January 24, 2012

Should We Forgive Because Someone Did Good?


I started this as a comment on Margie Clayman’s post When Forgiveness Seems Like Too Much To Give. But it got very long and instead of hijacking her blog, I’ll share it with all of you.

I have struggled with the true concept forgiveness for several years now. I’ve wondered if forgiveness is possible when the act was so evil you can’t bear to look at the person or say their name. I’ve been conflicted about my own religious beliefs about forgiveness because each year on Yom Kippur I atone for my sins but the evildoer does not, so should I forgive. I’m not even sure if it’s for me to forgive because isn’t that G-D’s job?

Margie’s article looks at forgiveness in a post-death context, specifically wondering if Joe Paterno’s failure to protect innocent children should be forgiven in light of all the good he did. Margie mention’s Ted Kennedy and how he was praised for his goodness after his death, despite having left a woman to die. She referred to death as being ‘the great eraser’, and in many cases it is quite an amazing eraser.

Recently I met, and when I say met I mean she was the keynote speaker and I was in the audience, Marianne Williamson. I didn’t know of her prior but she is a world-renown author and lecturer about personal power and spirituality. In her discussion she mentioned the word forgiveness once. I snatched that word from the air and held on to it. At the end she invited audience members to ask questions. I stood online, wondering if I’d even be able to ask my question – What if what was done was so horrible you can’t forgive them because then you’re saying what they did was OK.

With my face splashed across a giant screen, I stepped up to the microphone, said hello and with a cracking voice asked my question. And as if I was asking the most important question, Marianne so graciously explained that forgiveness is not about giving permission to what someone did. Forgiveness is about setting your Self free. Not little ‘s’ self, but big ‘S’ Self – the Self that is more than just this being on earth who does the laundry, runs errands and goes to sleep and wakes up every day. I wish I could tell you exactly what she said, but I was so focused on her every word because I wanted to get this right. If forgiveness will free the albatross keeping me from flying, I needed to know from someone who is a master when it comes to the power of forgiveness.

What it comes down to is that forgiveness isn’t about approving what someone did, it’s about freeing yourself from reliving the experience over and over again. Forgiveness allows us to become the capital S ‘self’ and shed the suffering that replays in our mind like a broken record. Forgiveness is not about giving ‘them’ power, but keeping it for yourself.

Marianne asked my name. She asked my religion. And she asked if I was open to a prayer to help me get on the path to true Forgiveness. In a room of several thousand people I said my name, that I’m Jewish. Then with tears streaming down my face, I said yes. Yes to setting myself free. And I listened as a room full of total strangers offered up their sincere blessing that I would soon experience true Forgiveness.

And in that moment, I understood. There is a difference between judgement and forgiveness. We’re judging Joe Paterno. We judged Ted Kennedy. Is it our right? Maybe. Do I need to forgive them? No. Do they need to be forgiven? Yes. But not for the reasons most people think. We don’t need to forgive Joe Paterno because he did more good things than not. We, as in those of us not impacted by his decision not to take the allegations as seriously as we think he should, judge him for not doing more. But we need to forgive him so that we can move on. Forgiveness will not change the past. Forgiveness will not make his omission permissible. Forgiving Joe Paterno does not diminish that he chose not to protect innocent kids and instead protect his own financial future.

Forgiveness will set us all free, and allow us to focus our efforts and attention to ensuring that these young men get their day in court. That the boys Paterno could have saved will, in fact, be saved from living a life of continued hell. Forgiveness will allow us to help society focus on the lesson that needs to be learned – protecting innocent children from predators comes before any self-serving interests to preserve your career, your legacy, your financial status.

 I agree with Margie when she says that sometimes forgiveness is a gift we can not give. I agree when it’s taken that forgiveness means giving permission. But I disagree that we need to give forgiveness to someone. If we forgive in the more global and spiritual sense, we actually rid the evildoer, hater, rude person,meanie, etc. from our lives. And in that, we allow ourselves to become unburdened by the negative experience.

In looking at someone’s life after their death, we don’t need to forgive them for their acts of transgression. Instead, we need to Forgive ourselves for carrying around their crap and let it go. Our forgiveness won’t set them free any more than angels singing in a chorus will. Forgiving them sets US free.

Image: bigjom/FreeDigitalPhotos.net



V Demetros January 24, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Wow, this was a difficult post for me to read. It was emotional to read about your struggle and realization, and it is something I struggle with a lot. It is refreshing to read someone else describe the concept of forgiveness. In this society, we are taught to forgive, but I think it has the definition of letting the person go without guilt in a situation. If someone hurts someone you love, or even you, forgiveness is a very difficult thing to do. I was taught that if you forgive, you are essentially letting that person off the hook, so to speak.

Fast forward to me as a grown up and wanting to move on with my life and “forgive” the things that haunt me. What I realized was that whether I forgive that person or not, they will not be affected. I am the one who is affected by the “forgiveness.” For that reason, I have learned to “let go” of the issues that follow me. I let go of the hurt and anger, and I let go of the negative feelings toward that person. But I can’t say that I “forgive” because I don’t think that person should feel as if I don’t take what they did in any less severity than I did in the beginning. Does that makes sense? I have moved on and live a life free of anger and hurt, but I have also moved on from worrying about how that other person will live his/her life. I always tell my kids not to let anyone else have emotional power over them, whether it’s a bully or angry friend in a heated argument. You can only control your actions and reactions. And in letting go, you take that power from them and claim it as your own.

Shifra January 25, 2012 at 4:09 am

This is such a powerful post and I just want to day thank you for sharing it with me (& the rest of the world).

Li January 31, 2012 at 9:04 am

Wow. What a powerful experience.

When it comes to forgiveness, I agree: it’s to set ourselves free. It has nothing to do with the other person. Harboring hatred or anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die (that’s part of a quote from someone, but I can’t remember). We can’t let the impact they had on our lives fester within us.

Letting it go does not excuse them, and they never even need to know about any of it. It is to liberate our souls of the weight of that anger and hate, to free ourselves of the pain, and say yes to living in the now, instead of living in the darkness of that past.

It is much easier said than done, and it is a long process. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to let go of the albatross. But every step taken is progress. It’s one step forward to giving your Self the freedom to live. Kudos to you for taking a chance, for being open to an experience in a room full of strangers nonetheless.

You’re friggin’ COURAGEOUS!!!! And I’m so proud that you can show the big “S” on your chest, cape flying in the wind, and all that superheroness you got going on in that Self. Applauso, applauso, applauso!

Sara February 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Li, thank you for such kind words and continued encouragement. It is a process, something I don’t always want. I really like the idea of doing something and getting the result. But, I guess they don’t call it ‘life work’ for nothing. That quote about drinking poison is one I say to myself a lot. A friend of mine told it to me many years ago – it’s absolutely true and it’s a good reminder not to take on things that are not healthy.

~ Sara

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