or outcome?
How can you forgive if the person won’t repent, won’t learn, won’t understand, won’t stop.
I think forgiveness is not about the other person or even your relationship with them – forgiveness is about you – what emotional qualities you want to carry, and grudges, even small ones, add up over time even if they are only in your mind and not made tangible by carrying grudge stones.
My spouse introduced me to the concept of grudge stones – in Newfoundland Canada, people carry a small symbolic stone when they carry a grudge, and when they are willing to let go of the grudge, they throw away the stone. The more grudges, the more stones, and they weight you down physically as the grudge weighs you mentally.
So forgiving someone who harms you – even and especially when they continue to do so – is a powerful thing and difficult to achieve – it’s easier to forgive with the passage of time and the ending of the offending behaviour – easier for one or a few instances – difficult for a continuum of never ending offensive behaviours. But at some point, you have to let go of the anger and fear and hatred as being too heavy a burden to carry through life – so if you can accept that you will forgive one day, why not make it sooner than later?
Even so, it was with some astonishment and much inspiration that I learned about the World Without Hate project.
It began with a post 9/11 hate crime and ended – well, part one ended the project continues – with the execution of the shooter but not until one of the surviving victims sought to have the death sentence commuted to life in prison without parole.
Because if we don’t forgive the haters, then they never have a chance to learn that they were wrong and ignorant to hate. They never get a chance to be better and to inspire or encourage others whom they can reach out to before they commit to the hatred and the dependent violence.
Because if we don’t forgive people who cause harm, how can they have the opportunity to redeem themselves instead of going from crime to time, crime to time, crime to time? What incentive, if not to be forgiven and have a chance to prove they have rehabilitated, do they have to change, to learn, to grow as people?
Forgiving is not forgetting, forgiving is just letting go and not carrying their burden of hate and misdeeds for them. Forgiving is handing them back that emotional baggage and letting them make it right – or at least attempting to the upper limit of their ability.
Forgiving is to allow yourself to let go of your hatred and fear of the person who harmed you, to not give them the power or ability to change you for the worst – to take away your trust and faith in humanity, to take away your trust in yourself and your ability to function, to interact and to participate – to connect without reservation to other people – to be able to make distinction and discerning judgments about the quantity and quality of those vital connections to other people without being tainted or undermined by past harms.
Forgiving is about trust – trusting yourself and trusting others – and trust is about certainty and purpose and meaning. Living authentically is to create and determine meaning, and losing trust – especially in yourself – is to lose everything that is dependent upon meaning – it makes no sense to allow others to take and undermine this – forgiveness restores it, because the act of forgiving is an act of meaning, making meaning and making sense of the meaning you must see in the world.
Trust is about expectations, you do not have to suddenly trust that those who have done you harm will cease to do so – especially if they deny your reality. Trust is expecting people to behave as you have observed them to do so – sometimes one person’s best really isn’t good enough – trust people to be consistent, not to be able to hold to a higher or your standard of behaviour, ethics and values.
Often when we feel betrayed or let down by people, it’s because they have done what they could be expected to do based on their behaviour and it’s that they have failed to attain a standard that we imposed on them unrealistically.
Trusting people doesn’t mean being vulnerable or allowing them to continue to harm you, trust just means you anticipate their behaviors based on their past performance and you adjust yourself accordingly. If you know a person can’t keep a secret, don’t share secrets with them. If you know a person can’t maintain self control, don’t rely or depend on them to do so – trust that people will behave in a continuous and consistent manner with past behaviour – no matter what the behaviour was – it will still disappoint you when they continue sub-standard or mediocre conduct, but at least it’s consistent and consistent is easier to cope with – and by changing your response, they may well surprise you with improved conduct.
Forgiving means being the change you want to see in the world, a world with less hate, less violence, less harm, less badness.
So forgive someone every day – and start with yourself – you can only be the best you can in the context and with the information you have and then resolve to do or be better when new information presents or the context changes. But you can only be your best when you forgive yourself and give yourself permission to be, and not carry other people emotional baggage or let them drag you down to their level.
Hold firm to your standards and ethics, forgive yourself when you slip so you can pick yourself up again and be better the next time.
