Pioneer magazine

Forgiveness - The Keystone of Human Values

february2015coverFr BRIAN CAVANAUGH, TOR concludes his article on forgiveness

Maybe it’s the Franciscan influence, but I find that the world of Creation abounds with noteworthy lessons for life, if we only learn to pay attention to them. Did you know that shrimp are considered ectoskeletons? That is, they wear their skeletons on the outside of their bodies, and some have been known to discard their shells as many as twenty-six times during a lifetime. They need to shed their shells to accommodate their growing bodies.

Perhaps we human beings can take a lesson from the shrimp. Do we have some shells that need discarding? It may be a good idea to examine our lives and shed a few shells occasionally. The growing person is constantly shedding his or her shells. Perhaps it’s time to shed our shells of envy, pride, anger, indifference. What the world needs now is greater enthusiasm for life. Enthusiasm is the key that unlocks the doors to abundant life. Perhaps it is time to shed our shells of selfishness and of narrow, confining self-interest.

The Smallness of Our Vision

A major part of the problem in forgiving is that we are just too self-centered. We think the universe revolves around the little sphere called ‘ME’.  Fr James Schall, SJ, helps to focus our perspective: “What mainly prevents us from being more complete humans is the smallness of our vision.”  Think about it, “the smallness of our vision.” Now, that is a perspective with which to stretch and flex. How small is your vision? How narrow your mind, your heart, your spirit? Ask yourself, what is it that is preventing you from becoming a more complete person?

I’ve noticed another deadly dis-ease in a number of people. Maybe you wake up next to this person, or find him or her looking back at you from the mirror when brushing your teeth. These people suffer from ‘Victimitis’—carrying their grudges and nursing their hurts, actual or illusionary ones. For lack of a better image, I refer to these as ‘Huff-n-Puff’ people. You know them—eyes wide open, straining to pop out, and anger that seems to be steaming out from their ears. They suffer from perpetual anger, real or imagined.

Resentment is like Drinking Poison

A saying, often attributed to Buddha, offers a similar sentiment, “A man will not be punished for his anger; a man will be punished by his anger.”  Have you realised yet that your resentment and bitterness only hurt you? “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” writes Cindy Clabough. Simply put, anger is an acid that affects only the container which holds it. That’s a good thought to pin to your memory. What’s eating away at you right now? What past hurt festers beneath the surface of your conscious thoughts? Forgiveness brings about healing which brings forth wellness in one’s body, mind and soul. Forgiveness, however, cannot be hurried or forced; it takes time. Sometimes the work of forgiveness can feel like peeling an onion: there are so many fine layers that keep going on and on. One wonders, “Will I ever get to the end and be healed once and for all?” 

Virtue of the Brave

Mahatma Gandhi provided sage advice: “Forgiveness is the virtue of the brave. The person alone is strong enough to avenge a wrong who knows how to love and forgive.” So what are you waiting for? What are you holding onto? Forgiveness requires an act of bravery, an act of courage and strength. Forgiveness brings healing to others, and to yourself. Not forgiving destroys more than just a life, but your very soul as well. 

To Forgive is to Grow

At this point, we might contemplate a brilliant thought penned by an unknown author: “To forgive is to be strong enough to excuse another, and to give the benefit of the doubt, and to really believe that the person is bigger than his [or her] actions. To forgive is to grow and to allow oneself to be forgiven is to grow too, into maturity of love and the reality that we share in God’s love when we can forgive and be forgiven.” 

Let’s mull over that again: “To forgive is to be strong enough to excuse another, and to give the benefit of the doubt… To forgive is to grow and to allow oneself to be forgiven is to grow too…”  Are you strong enough to give the benefit of the doubt to that person you are thinking about? You will begin to grow and to heal when you are willing to let go of your grudges, when you no longer seek to make the other pay for what he did, or didn’t do, and, instead, forgive him. 

You are quick to give yourself the “benefit of the doubt,” and to cut yourself some slack. So, why not give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and cut him some slack, as well. Give that person a break. He or she deserves the benefit of the doubt—to “believe that the person is bigger than his or her actions.” Isn’t that how you would want to be treated in a similar situation?  Each of us easily can stick the proverbial foot in the mouth, or act without forethought of the consequences. I’m sure you want the benefit of the doubt—to be thought of as a bigger person than your actions. So treat that other person likewise.

Examine Your Obstacles

So once again, what are the obstacles preventing you from passing through the “gates of forgiveness?” Have you ever taken the time to examine closely whatever the “it” is that prevents you from being able to forgive? At first these obstacles can appear to be so large, too big to get past, to get over or to get through. 

