‘To err is human. To forgive, divine’. Alexander Pope
Late summer every year I go on retreat for a week on The Isle of Wight. It gives me an opportunity to reflect, refocus and recharge my batteries. I spend my week alone walking in the beautiful countryside and along the deserted beaches of South West Wight, meditating, reading spiritual texts and writing my contemplations in my journal. I eat a light, raw food diet and have a daily Epsom Salts bath to help detoxify my body (Epsom Salts baths are said to draw out toxins and have many health benefits).
Every year I have a specific focus for the week’s retreat. This year’s focus was forgiveness. This gave me an opportunity to bring to mind all the people, present and past and from every area of my life, whom I was holding some angst towards, both big and small. I then went through a process of forgiveness with each one. It was a cathartic experience. Moreover, the value I gained from it was a lightening of the mental load I was carrying that was weighing me, not them, down.
I am also a firm believer that as we let umbrage go from our minds, it has business benefits: helping us come into better relationships with people; allowing us to gain greater clarity on our direction and focus and freeing up our minds to think creatively and strategically about business issues and business advancement.
Alexander Pope, the 18th century English poet, quoted above, highlighted the necessity of accepting that, as humans, we all make mistakes. Also, to forgive such misdemeanours is ‘divine’. For others, forgiveness means something very different. Given that, I thought it might be worth exploring some of the various approaches to forgiveness:
- Forgiveness lifts the burden of resentment. Much contemporary literature sees forgiveness this way. It encourages us to release our bitterness towards another and let the person go, with the aim of removing from our minds their injustices towards us. By doing so, seemingly, we rise above the person as the forgiver and prove to ourselves and others how good we are! While this approach seems valuable, it can lead to feelings of self-righteousness in the forgiver and leaves the perpetrator carrying the weight of their guilt.
- Forgiveness as an interpersonal act. In this approach, the victim and the offender come together to take steps towards making amends. Ideally, the wrong-doer accepts responsibility for their offence, is apologetic, willing to mend their ways and understands how the victim felt as a result of their actions. From there, forgiveness is offered to the offender, and a sense of mutual empathy ensues. Both parties move forward, free from the episode. This approach can be liberating if everyone involved arrives at a place of mutual compassionate understanding.
- Forgiveness that is unconditional. Unconditional forgiveness means we forgive everything, wholeheartedly, whatever the wrongdoing. For many, this approach is unrealistic as it excuses, or even condones, the offense. It allows perpetrators ‘off the hook’, able to take no responsibility for their actions. For those who want the benefits of forgiveness, it is worth working through the emotions of anger, moral outrage, a sense of injustice and a desire for vengeance, to get to that place of peace within where we can forgive without conditions attached. Part of this process is a willingness to adopt a new perspective of the situation and of the culprit, perhaps understanding what in their past led them to commit the offence. This is an evolved approach for the sufferer but, if the unconditional forgiveness is total and demonstrated, it can have miraculous effects.
- Forgiveness that is dependent on our view of reality. As victims of a crime, we feel hurt, either physically or emotionally. However, if we embrace the perspective of reality that is taken by many Buddhists, Hindus and articulated in the spiritual text A Course in Miracles, we believe that this world is not real. It is merely a projection of our thoughts. What we think has happened has only taken place in the world of illusion. In the real world, nothing has occurred. No one is harmed or guilty. From here, the forgiver sees and treats the illusory perpetrator as wholly free from guilt. While holding this view of the situation, the forgiver balances this with the need to acknowledge our physical world and the ‘mistake’ the offender has made and uses their inner wisdom to decide on what, if any, practical actions need to be taken. This is indeed an enlightened approach yet it helps us loosen our grip on the physical world if we can embrace it
How do you know when you have fully forgiven someone? You can genuinely wish them well and offer them the Buddhist prayer: May you be happy; may you be healthy; may you be at peace …and let your actions towards them follow these thoughts of loving kindness.
Your willingness to forgive both people, including yourself and situations that lead to even the smallest reactions of irritation and anger within you will guide you to the sense of co-operation in relationships that only forgiveness offers. Who in our fast-paced world would not consider that worthwhile?