In modern society, forgiveness is countercultural. In the human breast, it is counterintuitive. In our country, it is also ‘counter-profit’: all one needs to do is watch television, movies and video games. The vast majority involve counterattack, preemptive assault, ‘getting even.’ Every age, ethnic group, and economic category is targeted by those who create and market ‘revenge mayhem.’ I am sure someone is even now creating a video game for geneticists and quantum physicists: “I will spit on your genome. That will avenge your stepping on my Higgs boson.”
People shy away from forgiveness for reasons other than the joy of retribution. Some secularists scoff at it merely because it is a Christian virtue (conveniently ignoring that it is listed as one of the Hindu cardinal virtues as well). Many people fool themselves into ignoring an offense, either given or taken (the ‘no harm, no foul’ concept).
Government has also added its usual pinch of schizophrenia: criminal trials are separated from the true victim. Our legal system, emerging from as long ago as William the Conqueror, has taken the status of ‘victim’ from the victim. I understand the economics and the imperatives of this, but consider- an accused rapist (John Doe) faces trial on a court docket announcing ‘The people of (whatever state) against John Doe.’ If convicted, the rapist makes no reparation to the victim. If he is paroled, it is essentially a forgiveness given by the same government entity. The parole board may take the victim’s input into consideration, but it is not the victim who ultimately decides. So, as much as we talk about forgiveness, it is surprisingly difficult to understand; much less so to practice.
I think it important to understand that a failure or refusal to forgive does not result in a neutral state. The absence of forgiveness is either bitterness or revenge (to me, ‘revenge’ is a reprisal against the offender; ‘bitterness’ is reprisal against ourself. One way or another, someone is a target) Confucius said ‘Before embarking on a journey of revenge, build two graves.’
First, we must state what forgiveness is not. It is a decision to not seek revenge. It does not dismiss atonement, reparation, compensation. Nor does it mean that one invites a repeat of the same offense. Much has been written about ‘turning the other cheek.’ Most of it is wrong, ignoring the social climate and linguistic implications of the era in which it was spoken. You can forgive someone who has stolen from you, but forgiveness does not compel you to leave your money lying around for a second theft. Neither the Bible nor any other scripture of which I am aware compels you to be an idiot.
While it is better for forgiveness to be preceded by an apology from the offender, it is not imperative. Forgiveness, however, should somehow be accorded the status of a selfish act. Yes, selfish. The major world religions emphasize the spiritual benefits of forgiveness (excluding Islam, which encourages it between believers, but condemns the forgiving of nonmuslims). I would further point out the health benefits.
Judeo-Christian scripture is a wealth of sound medical advice and, as a physician, it intrigues me. I would submit that forgiveness should also be included in the medical wisdom of scripture. Consider this: when you refuse to forgive a slight, an insult, an injury; you continue to relive the injury. Your stomach churns, pulse races, hands perspire. You lose sleep at night, fantasizing about ‘getting even’ (like spitting on the offender’s genome, for example).
Meanwhile, the offender is probably sleeping very well, thank you very much. You are essentially permitting yourself to be a victim of ongoing offense. It has not been until recent decades that researchers and medical professionals have begun to extol the health benefits of forgiveness. Bitterness is toxic to the human spirit.
Forgiveness is easier once you understand that it is not something you are conferring on the offender. At is most basic; forgiveness is saying ‘I forgive you because you are not important enough for me to permit you to affect the rest of my life.’ If that sounds like dismissal, that’s because it is. It is ‘Forgiveness 101.’ It gets you out of the manure marinade in which you live.
The Judeo-Christian concept is ‘Forgiveness 102’- this is where you release the offender from the bondage of their transgression, whether they acknowledge it or not. This benefits both the offender and the victim. Sound difficult? Yup, not just difficult, but impossible if you are using only human power. That’s when you call in the spiritual cavalry. I recommend the cavalry from Calvary, but that’s just me.
Dennis Garvin is the author of, ‘Case Files of an Angel’ and co-author of ‘Growing Up in Stephentown’. Both are available online from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.