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Thoughts on Forgiveness

posted by Gus diZerega

The forgiveness thread Cheryl started is a wonderful one, and I want to give it special placement.  Forgiveness is a fascinating topic.  I have a remarkable story that offers an inspiring perspective on that issue.

When I taught Political Science at a small liberal arts college, one of my friends was an Ethiopian economist who also taught there.  When he has been a young man he had been imprisoned in a concentration camp by the communist Ethiopian government.  Its leader, Mengistu, and other political thugs, brutally dominated that country from 1977 to 1991, being responsible for the deaths of thousands, before the regime was finally overthrown.  

While in the prison my friend and other inmates were tortured regularly.  After the regime fell the situation was reversed.  The inmates were freed while many of their former guards were imprisoned.

My friend was close to a man who, if I remember correctly, had become the new Ethiopian Minister of Justice or of the Interior.  The Minister asked him if there was anything he could do for him, now that they were both free.

He said he would like to return to the prison and meet his captors and torturers.

The Minister was surprised, but agreed to arrange it.

When my friend returned, and saw his former torturers and jailers behind bars, he spoke with them in a friendly way, and explicitly forgave them for their crimes.  He meant it.

He also was able to get hold of police records that gave him the name of the man who had informed on him, leading to his years of imprisonment and torture.  He called him up, and asked that they meet.  When they did, he asked his former ‘friend’ why he had informed on him. 

The man began to cry and said he believed he had little choice because the regime would have done terrible things to him and his family if he had not given them names.  He said he felt he had no choice.

My friend, who describes himself as an atheist, also forgave him.

When he told me this amazing story I told him that despite his being an atheist, he had done one of the most spiritually wise things I had ever heard of anyone doing.

He laughed it off, saying he had done the forgiving for his own benefit.  Not to have done so would have retained the poisons of anger, resentment at his betrayal, and worse, in his own heart.  He could never have gotten past it.  In forgiving his oppressors he had healed himself.  And I can attest I have known fewer warmer, more easy-going and good-hearted people in my life.

I have not mentioned his name or given many identifying details because he has never to my knowledge made his story public.  I wish he would.  His story that would make a wonderful movie or book, and, more importantly, inspire others to learn from what he did.

I wonder whether one of the worst effects of those whose actions harm another is to tie their victims emotionally and energetically to the misdeeds.  Hate, anger, and resentment are a kind of psychic virus.  They are powerful thought forms, requiring a great deal of effort to hold under control and breeding still more hate, anger, and resentment in others when they are not held under control.  Their presence also poisons and distorts our other perceptions and thoughts.  Isuspect the only way their victims can free themselves from these powers and move forward with their lives is to forgive.   

I suspect the lesson my friend taught me, and I have not fully perfected, we all could practice to our benefit.

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posted June 24, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I must agree with your Ethiopian friend. We don’t forgive for the benefit of the other person. We forgive for the benefit of ourselves. I discovered that in my own life, recovering from childhood abuse. You have to forgive in order to let go of the anger that would otherwise poison your soul. It’s not an instant cure, by any means, and it often takes years to get to the point of being able to forgive and let go. But I can attest that the journey is worth it.

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Your Name

posted June 24, 2009 at 2:56 pm

We’re talking about forgiveness.
And then I’m thinking about the specific (and cultural practices that evolved from this) teachings in Christianity. When I say cultural I mean the societal pressure “to forgive” that’s present, esp in the South. Not the healthy reasons for forgiveness that Gus mentions. (tho they certainly may have been at the root of the teachings originally).
And I wonder whether the different trads in Paganism address this? Gus….did any of your beliefs come specifically from your Pagan Training? Or are they ones you’ve extrapolated?

