On Forgiveness

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'Forgive and forget'—possibly one of the popular phrases anyone is aware of. It was certainly my parent’s phrase-choice when I ended up in world war 3 with my siblings and they came in as intergalactic peacekeepers from a star far far away. A quick study into the phenomenon of abuse and mistreatment in any relationship will establish that they almost always occur in spaces where trust exists. The word “mistreatment” is used with the word “abuse” to highlight degrees of unacceptable actions, from unnecessarily neglecting someone’s emotional needs like forgetting a birthday (mistreatment) to physically pounding them (abuse). Whenever we feel a friend or partner has abused the trust in our relationship, depending on the level of perceived wrongdoing, we can overlook it to keep the peace, demand appeasement, or call it quits. In situations where we have decided to stay, as much as it is the offender’s responsibility to apologise and change their ways, the “offendee” if you will, has to participate in the reconciliation process to help both parties reach a better resolution. This is where the art of forgiveness comes in. As William Shakersepere so eloquently put it in The Merchant of Venice: 

“THE QUALITY OF MERCY IS NOT STRAINED.
IT DROPPETH AS THE GENTLE RAIN FROM HEAVEN UPON THE PLACE BENEATH. IT IS TWICE BLESSED: IT BLESSETH HIM THAT GIVES AND HIM THAT TAKES.”

 

While it is advisable to overlook what we can, it is important to stress that unregulated behaviours are quick to become habit and cemented in character. Once set in stone, it becomes compounding and a lot more difficult to deal with. 
Sometimes, we have no choice but to call people out when we feel they have mistreated us. It is as well meant for their own good as it is meant for ours. 


In Buddhist philosophy, the notion of forgiveness is considered rather redundant because adherents are told to realise that inherently, humans are weak and largely ignorant, hence disappointment is to be expected and forgiveness granted almost expressly. Monks like Ajahn Brahm, advocates that people take up a technique that involves constantly overlooking bad behaviour and rewarding good behaviour. The idea here is that people will generally gravitate towards what they feel they are being rewarded for and their conscience will judge them for their misconducts. Our express forgiveness serves as a type of reprimand in itself.  Sort of like having a fight in school but instead of your parents scolding you, they simply shake their head and tell you how disappointed they are and how you should have known better. 

This technique of pre-emptive forgiveness isn’t without its merit as it reduces chances of a confrontation which can spiral into larger issues, but like most philosophies, it also isn’t without its drawbacks. For one thing, most of us don’t have anything close to the emotional balance of a Buddhist monk; we have much more emotionally turbulent lives than monastic living. Most unfortunately, we just don’t know how to let it slide all the time. 

So when pre-emptive forgiveness has failed, post-mortem forgiveness comes in, and while Jesus instructed his disciple to forgive 77 X 7 times, most of us struggle to do this once-- there are a lot of reasons behind this. At the heart of our inability to forgive, is our expectation in relationships which is often directly related to our emotional investment. When a friend forgets our birthdays, we hardly throw a fit, but when a partner does exactly the same thing, a cold war begins to brew. This perception and way of thinking come from a subconscious 'you should know better' mode of thought. Children all but set the house on fire and we still forgive and forget their actions almost as soon as it is over because we believe they do not know better. But when we are dealing with adults-- who for the most part are babies in grown bodies forced into maturity-- we are now expected to be calculative and rational, we struggle to make room for error. The question ‘what is your excuse?’ shoves here, as if being human isn’t more than enough. 

It is important to be careful about the expectations we place on people in a relationship and how we deal with seniors where we feel offended. It is surprising how far this goes to modifying the way people we interact with behave. When considering a child and parent relationship, parents that are harsh and slow to forgive end up creating a trust deficit with their children while open and fast to forgive parents form the opposite. It isn’t very different in adult relationships. 

Again, no one philosophy fits all situations and sometimes we need to be a bit hard on people to let them see the degree to which their actions or inactions have upset us. Although generally, the killing an ant with a sledgehammer technique goes to foster emotional landscapes where our friends and partners tread like they are walking on eggshells or avoiding landmines. 

Beyond getting to the point of forgiveness, there is the part of memory, which is why learning to forget is often stressed alongside forgiveness. Naturally, we are only human and cannot will ourselves to forget anything. In fact, remembering to forget is remembering in itself. But we have quarrels and result to pulling back issues from the past instead of focusing on the conflict at hand. Another scenario is after an apology, we don’t let go of the issue, we create space for the matter to be compounded. This often triggers repetitive cycles of similar quarrels manifested in slightly different manners. A lot of the time, this happens because we have not honestly resolved the emotions evoked at the time of the previous issue. For example, a partner has told you off for drinking, so now, every time they make a negative comment about drinking, you can’t help but be overly sensitive and take it personal. Learning to not just forgive, but to put it behind you, will go a long way at bringing long-standing peace and calm(to yourself), creating room to be more productive in your relationship.