Problems Are the Path

Forgiveness, part 3

There’s a reason that we were built to carry grudges. Grudges are the energy that seeks retribution. For all the ways retribution goes too far, and all the progress made in developing a concept of psychological health that has no need of retribution at all, retribution has always been a part of how human societies regulate themselves. It’s a part of how others learn to take seriously the wrong they’ve done and perhaps see the need to reform themselves. Even a process like Restorative Justice, which forswears retribution and is the most hopeful and promising approach of which I know for dealing with the harm from wrong action, derives some of its motivating energy from the awareness of the urge for retribution -- an urge that Restorative Justice then intentionally sets aside or redirects.

After the first step, acknowledging to ourselves that grudge-carrying is the sort of problem we were made to have, the second step is to honor the grudge energy. You really were wronged, and there really are useful functions for having a grudge as a result. Address your grudge as if it were a person and say, “Thank you, grudge energy, for doing such good work to protect me, help protect others, and signal that reform is needed.”

After properly and sincerely thanking your grudge for its good work, you can then look at whether it has outlived its usefulness. Is the grudge’s agenda really the agenda that the rest of you wants to have? Maybe not, and it’s time for that grudge to retire. (But don’t skip the thanking step. If you want someone to retire, you throw them a big party and say thank you a lot. Let them see that their work has been so wonderful that it is now finished.)

Forgiveness is a layered process. Retiring your grudge – for your own sake – is just one layer. You can put down the grudge, but still keep your distance from the person that wronged you. (We might call that first layer "letting go" -- you simply let go of the burden of the grudge but haven't gone to the further layer we might call "forgiveness.") Or you can advance into the second layer and seek to return to the closer rapport you had previously.

Forgiving, you see, is a kind of giving. When speakers of Old English prefixed “for-” to “giefan” -- their word for “give” -- they did so as an intensifier, signifying the completeness of the giving. Thus, emphatically, you are giving something when you forgive. What are you giving? You relinquish your right to hold a grudge, give up your claim to retribution, restitution, or repayment. That’s the first layer. The second layer would be to give good will and trust to someone who has earned only ill will and wary distrust from you.

There are times not to forgive, even if you feel that you want to. If by helping another person and forgiving their wrongdoing, you are fostering or enabling their dependence, irresponsibility, or incompetence, then continued giving, including for-giving, isn’t helping either of you. You can set aside the grudge, but still request restitution, or cut off ties with the person.

We’ve been taught that giving and forgiving are noble and magnanimous things to do. So being forgiving might make you feel superior. Or the other person might perceive a certain condescension in your forgiveness. If that’s happening, then it might be a good idea to hold off until forgiveness can come from a more humble place.

Nor should forgiveness be rushed. If you need time to process and heal, then take that time.

Giving forgiveness and needing to receive forgiveness are problems to continually negotiate. We want some assurance the wrong won’t repeat. We don’t want to be taken for chumps – seen as weak or na├»ve. We need our hurt to be fully recognized and honored – we’d like the offending party to recognize the harm they did. But maybe they won’t. At some point, your own honoring of your hurt has to be enough, just so you can drop the grudge and move on – but at what point is that?

These are problems. Another name for these problems is: life. We’ll always have them – approximately 83 of them, according to the Buddha. But if we crack the 84th problem, then we accept that our problems belong -- they come from being the sort of animal we were made to be. If we, as Rumi says, “greet them at the door laughing and invite them in,” instead of thinking we shouldn’t have any problems -- if we meet the problems with open hearts, and love them -- if we are curious about the problems instead of resentful of their presence, interested in where they came from and where they are inviting us to go -- then the problems are not the obstacles we took them to be. They are not the obstacle -- they are the path.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Forgiveness"
See also
Part 1: You've Got Problems
Part 2: Problems We Were Made For
A four-part series on Forgiveness from 2014 begins HERE.

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