New Year’s Day is over. Have you broken your Resolutions yet?
If you’re like me, the answer to that question is “yes,” so this is a good time to think about forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t a skill you can master and employ whenever you wish, or a tool you can use the way you might use an umbrella or a fork. Rather:
- Forgiveness is a natural response to reality that arises from a deep understanding of the nature of life and how best to live it.
- Forgiveness isn’t a way to escape from your past or to forget it; it’s a way of not dragging your past into your present.
- Forgiveness isn’t a way to avoid suffering; it’s a way to avoid clinging to suffering.
Life is a blend of joy and sorrow, happiness and horror. Forgiveness won’t change that. But it can free you from dragging sorrow into your moments of joy, and prevent you from allowing moments of horror to corrode your moments of happiness.
There are two keys to living life with forgiveness at its core. The first is found in Ecclesiastes (3: 1-8).: “To everything there is its season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to plant, and a time to uproot… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance… a time to embrace, and a time to let go… a time for love, and a time for hate… a time to be born, and a time to die.”
Everything has its time, its moment for arising and its moment for passing on. You cannot have one without the other. Just as front goes with back, so weeping goes with laughing, and loving goes with hating. What you can have—all you can have—is one thing after another, so the key to navigating life well is to know what time it is: to know when to laugh and when to mourn, when to love and when to hate. When you know what the moment requires, you know how to act in it. And when the moment passes so does the action that it required. Forgiveness is what happens when you know and live with the arising and passing of time.
Forgiveness is the art of living life with clarity and humility moment to moment. Forgiveness requires you to know that everything has its time; that everything that can arise will arise; that there is no escaping joy or suffering. And that knowing leads us to the second key to forgiveness: you are rarely if ever the target.
Imagine you’re canoeing on a lake and a thick fog rolls in. Fearful that you will get lost, you paddle for the dock as quickly as you can. Along the way you notice another canoe with the same goal, but this one is on course to ram you. You start shouting to warn the paddlers off, but they pay you no heed. You try to avoid them, but they adjust course and seem intent on hitting you. And when they do, you grab the other canoe, and thrust your head into it screaming your outrage. It is then you realize the canoe is empty. Somehow it had gotten loose of its moorings and, caught by the current, could do nothing other than what it did: ram you. It did what it did because it couldn’t do anything else.
What is true of this canoe is true of most people as well. Most of us most of the time are caught up in the currents of our lives, doing what we think will make us happy, and often causing ourselves and others unintended suffering in the process. When you realize this, forgiveness is axiomatic. There are going to be moments in your life when pain just happens. The actors are locked into their scripts and the drama unfolds and you get hurt. But the canoe is empty: no one set out to hurt you, and you didn’t set out to hurt anyone else. It just happened because that is what life is: things just happening.
When you know this, forgiveness just happens as well. Forgiveness is difficult only when we imagine things could be other than they are. But they can’t. Given all the conditions at play in any given instant what happens is what must happen.
This is difficult for many of us to accept. We want to believe that people could have acted differently than they did, but this only works in hindsight. People do what they do because, at the moment of doing it, that was all they could do.
We make decisions based on partial data because complete data is never available, and because we do so unexpected things happen. We choose our actions based on conditioning rooted in both genes and memory, and because we do so we are never truly free. We do what we do because doing it makes sense at the moment.
Once we realize that most of the hurts we receive and even cause are unintended, that we are all doing the best we can with what we have to work with at any given moment, forgiveness is choiceless. When we know that we are all conditioned by the past, compassion arises within us, and forgiveness is how we express it. We hold no grudge because we know our suffering is rarely the other person’s goal. And even when it is, forgiveness arises for we know it could not be otherwise. This doesn’t mean you can’t change, grow, or mature; this doesn’t mean that you should excuse hurtful behavior; it only means that what happens does so because nothing else could happen in that moment.
Forgiveness isn’t something you need to cultivate, but the natural response to a truth you need to know: everything has its time.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, PhD teaches religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University and is the director of Wisdom House Center for Interfaith Studies in Nashville. He has written over two dozen books and a new series, Rabbi Rami Guides: Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler, available at Spirituality & Health Books and Amazon.com; see www.rabbirami.com.
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