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Can You Forgive?

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Can You Forgive?

Being honest is a good start.
Sharon  Salzberg
Sharon Salzberg More by this author
Oct 03, 2013 at 10:00 AM

How do we forgive those who have hurt us? How is it possible to reconcile our differences with individuals who have done us harm or hurt our families or those responsible for committing deliberate acts of violence? Is forgiveness imperative in all cases? Or is forgiveness a spiritual absolute we wrestle with but nearly always fall short of, unable to leave grievances behind or let bygones be bygones?

There are no simple answers to these questions. We should not be sentimental about forgiveness: it is often a difficult, knotty spiritual practice that requires us to move beyond an intensely felt but self-destructive mind-set, like swallowing a bitter pill. Furthermore, we commonly use the word forgiveness in an imperative sense, rendering it both compulsory and difficult.

We are told, for example, that until we forgive, we will never heal. We forget that forgiveness is a grieving process that often includes the expression and release of negative emotions, especially disappointment and anger. It’s no use trying to avoid these painful feelings. Forgiveness that is insincere, forced, or premature can be more psychologically damaging than authentic bitterness and rage.

Helen Whitney, the director of the documentary film Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate, has said, “We talk about forgiveness as if it were one thing. Instead, we should talk about forgivenesses. There are as many ways to forgive as there are people needing to be forgiven. We have a cultural tendency to want to turn forgiveness into a single, universally desirable thing. But forgiveness is more complex than that.”

This is important to understand. Like any form of healing, forgiveness has its own timetable and should not be rushed or engineered. We cannot force ourselves to “forgive!” any more than we can force ourselves to “let go!” What we can do is create the conditions in which forgiveness is likely to happen, beginning with full acknowledgment of the situation and how we are feeling. Until we are honest with ourselves about our pain or resentment, we cannot hope to leave it behind. Weaned on the notion that forgiveness is a selfless act executed for others at our own expense, we forget that compassion begins at home and that we must attend to our own wounds before we can open our hearts to others.

Many people confuse forgiveness with selflessness and wonder why they can’t seem to manage it. In attempting to transcend their own experience and “do the right thing,” many well-meaning people discover that they cannot forgive if they leave themselves out of the equation. When we understand forgiveness as a compassionate act toward ourselves that we extend to others as we’re able, we begin to grasp what Helen Whitney means by forgivenesses in the plural. Every situation requires its own skillful resolution.

If we wait until our motives are completely pure and residual feelings are a thing of the past, chances are we will forgive little in our lives. On the other hand, when we can see forgiveness as a survival tool, as well as a spiritual act, our requirements and self-expectations shrink to more realistic proportions.

Whether or not we hold that some acts are unforgivable, there is no doubt that some are so consequential that they can’t easily be included in any conventional approach to forgiveness. This does not mean that we can’t get beyond the actions of our enemies. As one Holocaust survivor put it, “I will never forget, and I will never forgive. But I brought up my children to love and not to hate.”

After having survived that kind of trauma, the commitment to teach your children to love instead of hate is testimony to inherent human goodness.

About Author
Sharon  Salzberg
Sharon Salzberg is co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. She has been a student of Buddhism since 1971, guiding meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. Sharon's latest book is The Kindness Handbook (Sou Continue reading