“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Wow! For me, this is one of the most powerful quotes in the mainstream Christian bible. When Jesus said these famous words, the political establishment of the day presided over a kangaroo court that had directed his crucifixion for basically speaking up and being his Truth. He had been made to wear a crown of thorns. He had been beaten, mocked and spit upon, his clothes stripped away and divided among the guards. He knew he would be suffering a cruel and grueling death.
His principal concern at that key moment: Forgiveness for all involved. His justification: These people are engaged in unconscious actions; they are disconnected from their Divinity. Wow!
There are more than a few lessons in this scenario. Jesus’ stance is an acknowledgement that people can be generally unconscious, unawakened and separated from their Divinity and that this might be a common state of being which explains petty and cruel behaviors perpetuated by Humanity. Despite this state of affairs, all individuals deserve compassion and understanding.
Another lesson is that Forgiveness is a key act of ascended, awakened souls who are absolutely connected with their Divinity.
Jesus’ alternative responses could have been resignation, resentment or vengeance. However, it seems like he did not want to leave physical form on one of those notes. Extrapolating all of this, the lesson implied is that the above are negative reactions to be let go of. We want to leave any situation of conflict on a “clear note,” not bound by unconscious reactions.
Eastern philosophies also place high value on forgiveness and point out the folly of vengeance and resentment. There is a Buddhist tale about two monks who meet each other years after leaving a prison where they had been beaten by the guards. The first monk asks, “Have you forgiven them?” The second replies with visible anger, “I will never forgive them! Ever!” The first monk replies, “Well, I guess they still have you in prison, don’t they?”
“Hanging onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die,” goes a famous quote that is often attributed to the Buddha.
As these scenarios exemplify, I see Forgiveness as an act of compassion and Empathy. All of us have been unconscious at some point in our life and, in turn, this unconsciousness has harmed others.
Forgiveness is an act of Non-Attachment in that we can let go of the emotional states that bind us. This is also an act of self-compassion and care. With Forgiveness, we are purging the poison of toxic emotional states like anger, resentment and disdain for our own selves. Purging these emotions is Healing and Nurturing, perpetuating greater Peace for self and others.
In addition, Forgiveness is an act of Love and Generosity. It is a Generosity of the spirit. It gives Healing and perhaps, Justice. With Forgiveness, we Commune with and Respect the Divinity of others.
On a societal level, I believe that we will need to use Forgiveness less often when there is less unconsciousness in the world. Unconscious acts beget harm which may necessitate Forgiveness. When more people are on a True spiritual path and are seeking Forgiveness from others, Forgiving themselves for their own unconscious acts and freely Forgiving others, the economy of Forgiveness will be drained. When Humanity embraces its Divinity and truly exhibits the Spiritual elements, there will be less need for Forgiveness in the future; what Forgiveness we do need to share will be proactive and automatic.
The Anatomy of Basic Forgiveness
In seeking Forgiveness, we approach somebody that we feel we have harmed or treated poorly in some manner. We point this transgression out, explaining how what we did was wrong and how we intend to behave differently in the future. We sincerely ask for Forgiveness with Humility and with no qualifiers or excuses. This is a proactive action of seeking Forgiveness. It is best performed affirmatively in this fashion.
Also note that in requesting Forgiveness, we cannot expect to receive it. The harmed individual is allowed to express their feelings associated with the harm. We let them vent. Forgiveness is then granted at the sole discretion of the person it is requested from.
If we receive a request for Forgiveness, a Generosity of heart would generally command that we grant it or request more time to consider it. If we grant Forgiveness, Wisdom would dictate that we monitor the situation to make sure that the harmful behaviors do not reoccur. If they do, possibly with repeated requests for Forgiveness, we may have to remove ourselves from harm’s way or otherwise limit the opportunity for further harm. We can stay away from that person and still Love them from afar.
To be forgiving doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat or subject yourself to further harm. To do so disrespects your own Divinity.
“Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.” -Dalai Lama
There is a tacit or default type of Forgiveness as well that happens over time. A person who was harmed and felt resentment towards a perpetrator may let that feeling go after a period of time has passed. It is better if Forgiveness is proactively requested and granted since it is more Truthful and in the Light. Sometimes, though, transgressions just fade away over the years and/or there is some unspoken understanding of what has occurred and the parties involved just move on. Although unspoken, it is still good to recognize these instances. Sometimes we just get over some things in time which, in essence, is Forgiveness too.
In granting Forgiveness, some suggest or require that remorse and/or redress be demonstrated. Forgiveness in its purest form makes no such demands, as many transgressors may simply be incapable of remorse, especially if they “know not what they do.” In the meantime, while waiting for remorse, the harmed individual may not be free to let go of the hold the perpetrating event had on them. Waiting for remorse may serve to hold the one seeking it in a prison, just like the monk who would not forgive his torturers in the story described earlier.
Redress or compensation is a related but separate issue of Justice and responsibility which may lead to a further need for Forgiveness. If you borrow my car and damage it through carelessness, for example, I can forgive you for the carelessness. If you then fail to pay for the repair as a matter of redress, a new issue is born requiring Forgiveness. There is potential for a snowball effect when unconscious beings continue to act unconsciously. As conscious beings, we forgive and move on and are wiser for the experience (or maybe poorer if you are in the unfortunate circumstance of having to fix the car your friend damaged).
While a high standard may be culturally created to grant a certain amount of clemency in the most horrible of cases, Humanity on the most personal level seems to struggle the most with Self-Forgiveness. We can be hardest on ourselves and the least generous in terms of Forgiveness when it comes to ourselves. This “harshness with self” stagnates our personal growth and is often an indicator of an overall self-image of inadequacy that disrespects one’s own Divinity. We seem to be able to forgive others for their unconscious acts yet we cannot seem to Forgive ourselves. Talk about a high standard!
Forgiving ourselves seems like something we often have to build ourselves up to. I find that people working on the practice of Forgiveness actually do better to start with seeking forgiveness from others, then forgiving others and finally, forgiving themselves. When we finally do forgive ourselves, it is shame-clearing, Divinity-promoting and highly empowering.
“What I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being.” -Maya Angelou
The Over-Apologist is constantly saying sorry for almost everything they do. “Sorry” basically becomes a request for Forgiveness for the distorted perception of doing harm to others when there has been none. Over-apologizing reflects a constant underlying feeling of inadequacy; people who engage in it are negating their own Divinity. They seem to be basically saying “Please forgive me for being here, being alive and taking up space as my inadequate self.” This is obviously a call for more spiritual and Healing work to erase an erroneous imprint upon their psyche that denies their Divinity.
There is a strong bias in Judeo-Christian based societies, and maybe others, of pushing towards Forgiveness too quickly in some cases. The high ideal created likely contributes to this. Jesus set the bar pretty high on this topic.
In the most basic terms, Forgiveness can be granted to others whom we have perceived as harming us in some manner. It does not, however, condone the action that wronged us. It does not negate the fact that we have feelings surrounding the harm done to us and that those feelings need to be experienced. It does not say that some accountability from others or society at large is not appropriate. It does theoretically state that the person granting Forgiveness is releasing the perpetrator from ongoing feelings of personal resentment. The sin may still be despised, but not the sinner.
Forgiveness at its core is fundamentally an act of Acceptance. We Accept that what happened in the past cannot be changed. Many people have to work on simple Acceptance in this regard. They may have to stay in a state of non-forgiveness for some time until a straight-forward Acceptance can occur within them. Pushing too hard and too soon for Forgiveness may result in further resentment and lack of Acceptance or a false state of Forgiveness (granting Forgiveness verbally without truly doing so within one’s heart). Pushing too fast for Forgiveness can leave feelings associated with the harm done that remain unexpressed and suppressed.
Forgiveness can only sprout on a strong foundation of Acceptance that what occurred has happened and cannot be changed. Acceptance requires Non-Attachment to “how things were before.” Only from a place of Acceptance can understanding, compassion and Generosity of heart lead to Forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is giving up hope that the past can be any different.” -Iylana Vanzant
As Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “No one has the right to tell someone who has suffered that they most forgive.” We must Forgive on our own schedule for it to truly be of worth to self and others.
