The Value in Forgiveness
On the heels of a Thanksgiving, at least in Canada, and due soon for my neighbours to the south, it is a season to give gratitude to what we are fortunate to have. In doing so, we can better extend the limits of our concern to others.
September into the early days of October was filled with many wonderful Jewish holidays for me, too. What can I appreciate and where can I do better?, I asked myself each and every day. It was a serious and yet joyful time of recollecting the flaws in my individual humanness and in our collective humanity all the while appreciating the significance in Creation and our commitment to advocate the life process with good, or positively contributing, heart works.
It seems rather reasonable then to say that it is impractical to gather in a meaningful harvest without the ingredient of gratitude bundled in. Gratitude balances our lives. It also expands what we can enjoy around us. Bitterness does not. If not contained, or flushed through, it damages and eventually infects and soon poisons the best of our fruit. When our hearts are clear and filled with a compassionate measure, our best potential has a clearer canvas in which to propel our day forward. Our gratitude bank can then also more efficiently rise. It would follow then from that, also, that forgiveness for the things we have not mindfully done and giving our forgiveness to things beyond our control is part of harvesting a gratitude package, too.
How then like the autumn leaves in their amazing and elegiac beauty can we stay loving to matters in life that are fleeting as we artfully let go? The Jewish rite relates to the process of forgiveness as an act of teshuvah, or, a returning. A return to what, you may ask? It is about returning to a clean slate of understanding and trust to things between people, and more deeply returning your own heart to that state of approach upon which we are when we first came into this world, meaning open, beautifully vulnerable in our sweet humanity, receptive, and ready to do good.
There is an interesting contradiction to each and every one of us though because in our humanness we are also born to err. Everyone makes mistakes. If you look at the great heroes and leaders of a day or reference Bible stories, you glean that people—some really great people — made many mistakes, large and small. The difference is that they chose to learn and grow from them. What makes someone great then is not that they lead a perfect life but how they teach themselves to improve and refine their hearts for the better through an imperfect one.
The instruction in such stories at a deeper level, also, is that we all have work to do. The endpoint is not that we accept our flaws assuming we do nothing with them. To say that my flaws are okay and that your flaws are okay and that everyone makes mistakes so they are okay is just plain wrong. Else, there will be no peace in this world. Peace only comes through what you and I heal. No one wants to hear you have work to do. But we all do.
Sadly, we live in a culture that makes apologizing shameful. Yet shame is incongruous with the truth that we have all been born to err. When we become inured to make ourselves open to the fact that we err, we get in our own way. But wouldn’t it be really nice if we each chose to not get in the way of our own humanity?
Imagine what a more wonderful world we would all live in if we did not obfuscate or delude what is our responsibility to fix for ourselves. Healthy vulnerability says I am still a good person and at the same time I acknowledge I may have used bad judgment that needs correcting. Apologizing is actually a forward motion. Done well, it lets us make a commitment to correct things on an important metaphysical level and love yourself more. When we don’t apologize, we only risk hurting not just ourselves and others but future cycles of interrelations and future generations as well.
A bike can’t go unless you sit on board and use your own muscles to pedal and fire your brain in a specific way to turn the wheel and direct it. Most of us have parked away our childhood bicycles. To apologize well is like those early rides of applied work past a fearful and often clumsy sensation and transforming the unconnected pieces into a new place of having set yourself free. A bicycle carries gracefully when we are in for the ride sincerely and without any unencumbered agenda tacked on. The same goes for how we apologize. Most of us trip our own bike so to speak because we don’t make one at all or because when we do we do not do it sincerely. We tend not to say sorry or feel sorry because we don’t see the other person as an equal and we tend not to because we confuse love for shame when we ask our own hearts to be found.
The Jewish view as well as the many Zen traditions use mistakes to grow forward — for we all know how an insincere I’m sorry never works. We hear it and we feel empty, giver and receiver, at both sides. It doesn’t matter our age or the color in our heart. Curiously, guilt is not a Jewish idea. Surprise! Guilt is paralyzing and self-absorbing. It is a state that fills the heart with negativity and self-loathing. This state then infects others whom we care for and love. Remorse, on the other hand, is good. It lets us know we have alienated ourselves from our deeper roots and of having abandoned our own inner selves. Remorse can include a sense of anguish or feeling lost or trapped or despaired. It lets you let go of the shame and embarrassment and negativity you carry and repair and move on for better.
Jewish and Zen traditions neither encourages depression to such matters of human weakness either. The reasoning is that depression often consumes you away from the tremendous energy necessary for introspection and honest self-improvement. Prolonged sadness is not healthy for the mind, the body or connected generations either. So when you ask for forgiveness, it should be done with a sense of remorse joined to a humble joy that you are elevating your heart to a more beautiful connection with others and within yourself.
For if we said to another, “I’m sorry for what I did and I wish I did better and I am going to work on doing just that now by becoming more conscientious and catching myself now” imagine how much pain and unnecessary conflict could free. And when we embark on such a personal path, we imbibe on a hugely empowering level that the choices we make in life do not own us but that we own them.
I have learned in my life that in any spat both become losers. I have learned how much damage we do when we are not forgiving. I have learned how apologies that are sincere can turn around great insults. And I have learned that things are never a sacrifice if it makes someone else happy, too. I have learned how much damage we do when we are not forgiving. I have also learned how freeing it is when we can take charge of things sincerely for ourselves regardless of the wrongdoing we perceive or receive from others.
What can we uncover about ourselves from our mistakes? How can we lessen the damage we cause by not forgiving things within ourselves that we put on others? What can we thank of difficult situation that lets us reset and appreciate our values and standards? And how can we thank each challenge of mistake or error that lets us know who we really are?
Photography by Marina Mashaal