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Nourishing Ideas > Foundational Values > Forgiveness

By Beth Porter

Forgiveness is so intensely personal a matter that it tends not often to be spoken of or written about except in a religious context. Yet the giving and receiving of forgiveness is integral to the healthy functioning of the human community and to the happiness of each of us as individuals.

To ask forgiveness can be one of the most challenging and courageous human undertakings. It humbles us and makes us vulnerable. To ask forgiveness is to give up our power - to put ourselves at the mercy of the other. It can also be a building block of a wonderfully reciprocal relationship. To fail to ask forgiveness when there is a clear need to do so, damages a relationship.

It can be more difficult to ask forgiveness of those who have less power or status than we - children, people with disabilities, employees. Maybe because we feel even more ashamed when we have wounded someone who looks to us as a model. Or maybe we find it more humbling. The temptation is to rationalize our actions and not to seek forgiveness because, after all, we hold the power in the relationship.

In some successful marriages, the partners check in with each other at the end of each day. The inner freedom to ask and to give forgiveness is the bedrock of their relationship and becomes a model for their children. Habits and rituals can help us be attentive to keeping our relationships in good order. The Jewish practice of seeking forgiveness of others in preparation for the New Year, and then of God on Yom Kippur, comes to mind.

Using the image of community life as a triangle, Jean Vanier points out that forgiveness forms the base. The apex is celebration. We can only truly celebrate when the foundation of forgiveness is in place in our relationships. Celebration flows naturally when people feel free of the burden of having hurt one another.

People with intellectual disabilities often seem to forgive readily and not hold grudges for very long. Why? Probably because they have their priorities right. They tend to prioritize people over things and their relationships over their egos and ideals. They seem better at reading other people, more attuned to the human heart. Maybe they know more clearly what is true for all of us - that we need one another. Maybe also they accept more readily that one cannot always be one's perfect self.

To "work," forgiveness has to be asked for freely and given freely, so timing is important. If we find ourselves descending into bargaining and hair-splitting, we are probably not yet ready to enter into the kind of reconciliation that forgiveness implies. Forgiveness needs to be with no strings attached, and no expectations. If we are waiting for the other person to say, "You were right!" we may remain entangled in our hurt and unmet expectations for the rest of our lives.

Giving forgiveness: When another asks our forgiveness, we may begrudge giving it. Perhaps we want them to suffer a little more, or to better understand how they caused us pain or that what they did was wrong. Perhaps we think (mistakenly) that forgiving them implies that what they did was fine. Giving forgiveness freely can stretch our generosity to its limits. But not doing so when sincerely asked can harm us, eventually turning our hearts hard. To the extent that we are able to step into the other's shoes, understanding their life experiences and suffering, we will find forgiveness easier and we will nourish the seeds of compassion in our own hearts.

Forgiving someone who has harmed one we love can be more difficult than forgiving hurts to ourselves. We may feel we are being disloyal. It also raises moral and theological questions. We can choose to forgive the hurt we have suffered because our beloved was harmed. But can we forgive on behalf of another - perhaps someone who has died? Religions differ in how they interpret the prerogative of giving such forgiveness.
Forgiving when others don't even know they've hurt us is perhaps the highest form of forgiveness. It can ennoble us. And like all forgiveness, it frees us to get on with our lives and relationships in the present. Keeping tallies chains us to the past.

Forgiving ourselves can be most difficult of all. It affects our self-image, our expectations of ourselves, our pride - and it becomes a profound exercise in accepting our humanity. "You shall love your crooked neighbour, with your crooked heart," wrote W.H. Auden in one of his most loved poems. To be fully human is not to become perfect but to accept myself with all my crookedness and limitations, and to love others with their limitations. To let go of the past, neither beating nor defending ourselves, and to live in the present, releases our creative energies. And, of course, the more I know and can forgive my own failures and mistakes, the more easily I am able to forgive others.

Forgiveness and God. When there seems no one else to blame for their terrible misfortune, people sometimes blame God. The question then becomes whether they can forgive God. In such situations people may be driven to discard previously held theological beliefs and arrive at conceptions of the divine that enable them to integrate the mystery of evil in a satisfying way.

More common is our sense of needing divine forgiveness for our failings. We fall short not only in our relationships with others but in our relationship with the universe; in our attitudes and actions we do not rise to the trust that has been given us. All the faiths that embrace belief in a God who responds personally to humans include reassurances that God is both just and forgiving or compassionate. Usually a connection is made between God's generous forgiveness of us humans and the call to be forgiving of one another in the human community.

Forgiveness tends to figure strongly in the preparation for death, among those who have the opportunity to prepare for this last great event. Adherents of particular religions usually turn to a traditional religious rite or formula or prayer of confession that has as its focus reconciliation with God and, as much as possible, with others. However, whether a person practices a particular religion or not, there seems to be a nearly universal human hope to die at peace, with the implication being that one dies with a sense of reconciliation with the universe. This is usually deemed a "good death."

Beth Porter is Communications Coordinator for L'Arche Canada.

The Campaign for Love & Forgiveness

The Campaign for Love & Forgiveness is an inclusive, non-partisan initiative that invites everyone to consider how love and forgiveness can change our lives and our communities. This multi-year campaign, initiated by the Fetzer Institute, will encourage community conversations throughout America, with the goal of effecting meaningful change in individuals and communities. The campaign will use three documentaries, community and online conversations, a letter-writing initiative and community events and activities in support of a more loving and forgiving world. The first phase of the campaign focuses on love. The second phase will focus on forgiveness later in 2007.

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