Forgiveness: Giving Up Our Attachments

Today is the 2nd day of Yom Kippur. For our Jewish friends, today is a day known as the day of Atonement, the day when forgiveness is sought for the misdeeds of the past. Forgiveness is something that we probably are missing in our discourse, and in our society at large today. So what does it mean? What did Jesus mean when he said “forgive seventy times seven times” when commanding his disciples to forgive others? Is our society a forgiving society? In a society where a debate audience applauds the mention of 234 executions during the term of Gov. Rick Perry, one has to wonder where forgiveness is, if it even exists.

America, it seems, is very much an Old Testament society, a society that believes very much in Hamurrabi’s ancient adage of “an eye for an eye”. We are a society that believes that justice is something that is given, something deserved, more to the point, something external to ourselves, something different from the rest of us. This is no surprise, of course, given that we come from a Judeo-Christian, and more particularly a strong Puritan and Calvinist heritage (which sets us apart from most other developed countries). But what of forgiveness’ role? It’s talked about a lot in our religious communities from evangelical fundamentalist Christian ones to the most liberal secular and humanist ones. We talk often about our need to forgive others, so what is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is fundamentally an act of letting go. It is the act of divesting one’s self of the perceived or actual right to justice or retribution. In forgiving someone, we in a way reject and renounce any right to an apology, to being “made whole”, because in the act of this giving up and letting go, we have achieved our own wholeness. The magic of forgiveness is that in letting go of that thing that we want: justice, retribution, apology, vengeance, and so on, we gain the same feeling, nay, a more authentic feeling of wholeness than had we actually gotten what was due to us. Forgiveness arises out of openness, out of a sense of freedom than it does out of a sense of closedness, or a sense of rigidity. When there is only a narrow and closed set of possibilities as to how to react to a perceived offense, forgiveness is difficult at best.

Of course, it’s not easy. We have a sense that we have a solid self that needs to be protected. Indeed, much of our anger, our hatred, and our desire for vengeance come out of a desire to protect this self that we have constructed for ourselves. When we grasp at this sense of self, and shield it by quests for retribution or “justice”, we fail to see what is beneath that hard shell we have made for ourselves. In not forgiving, we are further shielding ourselves from the beautiful, but tender heart that lies beneath the shell we are working so hard to protect. We spend so much time working at knowing that we are “in the right”, and that we have been “made right” that we forget that it is in letting go that true freedom is found.

There is a Christian cliché that says when you don’t forgive someone or you are angry at them it is like letting them live rent free in your head. And let me extend that further, to say that it’s like letting an utterly destructive tenant live rent free in your head. Anger and hatred, if allowed to fester, can wreak havoc on every aspect and level of our lives. In essence, we are letting our past suffering create suffering in the present life, and if you’re the Buddhist / Reincarnation believing type, it plants negative seeds in our consciousness that will ripen into immense suffering in the future. So, forgiveness then is essential.

Now, this is not to say that we become, as Chögyam Trungpa put it, jellyfish. In teaching about the Mahayana stage of Buddhist practice, Trungpa Rinpoche teaches that becoming compassionate, is a wholly different thing than “idiot compassion”. We don’t become doormats. Forgiveness is not just about “love and light”. It is about working intelligently with others. In other words, letting go, and divesting ourselves of the retribution or justice we perceive is due to us, is not an out to let someone walk all over you, or to just simply “take it”. Being able to forgive, should mean, that we are not on the level of retribution or vengeance anymore. It should mean that we are ready to open ourselves fearlessly to the world, and to be open to situations and react accordingly out of openness instead of aggression or fear.

Forsaking our attachment to the things we think we deserve from others because of what they have done “to us”, is indeed the hard work of forgiveness. It is something that we need to work on at the individual, family, community, and even societal levels. It is something that at this time of Yom Kippur, we are reminded and called to do by the Jewish prophetic tradition. This prophetic call to forgiveness and authenticity could not have come at a more opportune time in our common life in today’s world.


Peace – and may all beings benefit.



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