The inability to forgive, when we would like to, is one of the heaviest crosses we can carry. It can weigh us down in spirit and burden our emotions with a sense of failure and guilt. How can we help each other to carry this cross, until we realise in a moment of liberation, that the weight of the cross is the only the burden of illusion?
The desire for vengeance (sometimes we call it ‘justice’) is understandable when someone has hurt us. But it is rarely a choice we make. Sometimes it is a sense of duty (in a vendetta culture) or our instinctual, hurt response when an offer of reconciliation has been rejected. As the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission showed, most victims do not primarily want revenge, to see their oppressor suffer. They want to hear a confession, an acknowledgement that the offender was responsible for the pain inflicted. Apparently, then, the refusal to admit guilt is what triggers the extreme anger of vengeance, which ironically hurts the victim even more than the perpetrator.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are two distinct stages in the process of healing human hurts and betrayals. Forgiveness is not a pardon that we bestow but an integration of our own feelings (as a self-perceived victim) of rejection and outrage with our deeper, true self. Forgiveness is a healing of the victim’s own sense of being betrayed – a feeling that frequently leads to self-rejection and a sense of unworthiness. Deep in human nature is the expectation that we should, and will be, treated justly. Whenever this expectation is betrayed, we are thrown into confusion and do not see clearly where responsibility lies. We demonise the person who has hurt or disappointed us. We blame the wrong person. Or we blame ourselves.
All this creates turmoil in the soul. When we try to meditate, we soon run into this turmoil as a major obstruction, like a plane hitting air turbulence. If we can persevere the power of pure attention can penetrate and begin to dissolve it. But we will still probably need to share it with someone who can pay attention to us or whom we pay to give us their attention. Forgiveness then advances by the withdrawing of our projections. Next we ask, interiorly, to the person we are in conflict with, ‘why did you strike me?’ This is the question Jesus asked the soldier who hit him during his trial. This begins to change our mind.
Insight into the other person opens and, before long, understanding is deepened by compassion. We only have to catch a glimpse of the pain, the turmoil in her soul, the cross that the person who hurts us carries in herself. Desire for vengeance or to ‘ghost’ her out of existence then yields to the compassion we call forgiving our enemies.
Lent is a good time to make an inventory of our relationship history to see if we have the need for this forgiveness. It is a season when we simplify. In doing so, we understand ourselves in relation to others better. And what we usually run away from can be faced. Emotional freedom, lightness of heart and a liberated conscience result.