Forgiveness: The Formula for Compassion?

An excerpt from The Compassionate Life

Some years back, in a younger, crazier time, I discovered that a good friend had had a brief affair with my girlfriend while I was away on a months-long business trip. The news felt like a serrated steak knife between the shoulder blades. It seemed an unforgivable breach of trust. With an icy-cold voice, I declared our relationships null and void. I refused to talk to either of them.

But to my amazement, they refused to accept my edict of banishment. My girlfriend called every other day, sending roses and handwritten letters and notes of apology. My friend, stricken, told me, “I’m just not willing to lose your friendship. Tell me what I have to do.” He didn’t wait for an answer but contrived various tokens of apology and expressions of remorse. Though I’d turned to stone, they kept up their campaign of almost daily erosion. I could see that both of them were genuinely suffering. After a while I couldn’t hold fast to my sense of outrage: it was making me feel small, even cruel. They had so empathized with me that their pain about the pain they’d caused me had made me feel for them.

Eventually, I relented. I forgave them. Our relationships were restored and grew mysteriously stronger in the broken places. My friend became, in the fullness of time, my best friend. My girlfriend and I affirmed a deeper, less contingent love; though we separated years later, we remain close. I know that if I had clung to my first wounded impulse, my life would have been incomparably poorer.

“Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

I had to wonder: What was it about being the injured party that was so paradoxically seductive? In the early days of Internet spam, marketeers discovered that people would readily open any e-mail whose subject line read “I’m So Sorry,” proving that most of us feel somebody somewhere owes us an apology. I had to acknowledge the truism that we judge most harshly those who embody our unadmitted failings. Had I ever cheated on a romantic partner? Yes. Had I ever acted on a selfish desire and hurt another in the process? Yes. Had my friends, then, been my tormentors or my scapegoats? Christ’s words on the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is compassion’s holy formula. We all miss the mark in our blindness, ensnared by ego and self-deception; we miss it more than we care to acknowledge.

Thinking of my business nemesis, it seems that none of it was personal. Wrapped in his own private fogbank, he’d hardly even seen me. An old Buddhist fable: A ferryman is taking a rich nobleman across a river. It is a misty night; he can see barely 10 feet ahead. Suddenly, another boat glides out of the murk and rams into his prow, spilling his finely dressed fare into the water. The ferryman is furious. Cursing, enraged, he lifts his pole, readying himself to strike the other boatman as his craft sweeps past, only to see — an unmoored, empty boat.

Maybe it’s possible to forgive others’ trespasses by realizing how blindly they harm us. Like empty boats, adrift on their own currents, colliding with us by happenstance, they’re not quite all there, and neither, if we can admit it, are we.

Unless we are solitary anchorites, cartoon hermits with beards down to our toes, we live in relationship, which guarantees we will be hurt by others and inevitably will hurt them. Forgiveness, the binding of wounds, is indispensable to our lives together. To accept our own hurt, taking it in rather than projecting it out, distills the healing elixir.

“The way to get rid of an enemy is to make a friend.”

Unresolved emotional pain is the great contagion of our time — perhaps of all time. This does not deny the struggle for justice: There is a world out there, and it cries out for rectification. But those who cannot sense the pain of the one who wounds them will dispense, under the banner of righteousness, a misshapen justice and create yet more enduring wrongs. I could be deep in goody-two-shoes territory, but I suspect that the final extension of forgiveness is just as Lao Tzu said: “It is the way of the Tao to recompense injury with kindness.” The spiritual consensus is too wide to ignore. As Rabbi Pinhas Ben Yair once boasted of a favored disciple, “My Raphael knows how to love the most wicked evil-doers!” The other day at lunch, I even got the message from my fortune cookie: “The way to get rid of an enemy,” counseled the Peking Noodle Company, “is to make a friend.”

I’ve concluded, at least in theory, edging toward practice, the same. I’m persuaded that the theologian Paul Tillich put forth an ideal worth striving for: “Forgiveness,” he wrote, “means reconciliation in spite of estrangement; it means reunion in spite of hostility; it means acceptance of those who are unacceptable; and it means reception of those who are rejected. Forgiveness is unconditional, or it is not forgiveness at all.”


The Compassionate Life Book

From The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness by Marc Ian Barasch. Copyright © 2009 Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Republished with permission.

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