Forgiving the Most Horrific Actions
The greater the crime, the harder it may be to forgive. Forgiving is not easy. There is a high standard created for Forgiveness especially in the most horrific of circumstances. To have an understanding of unconscious behavior and to release ourselves from the binds of ongoing resentment in these cases can be the most difficult. The logic for Forgiveness is a no-brainer on paper, but when we attempt to apply it to those that harm the vulnerable and those who commit actions of great cruelty and hate, we struggle. Instead, we may want blood and vengeance. When someone we love is personally harmed, the desire for vengeance is amplified. Our emotions may rule the day.
Can we apply the reasoning of “They know not what they do” to these cases?
Can any unconscious behavior be an indicator of society’s need to take collective conscious action in stopping vicious cycles of harm towards others, to promote Peace, Respect and understanding and to Nurture and Heal the mentally ill or otherwise stop the propagation of violence and harm upon each?
These are our tests to process in our own time. The only way we can receive a failing grade, I believe, is when we answer unconscious behavior with further unconscious behavior. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is a policy that has been renounced in that same Judeo-Christian tradition discussed above. True long-term Justice and Peace does not come from retribution.
Duty to Report
When we feel we have been wronged or harmed by someone in some way, we are duty-bound to make it known to the perceived transgressor. If we do not, we suffer the consequences internally. Often after a transgression, we assume that the perpetrator knew what they did and how we feel about it. When we assume this, resentment may fester, leading to unknown and escalating consequences. If the transgressor is oblivious of the harmed caused, they may continue in such behavior in the future.
We tend to be non-confrontational in bringing up issues of harm. There is a danger of rejection or of further harm, depending on the personalities involved. We may feel that our needs don’t matter. There is a certain skill and Courage necessary in bringing up matters such as these in a constructive manner.
Yet, again, as conscious beings on a spiritual path, we are duty-bound to do so. There is so much to be offered by bringing issues of perceived harm into the Light. There is a reciprocity of Healing which can occur in the Forgiveness cycle. The transgressor and the harmed both have opportunities for Healing and greater consciousness.
Counselors will recommend the cliché’ yet effective approach of using “I feel” or “I felt” statements when bringing up these issues. Telling someone how we feel is generally believed to be a safer and less confrontational route that throwing blame at someone. For example, we may say something like: “The other day when we were having a disagreement, I felt shamed, like I was being yelled at. It reminded me of getting yelled at as a child.”
With “I” statements, we focus on how we feel. And we focus on the action or behavior, not the person. For those of us for whom this is difficult, we simply need to practice it as a skill. Writing it out in a letter beforehand or in lieu of face-to-face interaction is sometimes helpful.
Most of the times we will find that a person whom we feel has harmed us did so unintentionally. In this most common situation, they will be truly sorry. They will also grow from our bringing up the issue in a responsible way.
Radical Forgiveness states that nothing wrong ever happens and that everything occurs for our own needs and for our soul’s growth. Some proponents of Radical Forgiveness even state that we have attracted the harm done to us for our own growth. If this is the case, then all harmful actions serve us and do not require Forgiveness.
In my opinion, Radical Forgiveness fails to recognize Freewill and our own responsibility for transforming out of unconscious behavior. It is hard to accept that a young victim of severe child abuse attracted that experience for their spiritual growth. They can transform that pain later for sure, and may even learn valuable lessons from it that they can share with others. The initial harm, however, may have resulted from random unconscious action that had nothing to do with the victim (or some preordained cruel jab of destiny). Yes, I am a believer that we can accidentally get leveled by a semi-truck right before the moment we complete our soul path journey in the body our soul resides in simply because the driver of the semi was texting at the time. Our soul will just have to pick up where it left off in its next incarnation. I like the form of Radical Forgiveness implied by Jesus upon crucifixion. He requested Forgiveness simply due to unconscious behavior. “They know not what they do,” he said simply. The crime was still acknowledged. In applying this form of Forgiveness ourselves, we are recognizing that everyone is doing the best they can, considering their story, their wounds and their level of consciousness. We forgive them and help them grow if we can and, at the same time, wrongdoers can still be held accountable by society at large.
