Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How Can We Forgive?

I read a touching article about a woman whose daughter was murdered.

After the murderer was sentenced to prison for life, the mother continued to boil with anger. In time, she realized that her own anger was killing her. And thus the man who had taken her child’s life was taking hers as well.

In hopes of finding healing, she traveled to the prison and met with the murderer. At first, she found it difficult to be in the same room. But, desperate for healing, she persevered.

She gradually began to see the man not as a monster, but as a fellow human being who had suffered. The story ended with them growing closer in mutual understanding, and with the woman becoming like a second mother to him.

The woman never condoned what the man had done. But she found that she could accept it – not as good or beautiful, but as a reality that simply had to be faced.

The murderer also experienced an expansion of consciousness. Before his meetings with the mother, he had no concept of the suffering he had caused. By getting to know the grieving mother, he came to understand that negative actions can have terrible results far beyond the moment of the act.

Accepting responsibility for his actions created an opening for the woman to open her heart to him in compassion. She offered him an example of the all-forgiving love of God. And she experienced the blessing of that love which constantly forgives.

In this life, all that we can ever experience is our own consciousness. If we poison our consciousness with anger, grief, bitterness, and resentment, our life becomes miserable.

Even if our circumstances give us every logical reason to be miserable, the real issue is: Who suffers? Divine forgiveness is an absolute requirement for our own happiness.

There are no shortcuts to forgiveness. But perfect self-honesty will give us, in time, the humility to purge our hearts of blaming others for our suffering. No matter what the facts are, the truth is that we are responsible for our own consciousness.

A friend told me about the trouble she was having with an elderly relative. This old, bitter person was doing everything he could to suck the joy out of her life.

At one point, I interrupted. “You just sat there and let him talk to you like that?”

“Yes, I did.”

“I would have walked out and never come back,” I said. “It is not good for him to speak like that. And it is an offense against the God within you to let yourself be treated that way.”

Let me add that if my friend had been unaffected, I would have answered differently. If she could be detached and able to give her love joyfully to this unhappy old man, it might have been a spiritual service worth offering. But she was deeply affected, and all the joy was being sucked out of her.

To give people the impression that you live solely to be abused by them, and that whatever they do to you is fine, and that their actions will have no consequences for them, is not love or forgiveness. Almost always, it is simply guilt or fear.

It’s not always easy to analyze our own motives. But it has to be done. Humility isn’t self-abasement. It is courageous self-honesty – seeing things exactly as they are, without shame or excuses.

Years ago, Swami Kriyananda received a letter from a woman who said she was leaving her husband after seven years of marriage.

“Whenever I try to meditate,” she wrote, “he turns the television on as loud as possible. When I speak of spiritual things, he makes fun of me.”

Privately, Swamiji said to me, “She put up with that for seven years?! I wouldn’t have taken it for fifteen minutes!”

I once received a letter from a woman whose partner of fifteen years had repeatedly betrayed her. He excused his actions by saying it was the result of the inner pain of a mental disorder. He announced he had been healed, and that he wanted to continue the relationship.

The woman asked me two questions: “Can people really change?” And, “When we commit to love and forgive everything, does it include inconstancy?”

Can a person change? Of course, anyone can change. We are children of God, capable of infinite improvement. But true healing requires that we take responsibility for our actions. And, so far as possible, we must make amends. Even if it’s very difficult to make amends, we must try; otherwise, there is a gap in our healing.

This woman’s partner attributed his betrayals to his mental disorder. But to “explain it away” isn’t the same as taking responsibility.

There was man who lived at Ananda Village who subsequently left and did his best to harm the community and many of his former friends by aggressively spreading false and malicious rumors. His lies caused pain for many people.

Years later, I happened to run into him. He behaved with great friendliness and began talking about the importance of forgiveness and healing. His point was that I, as a member of Ananda, should be expansive in my consciousness and forgive him for the trouble he had caused.

I said, “Have you changed? Do you repudiate the attitudes and actions of the past? Will you apologize to all those you hurt? Will you take back your lies?”

His answer was carefully crafted. “I’m sorry that some of you suffered.”

I said, “That’s no answer! Are you sorry for the part you played in causing that suffering?”

To that he made no reply, which told me all I needed to know. He wasn’t willing to admit that he had acted improperly. Instead he was trying to shame me into believing that I would be acting improperly if I didn’t welcome him back with open arms!

I bear him no ill will. But, as I explained to him in no uncertain terms, it would be irresponsible of me to welcome him back into my life and into the life of Ananda if he showed no actual proof that he had changed. He was trying to take advantage of Ananda’s well-known generosity of heart.

The question isn’t, “Can a person change?” It is, “Has he changed?” And, if so, “What is the proof?” Pleasant-sounding statements alone are not enough.

Returning to the subject of the straying husband who attributed his inconstancy to his emotional illness: Even though an apology isn’t the same as reform, it’s a first step toward taking responsibility for one’s behavior.

In the case of the person who had tried to harm Ananda, there was no apology. There was no acceptance that he had done anything wrong.

Did the straying husband apologize for his behavior? If so, and if he was genuinely trying to become a better person, then there was no lowering of standards to prevent the partner from forgiving him and welcoming him back into her life. But before welcoming him back, she would need to deeply consider his potential for falling back into the same delusion.

Certainly, perfect love can forgive all. But to consider yourself a victim, and to act like a doormat, is to doom yourself to suffering and disappointment.

We all make mistakes. God understands us completely and forgives our weaknesses endlessly. But it is our duty to do our best to change.

In joy,