Forgive us, and help us to be forgiving.
What would life be like if no one could ever forgive? We all have need of forgiveness and on Yom Kippur we ask for it from God countless times. Since Judaism insists that we can’t escape to heaven from our responsibilities here on earth, it requires us first to apologise and offer redress for the hurts we have inflicted on each other. Only then can we find atonement from God. This is our essential inner preparation for Yom Kippur.
But, alongside pardon, we have another, perhaps even more challenging, need — for the capacity to be forgiving.
“It’s not fair” is a favourite complaint, and not just from children. Over our lifetime, we are bound to experience injustice, whether we feel bullied at school, victimised at work, scapegoated in the family, or deprived of our health or loved ones by accident, illness or untimely death. Life, at least on the surface, is patently unfair. How will we manage these challenges? Into what sort of person will they turn us? “He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me; those who think such thoughts will not be free from hate”, teaches the Dhammapada, a core Buddhist text.
None of us would choose to become angry and embittered; we would all rather have a generous and grateful heart. But it is not easy to be free of resentments. As we grow older, we are likely to find ourselves in ever deeper need of the capacity to let go of injuries and forgive. What, then, does it mean to be forgiving?
The essential inner work lies in how we struggle with our hurts. Sometimes this is simple. Love outweighs whatever sting we have received. Sharp words are spoken across the kitchen table because everyone’s stressed and tired; but is something so minor really going to damage our affection? If we can’t let go of the little things in favour of the major priorities of closeness, friendship and understanding, then what kind of person are we?
It’s more difficult when we feel let down or mistreated over something important. We will need time to digest our disappointment. But, if the relationship has depth, we hopefully come to realise that its worth outweighs our wounds, and that we are prepared to relinquish our sense of hurt in favour of the value we find in the connection. Tentatively perhaps, we pick up the phone. We are not required to forget or deny what happened. On the contrary, failure to reflect on what occurred is not only an invitation to repetition, but leads to the loss of an opportunity for honesty and inner growth. Both the wrongs we do and the wrongs done to us are important teachers. We may be entitled to an apology; we should try to make it easier rather than more mortifying for the person who upset us to offer it.
What we forgo is our right to hit back and to continue to hold the memory of the offence against the other person; time and future good experience ought to wash any such desire right out of our heart. That is the true meaning of the Hebrew word mechilah, which we use on Yom Kippur in parallel with the more familiar selichah. Whereas the latter is reserved in the Bible for God’s unlimited capacity to forgive, the former refers to the more human act of letting go of the desire to hurt back in favour of the benefits of comradeship and good relations.
But what if the wounds are deeper? What if one has been falsely blamed? Or abandoned or betrayed by one’s partner? What might it feel like to have been injured in an accident and reduced to watching others take to the dance floor?
There are many situations in which we may have good reason to feel resentment. It’s difficult to know whether the suffering is easier or harder to bear if there are no human agents to blame, just life itself, or God.
But what is only understandable is not the same as what is wise. Anger may be appropriate and inevitable. The danger is when it turns into bitterness. Bitterness is alienating. At some point those very people who were initially so shocked on our behalf and so sympathetic may be thinking, whether or not they tell us: “It’s time he moved on”. Even those who were “on our side”, may be saying to themselves: “She was treated abysmally, but…”
At some stage, “am I justified?” may cease to be the central question. More important is what kind of person we want to be inside. Without the capacity to forgive, we risk poisoning our own life with rancour. Most of us are drawn to those who are grateful and generous and avoid people who are angry and bitter. This may inflict a further, compound injustice on those who are suffering, for, after all, it wasn’t their fault. But such is often, painfully, the reality.
Furthermore, the other person, fate, or God, may indeed be responsible for what happened; that belongs in their moral account. But we ourselves are ultimately answerable, at least to a significant extent, for our reaction. This is what Viktor Frankl described as “the last of human freedoms — the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”
Such thoughts leave me with profound respect for those who remain gracious despite life’s blows. Which of us knows what kind of person we’ll become as we grow older? I sometimes therefore say a short prayer to myself: “May the sweet juices inside me be stronger than the bitter waters”. But how does one make that prayer real?
We need wisdom and courage. “Resentment”, wrote Nelson Mandela, “is like a glass of poison that a man drinks; then he sits down and waits for his enemy to die”. The Forgiveness Project records the thoughts of people whose relatives were murdered, who came to understand that if they themselves were left embittered the perpetrators would have destroyed a second life as well. As Marie Fatayi-Williams said after losing her son in the London bombings: “Can’t you see how deeply hurt I am? No amount of hating can bring Andrew back.”
Mercifully, few of us suffer such outrages, but we can all find pretexts for being petty and vindictive. We are all also likely to face painful wounds at the hand of life itself. How can we develop a forgiving attitude?
One of the key rules at the computer is never to press “send” to reply to an infuriating email before calming down and rereading what we’ve written. Anger usually begets anger, blame engenders blame. Can I let them dissolve? Can I think before I speak?
It’s natural to react, but we need not become our reaction. Space to ponder may facilitate a different kind of response. Amid our injuries and vexations, can we find such calm places? The person who helps us to be still and reflect may prove a deeper friend than the one who stokes our resentment.
Perhaps such space enables us to think about the issue from the other side. This doesn’t mean justifying what was done. But it may enable us to find understanding; after all, most of us hurt each other not because we’re intrinsically nasty, but because of wounds and vulnerabilities of our own. Those who are most gracious are generally motivated by a compassion and generosity which can encompass even those who have wronged them, without condoning the wrong itself.
It is this spirit which has led members of the Parents’ Circle of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians to work, in their pain at the loss of their child, not for vengeance but for deeper recognition of each other’s humanity.
Or perhaps we come to realise that we, too, are not innocent. New questions emerge from our conscience: how have I contributed by not listening, not noticing? It’s hard to admit our failings. Maybe it’s only human to want to be right. But it’s not always what matters most.
Or perhaps we were not at all responsible for what happened. We, or the person we love, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But even then something may speak in the depths of the heart, telling us that it’s better to seek healing than further injury. I believe this must apply even if we ourselves are the perpetrator, even if it is our own actions which we feel too ashamed to forgive. Then, too, it’s better to devote ourselves not to self-affliction but to whatever measure we can of making good.
Many times I’ve witnessed, humbled and full of admiration, people reflect on their injuries and say, explicitly or implicitly: “How can I use this experience to deepen what I can give?”
Like Moses, who, when directed by God, threw the tree into the bitter waters and turned them sweet, they have found the capacity to transform hurts and wrongs into generosity and understanding.