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posted June 24, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Speaking of Pagan teachings, in her blog today TThorn Coyle writes:
Our so called “negative emotions” can be great purifiers. Trouble with these emotions comes, for most of us, from one of two directions: we get trapped in them or we try to squash them into non-existence. We either give them pride of place or we diminish and trivialize them. Both of these give our anger, our sorrow, our sense of betrayal or loss far too much power. Both of these methods twist our hearts and souls.
Allowing these emotions into our lives, however, so that we can experience them fully and seek the lessons they are pointing to is of great help to us. In this way, anger, jealousy, or sorrow become our teachers, and point the way toward greater integration……………..
for more http://thorncoyle.com/musings.html June 24th, 2009 Fires of Purification

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posted June 24, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Much to think about from everyone’s responses.
As I said, I’m not a forgiving person. Yet, I don’t believe that means I have to be trapped by negative emotions or unable to let go. It’s entirely possible to say, “No, what you did was inexcusable and I do not forgive you” and STILL let it go.
Consider this. The worst day in my life so far was when my 41-year old husband died of a heart attack. I was 36 years old, and the whole episode was incredibly traumatic. He went into an alpha coma from oxygen deprivation and lingered for 10 days before dying, then there was the funeral — I’m sure you’ve all had something like that you can relate to.
Since then, I found love again and re-married. But when someone asks me about those dark days, I still say they were horrible. I no longer feel the pain, the fear, the crushing loss I felt during that time — but I can never say that “it was okay” or “it was nothing”. It was NOT okay. It was not “nothing”. Without the strength from my Pagan beliefs and my friends and family, I don’t know how I would have coped.
Likewise I feel the same when I’ve been harmed or betrayed by someone. As I said before, not a hurt done by accident or some silly slight or thoughtless comment but a calculated, planned harm – I will not forgive that. I’m not wallowing in negativity, endlessly focused on revenge or seething in anger – I’m simply calling an action what it is – unforgivable.
I also believe that by not forgiving someone when they’ve performed an inexcusable hurt, you make them think twice before hurting someone else. I think there can be a danger in forgiving someone and giving them a “free pass” on a wrong they’ve done. They should understand that some things once broken, cannot be repaired. It’s the reason we’re more careful when carrying a dozen eggs than when carrying a pillow.

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posted June 24, 2009 at 6:18 pm

I tend to think of forgiveness in the sense of forgiving another, when need be but equally important and perhaps more so, forgiveness for the release of negative energy that I may hold against a person.
The release of negative energy is important on a physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual level as it blocks or disrupts our own energy, movement and growth, in all its aspects.

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posted June 24, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Strangely, it often seems easier to forgive others for the truly huge things than for the trivial.
The “friend” that landed me wrongly in jail in order to keep himself out, I forgave him years ago. The former roommate that had been stealing the rent money, the one that got me evicted, I also forgave him years ago. The sister who pushed me into a shallow swimming pool, shattering my kneecap and ending my scuba-diving career, likewise, I forgave her long ago.
Things like these are, in manner of thinking, easy to forgive because, if you don’t learn to get past them you’ll be unable to function as a person. Regret, anger, self-pity and a million thoughts about what could have been will consume you.
On the other hand, the friend that gives you a back-handed compliment, the lover that misses an anniversary, the coworker that got your promotion even after you’ve left the company, these people are often much harder to forgive.

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Aron G.

posted June 25, 2009 at 11:14 am

Cheryl: The forgiveness I’m thinking about originates in how you approach someone who has caused you hurt and how that affects your life. I don’t think it means forgetting what was done and giving them a blank slate if that’s not appropriate to the situation.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest if someone was raped to just act like nothing happened towards the rapist. Nor do I think anyone should pressure another person to forgive, either. That’s an individual process, maybe something a person’s never capable of doing.
However, in the grand scheme of things, I think we’re better off when we learn how to forgive, rather than building armor that shields from harm, but also from many other feelings, too. I see forgiveness as a general attitude as a distinct from vengence, that seeks retribution for every act of harm done.

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posted June 25, 2009 at 11:27 am

Aron (and everybody else), what does forgiveness mean to you if not giving someone a clean slate? Is there a type of “partial” forgiveness where you forgive them but DON’T give them a clean slate?
Not forgiving someone does not mean that I need to exact vengeance. I will shield and avoid the person to prevent further harm but with regard to vengeance, Karma will take care of that for me so I don’t need to worry about it.