This thought reminds me of a time when I lived in a farming community around Santa Barbara, California. There was an old farmer who ploughed around a large rock in one of his fields for years. Several ploughshares and a cultivator were broken on it, and he had grown rather tired of the rock. After breaking yet another ploughshare, and remembering all the trouble the rock had caused him through the years, he finally decided to do something about it. The farmer went to the shed to get some dynamite to blow that rock to smithereens. But when he put his pry bar under the rock, he was surprised that it lifted up so easily. Turns out that rock, that had been such a huge obstacle all those years, was just a few inches thick, and that he could easily break it up with a sledgehammer.

As he was carting away the pieces, the farmer had to smile, remembering all the trouble that the rock had caused him over the years, and how easy it would have been to get rid of it sooner. What had seemed so huge an obstacle was actually quite smaller when he got a closer look at the problem.  When we take a close look at the obstacles in our life, those we keep banging into, we just might come to realize that they are not as big and impassable as first imagined. They can be broken down into smaller issues with which we can separately deal until the entire problem is resolved. 

Make Your Heart Bigger

A while back, a friend sent me a recording of ZaChoeje Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master, in which he said:The Tibetan understanding of forgiveness is “to make your heart bigger,” or…“to make space for.” This does not mean to condone or to justify someone’s actions or to try to “just forget about it.” If you try to forget, this can lead to unhealthy ways to escape the negative emotions surrounding the event. These emotions will not easily leave you or allow you to move on because you became somehow attached to them. Better to learn about your part in it and what it had to teach you deeply and personally. Then make a conscious effort every day to make your heart bigger and move on.  Here again we re-cap the on-going theme throughout this article, “make a conscious effort every day to make your heart bigger and move on.” 


Forgiveness is a Choice

An issue of “Christophers News Notes,” a free newsletter by The Christophers, provides valuable insights into the topic—“Forgiveness–Seventy Times Seven.” This issue highlights details that help to summarize what has already been discussed:

Forgiveness is a choice, a decision, an act of bravery requiring courage; it is hard work.

Forgiveness is not a feeling, but an action.

Forgiveness is an acceptance of another’s incompleteness and failures; it is not my expectations placed on the other.

Forgiveness involves risk and being vulnerable; it is giving and receiving.

Forgiveness is a way of living requiring self-forgiveness; letting go of past hurts and resentments.

Forgiveness is to “make your heart bigger” and move on, even if it is intentional.

Forgiveness is to let go of dis-eases and victimitis, and to grow.

Fourth Level of Conversion

Traditionally, there are three levels of conversion—conversion of mind, heart and will. Forgiveness necessitates a need for a fourth level of conversion essential to bring about wellness. This fourth level is conversion to courage, to action, to do something. Forgiveness, in my opinion, also involves beginning the process of healing in yourself and the other person. 

I’m reminded of two brothers living on adjoining farms who became involved in a bitter conflict. It was the first serious rift in forty years of farming sidebyside, sharing machinery, and trading labour and goods as needed without ever a quarrel—that is until now.

It began with a small misunderstanding that grew into a major difference, and finally exploded into a bitter exchange of words, followed by separation and silence. One morning there was a knock on the back door of the elder brother John’s house. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox standing on the stoop. “I’m looking for a few day’s work,” said the carpenter. “Perhaps you might have a few small jobs for me?”

“Well, I believe I do,” said the older brother. “Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbour, in fact it’s my younger brother’s place. Last week there was a meadow between our farms, that is, until he took a bulldozer and punched a hole in the river levee. Now there’s this creek between us. He may have done this to spite me,” said the older brother, “but I’ll go him one better. I want you to build me a fence—an eight foot tall fence—so I won’t have to look at his place anymore.”

“I think I understand the situation,” replied the carpenter. “I’ll do you a job that will please you.”

John was going to town for supplies, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and headed off for the day. The carpenter toiled all day, measuring, sawing, pounding nails. Around sunset, the farmer returned home just as the carpenter was finishing the project. The farmer stood aghast, his jaw drooped. There was no fence, but a bridge. A bridge now spanned the creek! It was a terrific piece of woodworking too. And, to John’s amazement, there comes his younger brother across, arms outstretched.

“You are quite a craftsman and a brother,” said the younger brother, “to have built this bridge after all I’ve said.”

The two brothers met in the middle of the bridge, and warmly embraced one another. As they turned they saw the carpenter packing up his tools. “No, wait!” both brothers shouted. “Stay on a bit longer. We have some other projects to discuss with you.”

The carpenter replied, “Thanks, but I must be moving on. You see, I have many other bridges that need building.” 

It is time, now, to stop building fences; to start building more bridges in your life. Which is the first bridge you need to start building? I will bring this article to a close with a verse from the gospel of Saint Matthew (6:14-15):

“If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (NAB).