I’ve long thought that the difference between Canada and the US could be understood by looking at our historical heroes.
In Canada, the frontier heroes were the North West Mounted Police, who later morphed into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and in the United States, the frontier heroes were the gunslingers.
I took a simplified understanding and drew the conclusion that Canadians are not only law and order but group oriented thinkers, which is why Canada is far more liberal than the US to the degree that the average Canadian conservative remains far left to the most extremely left American Democrat.
But I think I was wrong, America is far more law and order and group oriented than Canada – but not group in a we’re all one group and in this together like Canada is – but rather America is about groups with hard edges and all jockeying for position against the other groups.
The United States of America is not like Canada and her provinces – Canada is a country that is organized into provinces and territories, whereas the USA is more states that have aligned themselves in a federation of shared interests, each their own sovereignty in a meaningful way.
While America can band together in an all for one like fewer other countries when the cause is just – and the last such cause was World War II – America is a land of the individual as supreme in a way no other country views the individual. But, the rugged law unto themselves gunslingers of the frontier days to the gangbanger of today – and really, the outlaw biker, gansta, bang ganger, criminal is the modern manifestation of the gunslinger – is hardly an isolationist hermit, but a person deeply involved in their family, their extended criminal family and their ethnic community.
Because the state or city police forces are pitted against minority communities, the members of these communities are more likely to turn to organized criminals as the enforcers of justice, for protection, for law and order services and in return, the law abiding communities will protect the criminals as their own, because they are their own. Minority members can expect more honour and decent treatment from organized criminals than from local police who view all minorities with mistrust and as suspicious.
In the US, the frontier fays mentality of you have what holdings you have because you staked a claim, cleared the land and defended it against all others – be they aboriginals or claim jumpers or corrupt law officers beholden to wealthier claim holders. Legal justice was for those who could afford it.
One of my all time favorite movie lines was from Cat Ballou – a Jane Fonda sex kitten singing cowboy romp wherein her father is being bullied by the township to sell his farm to make way for the railroad and prosperity for the town – with her father to be the sole person taking the hit for the team or everyone else who will benefit – by way of explaining the injustice to her own hired gunslinger hand, Cat proclaims that first they put manure in her fathers well and worse “made him talk to lawyers.”
A line that underscores the lack of trust in the legal system and those who operate within it, because the legal system is complicated and slow – far less satisfying than hiring a gunslinger to defend your land or self or plain dispense frontier justice on your enemies. Criminal justice is swift and efficient and emotionally satisfying in a way that legal wrangling that is complex, slow and often doesn’t result in emotional satisfaction or anything approaching justice – people often settle or plea bargain or walk away just to be done with the process with the fewest lumps and bruises. The so called corrective process is often more psychologically scarring than the incidents that triggered it, which is why women often do not report being raped – bad enough to be raped, but to then have to prove it and not be believed or worse, be told it wasn’t rape at all and watch the perp walk away as if vindicated.
Taking the law into your own hands – either directly or by hiring someone – becomes understandable, almost forgivable if not supportable in the right circumstances. Many people related to the Subway Vigilant in New York City after he shot a few intimidating thugs – even if it was in the back as they ran away from him when he showed the would be muggers that he was armed – there was even a few people who very much related to the two Columbine shooters as being powerless geeks who were mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore thus employing the short cut of being infamous to become famous – rather than the longer and less certain path of talent and hard work.
But, this is where to me the line between American and Canadian kicks in. Where perhaps the line between conservative and liberal thinking kicks in.
First, not to say that “these things” do not happen in Canada. When I first heard of the 10 women shot in the engineering school, I thought, where in the US did that happen and was so shocked that I had to pull the car over when the radio repeated the news story and said it was in Montreal. Then there was the Ontario Bus company and a BC provincial employee in Kelowna. Workplace violence, the first was a victim of bullies and the second was a bully about to be taken to account and fired – both situations had multiple stages and warning signs, all ignored and not acted upon and the inevitable under the circumstances and the personalities involved occurred.