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Leslie Bianco

posted June 25, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Here are some prayerful references to forgiveness you might like:

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posted June 25, 2009 at 8:42 pm

It absolutely doesn’t mean a clean slate. Forgiveness can mean never seeing someone again.
I have an entire section of my family that I will never see again. They are deeply mired in a multi-generational cycle of ever-repeating child sexual abuse. They are not working to end it. They are working to justify, excuse and deny it. They talk of forgiveness. THEY do mean a clean slate. This clean slate is a threat. I love my children and their innocence so I will never see them again.
But since they are no longer a threat, I can forgive them. I can be sad for the sick twisted miserable lives they lead. I can be sad for the children that they were once and the true adults that they will never be. I am not angry at them. If I hadn’t suffered so much pain I would never have been forced to do the deep soul-searching that I have done, and would never have known such joy. What forgiveness means for me is: I let the Universe, the Goddess punish and teach. It is not my job. I do what I need to do to make myself safe, and then I let it go.

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posted June 25, 2009 at 9:25 pm

Protecting yourself and your children is of course the first priority. I’m glad for you that you were willing to forgive the damaged part of your family and move on, and are at peace with it. The people who have hurt me, I am NOT willing to forgive. Nevertheless I moved on, and am also at peace with it.
But I’m curious – am I the ONLY Pagan here who will not forgive someone who has purposely harmed or tried to harm them?
And if you feel forgiveness is still the best course, have you immediately forgiven those who’ve hurt you? Did they need to ask for it, or does anyone who harms or tries to harm you receive instant forgiveness?

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posted June 26, 2009 at 12:01 am

Perhaps we should distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation. Forgiveness is something that happens within the person who has been wronged. It is a letting go of animostiy, and of any desire to see the “guilty” party be hurt in the same way that they hurt you. It is a liberation from negativity. It is not giving the other party a “clean slate.” Rather, it is cleaning one’s own slate.
Reconciliation, on the other hand, is something that occurs between two (or more) parties. It is a mending of a broken relationship. It may, but not must, accompany or follow upon forgiveness.
So, as Cassaundra indicates, it is possible to forgive people who have harmed you, even though you may never be reconciled, or even wish to be reconciled.

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Aron G.

posted June 26, 2009 at 12:05 am

Cheryl: For me, forgiveness has to do about letting go of bitter feelings, feelings of weakness for letting something happen, feelings of hate, feelings of depression, a whole variety of feelings we have when someone harms us and betrays our trust. I think it can involve a clean slate, but I don’t think it has to.
You can forgive, but you probably shouldn’t forget people who have caused you significant harm intentionally.
As I said, I don’t see it as something one should do for the benefit of the one who caused harm, but for completely personal reasons to maintain ones own mental and emotional health. Only after that’s done, I also think there are a whole host of reasons for larger goals of peace between humans as well as their relationships with other beings.

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posted June 26, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Makarios has eloquently stated what I’ve tried to put into words, and scrapped, several times already. I particularly want to second two points: that forgiveness does not need to entail reconciliation, but that it does entail giving up on the idea of ‘settling the score’. Most of the dictionary definitions of forgiveness I can find make some reference to the cancellation of a debt – no longer seeking an apology, or a pound of flesh, from the guilty party. The statute of limitations is up, the case is closed, the score is as even as it is ever going to get, and your focus is solely on putting the event behind you.

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posted June 26, 2009 at 6:59 pm

I suggest a third alternative; letting go. It means acceptance of the deed, acceptance of the impact on your life, acceptance of the hurt, the pain and the work that you had to do to overcome the personal consequences for yourself and anyone you love. It means acceptance that there is a right to be angry, that the feelings of revenge are honest and natural. Acceptance that what was done in the past cannot be undone. What matters is the future. You will notice there is nothing in this which absolves the ‘wrongdoer’.
I find it interesting that with those of you who follow a path of personal responsibility, there seems to be little support for the wrongdoer to accept responsibility for their actions. I’ve made my feelings very clear on this in my response in the thread linked above:
After reviewing these responses many times, my personal conclusion is that the only one being completely honest on the gut level instinct is you, Cheryl. The rest are bleating a mish-mash and stylized rehash of Christian rhetoric. The only person who truly deserved the ‘forgiveness’ was the first example cited. No doubt, given the same circumstances again, he would make the same choice. Who among us would blame him?
In the last 40 or so years, I’ve been through this yo-yo of forgiveness/forget/reconcile etc, etc many times both on the work front and the family front. I have arrived at the conclusions that you see in the post for which I have posted the link.
It’s not very Christian, but I’m not a Christian. Karma is a nice story, but I don’t buy into it either; another platitude to salve the wounded spirit. There is a difference between a momentary bad choice and a protracted period of behavior. In some ways, the original example is apples to the oranges of the other posters. An uneven comparison.

