Let’s be honest, forgiving someone who has done something wrong (including yourself) is really hard. The biggest barrier to forgiveness (for me) is thinking of it as “losing”. It can feel like if I forgive someone, I’m saying what happened was ok, when it wasn’t.
That’s the wrong way to think about it but I still make that mistake even after learning the power of forgiveness first-hand (more on that later).
Finding a healthy path to forgiveness by recognizing the core goodness in all of us is the focus of the tenth chapter of Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach (reading as part of my amplify goals from last month). In the book, the author outlines both the power of forgiveness and the immense difficulty that most have in doing it.
I can relate.
Recognizing the basic good in ourselves
The path to forgiveness in the book is through recognizing the basic good in everyone, and it starts with yourself. If we don’t forgive ourselves, the argument goes, we aren’t going to be able to forgive others.
Feeling guilty and bad about ourselves for something we’ve done might temporarily restrain us from doing harm, but ultimately blaming and hating ourselves only leads to further harmful actions. We can’t punish ourselves into being a good person. Only by holding ourselves with the compassion of forgiveness do we experience our goodness and respond to our circumstances with wisdom and care.
Seeing the basic good in others
Contrary to how we think of ourselves, we often treat others as shallow and one-dimensional, pinning labels on them as “bad” or “evil” forever. Doing this makes forgiveness difficult or impossible. Instead, the book recommends that we see others as much deeper and capable of being different, even good.
Most of us, however, fall into the habit of pinning a narrow and static identity on those around us. All too often this is based on behaviors we find unpleasant or annoying. We might fixate on how stubborn or rude our child is, or how a colleague brags about his accomplishments. If someone has offended us, we feel wary and guarded each time we see them. If our partner makes a cutting remark to us before leaving for work in the morning, we are ready for more of the same in the evening. We forget that every person, including ourselves, is new every moment.
In his play The Cocktail Party, T. S. Eliot writes:
What we know of other people Is only our memory of the moments During which we knew them. And they have Changed since then . . . We must Also remember That at every meeting we are meeting a Stranger.
My experience with forgiveness
I remember the beginning of the end of my first marriage like it was yesterday. My ex had cheated on me and I was beyond rage. My days blurred together. As time went on, my rage reduced but didn’t go away. I was like a pot on a stove at a constant simmer.
This went on for many months (more than a year maybe?). I remember I was seeing a therapist at the time who, during one of my angry tirades about how I’d been wronged, asked me “Do you think you can ever forgive her?”
Hearing the word “forgive” was like a shot in the chest. I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly forgive this kind of thing, but still, why did the word impact me so much?
Fast forward several months and I finally got to the point of forgiveness, both for my ex and for my own role in our failed marriage. When I did that, everything changed.
It’s hard to forgive someone that close to you, let alone someone that might never say sorry or acknowledge their behavior. It’s even harder to see all people as fundamentally good as Buddhism teaches. However, see if this helps:
the Buddhist perspective holds that there is no such thing as a sinful or evil person. When we harm ourselves or others, it is not because we are bad but because we are ignorant. To be ignorant is to ignore the truth that we are connected to all of life, and that grasping and hatred create more separation and suffering.
I appreciate that as a healthier way to look at things, along with this:
To recognize this basic goodness in everyone takes courage. [The Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa] calls this the task of the spiritual warrior, and says that the essence of human bravery is “refusing to give up on anyone or anything.”
Forgiveness was my way out of a boiling pot and I owe everything I have now to reaching that point. It was worth the struggle to get there.
📖 This chapter builds on the previous, starting with the trance of unworthiness (Chapter 1), how Radical Acceptance can break that trance (Chapter 2), how pausing is the foundation of Radical Acceptance (Chapter 3), how to treat our experience with unconditional friendliness (Chapter 4), the importance of paying attention to physical sensations in the body (Chapter 5), how desires can fool us by being substitutes for our unmet needs (Chapter 6), the nature of fear and how to accept it (Chapter 7), and developing compassion for ourselves and others (Chapters 8 & 9).