But in the USA, there’s hundreds of school and workplace shootings, by men and women and in Canada, they remain thankfully rare. Well, limited thankfully, the suicide rate for bully victims of schoolyard or workplace or process bullies is too high. The victims of process bullies are generally injured people who are unable to have the motor vehicle or workers compensation claims processed and the chronic pain and lack of settlement drives them to end their misery.
But what is it that makes Canadians seem more prone to suicide and Americans more prone to suicide by cop or by themselves after taking out other people?
A friend told me that he was driving late at night on an Alberta country road and a badger was caught in the headlights of the pick up truck. Badgers are ornery and tough creatures and my friend swears that it seemed like the badger knew that it wasn’t going to escape the truck because, instead of trying to flee or curl up defensively, it bunched itself up and launched at the truck bearing down, too fast to break and the truck ground to a halt – the badger dead and embedded through the grill and into the radiator, having taken the truck out with it.
Are Americans just of the mentality that they are going to take their tormentors out with them?
That because they cannot be sure of relying on the state or city law or the legal system, that they must retain the frontier mentality and be the law unto themselves?
I have always been confused by the portrayal in movies, TV and the news, of gangsters, mobsters and so forth, all being deeply religious people – yet, business is one thing and religion seems to be another. There is a cognitive dissonance, until you consider the history of religion, the blood soaked, corrupt, child molesting, crusading and genocidal history of religions and somehow the dissonance between organized crime and organized religion fades away. The mistrust of civil secular authority fades away and becomes comprehendible.
People assert that they only have to answer to deities in order to not have to answer to other people or to themselves. To ignore secular civil law and assert your own law, where you judge yourself by your intention and not your actions or their outcomes – like secular law does.
The gangster is after all, just supporting their family and protecting their extended family and community from those outsiders who don’t understand and are not part of the community. It’s not their problem if other people’s kids want to use drugs or buy illegal weapons to use on each other. It’s just business, their god gets that. The gangster’s morality is conservative – it’s about purity (often ethnic purity but sometimes sexual), it’s about authority (be it divine or arising from who’s holding the gun), it’s about group loyalty – and loyalty to authority is king and a kingmaker. Harm and fairness, measured response that’s for someone else to worry about. What’s not nailed down is mine and what I can pry loose wasn’t nailed down.
In this thinking, then taking a person’s life isn’t a big deal, god sorts them out, and the life taker is just helping with god’s plan. Life is short and just a dress rehearsal anyway.
It is harder, much harder for a liberal thinker, a free thinker a non-religious thinker to cause harm to another person, especially to take their life – the only life that we can know that any of us get. Harm and fairness are the basis for our morality and there is nothing more harmful and less fair than depriving a person of their life, especially knowing that any person is connected to a myriad of other people who care and love and are interdependent on them.
Seeing ourselves as an individual of consequence, a person who has and makes meaning and connections with other individuals, it is difficult then to justify frontier or vigilante or criminal justice – no matter the emotional and instant satisfaction – the longer term distress it would cause would drive a person mad to understand the harm that this instant gratification dispensing of justice would cause. A harm you can never make amends for, not even your own death, since that creates more waves of harm among your own loved ones.
So, with harm being off the table, the liberal, free thinking individual is left with the slow, complicated and often unjust corrective process and legal system that other people spurn as unjust, unwieldy, unfair and generally stacked against them.
Which leaves the free thinking individual only one option – to hold the system accountable until justice is served – to be an activist for social justice – and not only be the change you want to see in the world, but the karmic backlash that brings it about.
To be a martyr is a way that saints could never hope to approach – given that they suffered the slings and arrows – literally sometimes – with the expectation of being rewarded in the ever after – and to suffer the slings and arrows, to take it until you literally can take no more with only the faint hope of making a difference without an afterlife reward and not even a guaranteed reward in this life – but for the sake of doing the right thing by yourself and other people who are less able to take a principled stand, even in their own defense and assertion of personal sovereignty and dignity….that is to understand morals – right and wrong – in a way that those who merely follow the rules or make up their own to justify what they are doing or willing to do for the appearance of power or mere brutal power arising from position or circumstances or from faulty deities and corrupt representatives on earth – to stand in rightness without reward – that is grokking morality and rocking the world.
Revolution, not tradition, is what makes the world to be as it should.