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posted June 27, 2009 at 1:08 am

no, never instant! takes quite a while to get past the hurt and anger. And there’s a reason for that. The transgressor is a danger, if you forgive too easily and quickly that may be taken as license to transgress again! plus, I haven’t forgiven everyone, maybe I will eventually but believe me, I can think of at least one person who, if I see them again, I’ll want to punch them in the face. (I won’t do it, but the tongue lashing I WILL give them, won’t feel anything like enough).
Makarios, I have a question for you,
we can have forgiveness without reconciliation, what do you think of the concept of reconciliation without forgiveness?

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posted June 27, 2009 at 2:22 am

@ladyhawke4, you write of forgiveness as “a mish-mash and stylized rehash of Christian rhetoric.” As if Christians invented the concept of forgiveness, and that the ancient Pagans had never conceived of it or valued it. Sorry, but that perception is inaccurate. Rather than go into detail here, I would simply mention that the Roman Pantheon included Clementia, the Goddess of forgiveness and mercy. For a detailed discussion, you might want to consult Melissa Barden Dowling’s Clemency & Cruelty in the Roman World.
@Cassaundra, if you haven’t forgiven someone–if you still feel that you have to “get even,” or that there is a score to settle–then I don’t see how reconciliation, in any meaningful sense of the term, could be possible.

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posted June 27, 2009 at 12:42 pm

To me, lack of forgiveness doesn’t imply that one is actively working to “get even” or that there is a score to settle. It means that you do NOT trust them the way that you did before. It means that your heart is, on some levels, closed to them.
In some ways, reconcilitation is forced on all of us. When someone who we cannot remove ourselves from, purposefully does something very hurtful to us, we are forced to reconcile in some way. We MUST continue to interact with ex-husbands, bosses, family members that are not bad enough to write off, but not worthy of forgiveness. We, especially us women, do not always have the option of ending relationships. We also don’t have the option of ignoring things like law, so we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we cannot act as we wish. We also have to reconcile ourselves to living with those that we care about, but that have done terrible things, and even with the people that we truly revile. We don’t forgive. We hurt, we suffer, we rage at injustice, but we do NOT resort to violence or other extreme responses.

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posted June 27, 2009 at 1:25 pm

One of the definitions given in my dictionary for “forgive” is “to stop feeling anger or resentment against”.
My Pagan tradition specifically teaches “instant forgiveness” as a core discipline, a go-to stance when we are faced with situations which arouse extreme hate, rage, or fear. This is not a fluffbunny sweetness-and-light thing, but a pragmatic way of surviving emotional and/or physical battle intact. It’s about not letting others rule our emotions. It’s about not being guided in our actions by hate, rage, or fear.
It”s a personal practice, and need not even be expressed to the person who has harmed us or is trying to harm us.
It does not involve allowing the person another chance to harm us, or shielding them from the consequences of causing harm.
It can be done while fighting fiercely against attack, and allows us to fight more effectively.
If someone were to cut me, I would seek medical attention to treat the wound so as to minimize scarring or disablement, to keep my physical identity. I would also use the spiritual disciplines of my tradition to treat the emotional wounds to minimize scarring or disablement, to keep my spiritual identity. To become ridden by hate, rage, or fear is scarring or disablement. In the short term, letting them guide us often leads to stupid, self-destructive actions. In the long run, they will suck the joy out of our lives.
The balance I personally keep between (hate, rage, and fear), and (love, compassion, and courage), is a major part of my name, my personal emotional and spiritual identity. I seek to find and keep a balance which allows me the best chances of creating and keeping celebration and joy in my life. Allowing others to set that balance, or change it, would be a surrender of one of my most basic freedoms.
In a fight, if we allow others to control our motions, they will probably win. If we allow them to control our emotions, we are giving them as great an advantage over us.
In this culture, where social/verbal/emotional struggle is far more common than physical combat, winning emotional struggle and healing from its effects are essential skills. The spiritual sociopaths, the verbal bullies, bad bosses, and other people who go about wounding others emotionally often get their feelings of empowerment by generating anger, fear, and resentment in others.
Refusing to allow others to generate these emotions, or grounding them if they get generated, are learnable practices. They are a good defense , and a way of healing from the wounds such attacks generate. This is not nicey-nice b.s., it is simple tools and techniques for emotional and spiritual survival, so we can be who we want to be rather than who or what others decide to make us be.
In the end, it comes down to whether I define and practice my own form of sanity, or allow myself to become infected or affllicted with the psychoses of others.
Besides, in a world in which terrorists do imponderable acts of psychotic cruelty and billions are spent by media propaganda engines for the purpose of controlling my emotions, it’s fun to flip them all off and set my own emotional and spiritual agenda.