I do recommend this approach to Forgiveness with an overall generosity of spirit and with the intention of helping others to grow. It is an approach of cutting oneself and others some slack. This attitude creates an ongoing release of resentment and of perceived harm by others and creates opportunities for accountability and growth.
The proactive act of constant Forgiveness is extremely beneficial and heart-opening as well. It serves to recognize our underlying human condition as conscious beings who are working on integrating our Humanity with our Divinity. We see the Divinity dwelling in others, no matter how deep it may lie, and see it as an overriding, potentially-redeeming value.
“To err is human and to forgive is Divine.” –Alexander Pope
Forgiveness seeks to integrate these two aspects of ourselves (Divinity and Humanity; Forgiving and Erring) and is ultimately an act of Communion between them.
“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.” -Maya Angelou
Non-Judgment, Non-Attachment, Acceptance, Empathy, Love, Courage and Generosity are the primary elements that support Forgiveness. With Non-Judgment, we are not applying judgment to a person’s overall value or implying a lack of Divinity. We are, in fact, recognizing their Divinity while focusing on specific behavior. With Non-Attachment, we are not holding on to resentment nor some condition of the past that may have changed due to harm caused to us. Acceptance further acknowledges that a harmful action has occurred and that it has changed our lives in some way, even momentarily. With Acceptance, we acknowledge a new reality.
Empathy provides compassion and the willingness to seek understanding of unconscious behavior, recognizing that we too have likely been unconscious in our own actions at one time or another.
Love, Courage and Generosity open the heart to forgive and to give forgiveness to others in recognition of their capacity to be conscious and in recognition of their underlying Divinity.
Justice supports Forgiveness in terms of providing for accountability which, while not necessary, makes Forgiveness easier.
Healing supports Forgiveness in that as we Heal, we seek Forgiveness. We seek to Forgive ourselves and to Forgive others.
- Just do it. It is easier to start small. Forgive others and cut them some slack for minor trespasses that occur on a daily basis. These small acts of Forgiveness can be spoken or unspoken. The point is to not hold on to resentment in response to the various slights we may receive every day.
- Apologize for minor transgressions that you may commit, being wary of over-apologizing. Simply say: “I am sorry (for what I just did, for not recognizing your needs, for what I just said, etc.).”
- Take inventory, possibly with the help of a counselor, of the major harms others have caused you throughout your life. These events can be ranked by severity. Each event may have to be worked through and Healed internally in order to gain understanding and acceptance before working towards Forgiveness of the next.
- Look at instances where you feel you may have harmed others and might want Forgiveness from them. Develop a strategy to seek Forgiveness for each action. Write letters or meet with others, for example, to communicate your feelings. If anything, work towards Forgiving yourself for committing these actions if those that were involved cannot be contacted.
- Inventory areas where you can Forgive yourself for actions for which you may resent yourself. Often we feel shame when we perceive ourselves as contributing to the harm caused by others or for not taking action to prevent a harm. We may have harmed others and received Forgiveness but are still holding on to shame. We may hold on to regrets as well for decisions made before we had a greater understanding of ourselves or life in general. Implement a weekly ritual of self-Forgiveness, whereby you recognize yourself as a being who is constantly learning from your actions.
- Report or confront occurrences of harm to the perceived perpetrator (and outside authorities when appropriate) as close as possible to the time that the event occurred. Do so in writing if this resonates with you. In intimate relationships, practice the skill of speaking up by using “I feel” statements.
- Cut yourself some slack for daily imperfections. Don’t beat yourself up over old transgressions or shames.
Please Let Me Forgive Myself for Not Always Knowing What I Know Now.
Please Help Me Release Self-Blame. Please Help Me Release Shame.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread. Forgive Us Our Trespasses, As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us.
I am sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you. (Hawaiian Mantra of forgiveness.)
I Am Still Learning. I Am Still Experiencing. I Forgive Myself for Mistakes Made While Learning. I Am a Beautiful Soul.