On Forgiveness

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Forgiveness is a concept that is much easier said than done. Often I think it is used loosely, as if forgiveness is as easy as love or generosity or kindness. Like these other actions of emotion, forgiveness is about giving—but, unlike these other actions of emotion, this form of giving happens despite one’s pain and that makes it a difficult thing to do.

I once had a dream where I saw a line saying, “We need to forgive even when not asked for forgiveness.” When I saw the words I thought this was too much to ask of anybody.  Forgiving when asked for forgiveness is one thing but when not asked is quite another thing.  The latter implies the one who got hurt has to do all the work and that, for the longest time, I thought was too much to ask.  But I couldn’t forget these words and in order for me to practice such forgiveness, I needed to approach the concept from a place of absolute authenticity to seek a true resolution of the conflict within my heart.

So I started the exercise with the times that I needed to ask for forgiveness from someone else for wronging him or her. This entailed not only acknowledging what I had done, but also acknowledging the underlying reasons for my actions without making excuses for them. Now, I don’t know about you, but I tell you that involved some real courage to dig deep within oneself to see one’s own shadow. It is much easier to see the faults of others; it is much, much harder to see one’s own flaws. But what is growth and truth if we can’t do that work? So I kept on going.

The next step entailed understanding what triggered my actions. People rarely do harm for harm’s sake.  Most of us are reacting to our own past experiences, which trigger some actions that we are proud of and some that we are not. In my case, the times I hurt others stemmed from my own fear of addressing a certain truth or calling a spade a spade, if you may. My avoidance of addressing an uncomfortable truth about myself or others, combined with not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings—a cover up for a desire to be liked—led me to betray myself at times and loved ones other times.

Upon this realization, I was confronted with the choice of either keeping that confession to myself or rousing the courage to go and directly ask for forgiveness from the very person I hurt. This too is a very hard thing to do. Addressing issues within our heart is just one step, and admitting it in front of another person is quite a different step. It is easy to be the hero; acknowledging that you too have been the villain at one point in your life is more complex. Expressing this with sincerity and humility is the most crucial thing to do.

I learned the importance of asking for forgiveness with authenticity while observing a Gacaca court session one day in Rwanda. After the 1994 genocide that led to the killing of more than 800,000 people and the rape of 500,000 women in only a 100 days, the Rwandan government reintroduced a traditional justice system to prosecute the majority of people who participated in the genocide. The Gacaca court literally means the grass court where all community members gather around with community elders who run this communal court. In there, the person who has committed a crime has to stand up and acknowledge in front of everyone what he or she has done.  Then the elders decide how best this person is to be dealt with, be it community service or material retribution. The essence of this tradition is twofold. First, the person who committed a wrongdoing should not get away with their criminal actions and just sweep it under the rug. Second, the best way to address the issue is by giving an opportunity for the defendant to grow and show his or her remorse rather than merely isolating and alienating them. The prison system leads to more destructive, rather than positive, contribution to society.

What I didn’t know before I had the privilege of attending one of these community grass courts is the importance of honesty. In that particular court a man stood up and described in detail how he stole from certain individuals and contributed to the killing of a few people. He kept repeating the details as the elders asked him more questions. But when they came back from their consultation, they didn’t ask him to serve the mother of the son he helped to kill, as they did with the man before him.  Rather, they told him “we do not feel your sincerity in your testimony. You have more work to do for yourself to be truly remorseful about what you have done. Go back, and when you reach that stage, come back to us and we will do another trial.”  “Wow!” I thought to myself, as I was observing this whole process. Only when we get to that stage of true remorse can the other person really get to a place of forgiveness.

These are all very hard steps to implement but are essential to truly understand the meaning of forgiveness with integrity. In my case, only when I could galvanize the courage to admit my own wrongdoing, was I able to build compassion that helped me forgive others regardless of their asking for forgiveness. But I must admit forgiving others was an equally hard process—especially when it came time to forgive those I respect and love most.

I first thought to myself: how can I forgive when the other person can’t even acknowledge what he/she has done? There is a sense of arrogance that comes with ignorance, which only makes the pain grow deeper. I could let go of an issue, but forgiving? Truly forgiving? That takes much more work than the mere saying of the word. But I needed the forgiveness so I could free myself from the story, as all forgiveness leads to freedom in my opinion.

At one point I realized that I often expect others to act from the same value systems as me, whatever those values may be. But then I noticed that this is like expecting everyone to know the taste of chocolate even if they’ve never tried it. In other words, these values we have for ourselves are not automatically available for others around us, even those we love and respect. That logic helped me to see the other person from the perspective of not having this or that value. That helped but did not do the magic trick. I realized that perhaps just as my fears led me to do things I am not proud of, those I love and respect may also have been afraid and their fear led them to betray themselves or their own loved one’s.

These processes eventually leads to compassion. By seeing someone else’s decisions from their perspective, it allows us to see the same story from different angles even if we do not have the same motivations. That method consistently calms my spirit and leads me to sincerely grant forgiveness, irrelevant of whether the other person asked for it or not. By truly having compassion for other’s emotions, even if that emotion is something you do not agree, offers the ability to understand why someone did this and not that. And that is when I could release myself from the story.

Now I have to say there isn’t anything as heartwarming as being asked for forgiveness when wronged. Those who are able to build the courage to ask for forgiveness show a great humility and big courage. And that always leads to deeper respect at least as I see it.  Now, I have had the privilege—yes, the privilege—of experiencing the whole process of forgiveness. These experiences allowed me to look deeper into the good, the bad, and the ugly within myself and others. And it is that journey that has led me to true love—both of myself and in my ability to give love to others. Years after I had the dream, I know that it is possible to forgive even when not asked for forgiveness. That is the journey of true love.