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posted June 29, 2009 at 9:06 am

It’s been amazing reading everyone’s thoughts on this. I can relate most with Cassaundra and LadyHawke and the way they view the issue.
To me, forgiving someone means *completely* forgiving them – like the incident never even occurred.
I’ve considered what some people have mentioned that to forgive someone is to “free yourself”, but I can’t get my head around that. We weren’t born to be anyone’s doormat, and I don’t feel constrained by recognizing that someone inflicted an intentional wrong that I won’t pardon. It may not be all New Age-y but as a friend once pointed out, “Not all Witches crap rainbows”. I suppose I’m one of those.
But I appreciate everyone’s input.

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posted June 29, 2009 at 9:59 am

And then there is the effect of forgiveness on the Forgiver.
Some of us have it programmed in from childhood that “forgiveness” is a transaction between the Victim and the Aggressor. The Aggressor says “sorry” (whether true or not), and the Victim says “forgiven” (whether true or not), and now, forms satisfied, we go on.
But for many of us, the Aggressor is no longer in the picture. The person I was most likely to “never forgive” lived far away from me for more than 30 years. We had very few “former friends” in common, and no current ones.
What effect does my Unforgiving have on this Aggressor? Does the Aggressor even know?
But what effect does my Unforgiving have on Me? I know. I hold onto my anger, my self-righteous insistence that the Aggressor “shouldn’t” have done that. My anger binds me to my stance as the Victim in the situation. Every time I think of the person or the situation I am Victimized in my mind once again.
So, from my perspective, the Aggressor doesn’t need (or even receive) my forgiveness — it’s not about the Other, it’s about Me.
So: I forgive myself for judging myself as bad and wrong, stupid and vulnerable, too trusting, too needy … when the truth is that at 17 I’d never met anyone like that and didn’t know how to set good boundaries.
And this simple statement, made with feeling (and sometimes at length), frees Me. It probably would do nothing for the Aggressor even if the Aggressor ever knew about it. But it liberates Me from the crushing load of my continuing self-judgment about being stupid, needy, trusting …
A daily practice of reviewing the day and forgiving whatever I’ve done or thought against myself in this way has deeply reduced my level of anxiety and brought me considerable peace. I heartily recommend it.
And now I think I’ll do today’s, so far:
I forgive myself for judging myself as lazy because I went back to sleep.
I forgive myself for judging myself as insensitive because I wanted to finish reading my e-mail before engaging in my mate’s political conversation.
I forgive myself for judging myself as lazy and incompetent because my do-list, after four days away, looks longer than this week … when the truth is that as I focus my attention and attend to the next steps of each item, real progress will occur.
I forgive myself for judging my fellow bloggers, too, as having too much to say for me to read it all.
Love and light and lots of laughter

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Aron G.

posted July 2, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Here’s an issue I’m curious if other Pagan parents share: a lack of support from the Pagan community for people with families. I just get the sense from my own experienced from the Pagan community that people don’t have anything hostile to say about families, but I get a sense amongst many that there’s very little support for families to attend festivals with childcare options, workshops for children, and general support for Pagan families.
Where I live, once we became parents, it pretty much eliminated our ability to go to Pagan festivals. Perhaps this is only a problem with my area and my family, but I wonder if anyone shares these problems or if not, why not. Mainly, I wonder if there are Pagan communities that do offer more support than mine in Central Ohio.
I’m not sure what your family situation is Gus, but would appreciate your perspective. If my experience is common, I think this is a failing of the Pagan community, where other traditions often do provide such help.

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Aron G.

posted July 2, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Gus, can you delete my last post, it should have gone to the Open Thread. My apologies.

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Novella Zicker

posted November 29, 2013 at 12:55 pm

worth enough for me. In my view,

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