Is forgiveness practical?
Question: Spiritual wisdom-traditions often glorify forgiveness as a virtue, but isn’t it impractical and foolish to forgive someone who repeatedly hurts us?
When someone hurts us, forgiving that person is our best response. But often our indignant emotions make us overlook the subtle but vital line that differentiates forgiving a person from trusting a person: forgiveness is for the past; trust is for the future. We are urged to immediately forgive, but not immediately trust, the wrongdoer. Let’s explore this difference.
Whatever wrongs a person has done in the past can’t be changed; as long as we resent the past, we stay stuck in it. Consequently, our thoughts, words, actions and even lives may become resentment-driven, causing us to either clam up or blow up. When we clam up, we drive our anger deep within, thereby unnecessarily inflicting ugly scars on our psyches that may distort our personality. When we blow up, we drive our anger outward not just to the wrongdoer, but to whoever crosses our way at the time of blowing up, thereby creating an undesirable public image of being irritable. Thus both the resentment-driven responses – clamming up or blowing up – are unproductive, nay counter-productive.
Therefore, the best response is that which frees us from resentment – and forgiveness alone can do that. When we forgive a person, we accept the ground reality that the other person being a fallible human is imperfect – as are we. We too may err tomorrow and be in need of forgiveness. In fact, the logic of karma suggests that we may have hurt someone in the past, just as someone has hurt us now. We then see the wrongdoer not as the cause, but as the vehicle, of our suffering, which originated in our own past insensitivity. Underscoring this philosophically informed vision, Srila Prabhupada would recommend that we eschew becoming angry with “the instruments of our karma.” Even if our indignant feelings make the logic of karma difficult to digest, still forgiveness retains its potential to free us from resentment.
So, we needn’t make our forgiveness conditional to the other person’s seeking it, but we should certainly make our trust conditional to that person’s earning it by sustained improved behavior. Conveying our forgiveness helps that person avoid the pitfall of self-justification, and holding back our trust avoids the pitfall of that person remaining oblivious to the past wrongdoing. Forgiving a person certainly doesn’t mean that we let the other person continue the hurting behavior; that would be masochism and there’s nothing laudable or spiritual about masochism. At the same time, it needs to be stressed that there’s nothing intrinsically laudable or spiritual about cultivating and actualizing revenge fantasies. So, we need to find that balanced course of action which allows both us and the other person to grow spiritually. This balance can be better grasped through historical and practical examples.
- A good scriptural example of offering forgiveness-but-not-trust comes in the tenth canto of Shrimad Bhagavatam in the dealings of king Vasudeva, the father of Lord Krishna, with the demoniac tyrant Kamsa. When due to an unexpected turn of events, the tyrant had an apparent change of heart and sought forgiveness from Vasudeva for the past atrocities. Vasudeva promptly forgave Kamsa, but didn’t naively trust him and divulge Krishna’s whereabouts; in fact, Vasudeva cautiously and tactfully did all that was possible for him to keep Krishna’s whereabouts hidden from Kamsa. It soon became evident that Kamsa’s change of heart had been only momentary; he relapsed into his past malevolence by re-imprisoning Vasudeva and by repeatedly sending deadly demons to kill Krishna. Thereupon Lord Krishna, taking cognizance of the demonstrated incorrigibility of Kamsa and the need to protect the innocent from his viciousness, chose the necessary punitive measure of freeing Kamsa’s soul from the vengeful mentality inherent in his material body, thereby enabling the thus-purified soul to progress on the onward spiritual journey. In this incident, we see that when Kamsa did not use the forgiveness graciously offered to him to mend his ways and re-earn the lost trust, then eventually he was administered the required purificatory punishment commensurate to his misdeeds.
- Another example of giving forgiveness-without-trust, wherein the wrongdoer reformed himself, comes in the Mahabharata in the dealings of Vidura with his elder brother and the reigning monarch, Dhritarashtra. The saintly Vidura, who is also the speaker of the celebrated Vidura-niti (the moral codes of Vidura), repeatedly counseled the blind monarch, Dhritarashtra to choose morality over nepotism. Unfortunately, the kind, due to his attachment to his son, Duryodhana, continued tacitly sanctioning the latter’s nefarious schemes to harm the Pandavas, who were the rightful heirs to the throne. At one time after the Pandavas had been dispossessed and exiled in a rigged gambling match, Vidura’s beneficial but unpalatable pronouncements about the vicious nature of Duryodhana and its dire consequences became intolerable to the attached Dhritarashtra, who censured and banished his well-wishing younger brother. However, the king soon came back to his senses and sent his secretary, Sanjaya, to seek forgiveness from Vidura and to call him back. Vidura returned and forgave Dhritarashtra, but didn’t trust him; by withholding his trust, he was able to keep track of further recurrences of nepotism. But by not withholding his forgiveness, he was able to maintain a congenial relationship with Dhritarashtra, thereby eventually helping the king see the futility and folly of his attachment and to finally take up the path to wisdom and enlightenment.
- Returning to our contemporary scenario, if the hurting behavior continues, we may need to create a safe, healthy distance between the person and the facility or the power or the position used to perpetrate the hurting behavior, so as to provide that person the room necessary to reform. If a spouse becomes overly dominant, we may have to do the needful to prevent abuse, but if we refuse to forgive our partner, who thereby feels branded as an abuser, we may soon find ourselves at the receiving end of a spate of counter-brandings, thereby taking the relationship on a doomed downward spiral.
- If a child repeatedly neglects studies due to being infatuated with video games, we may have to restrict access to those games, but we needn’t restrict access to our love. A child who feels unloved, un-forgiven and labeled as irresponsible may get mentally caught up in trying to justify the video games, maybe as an ‘aid to learning’, instead of focusing on actual learning through studies. But a child who feels reassured of the parents’ love and forgiveness, and inspired by the opportunity to re-earn their trust by studying wholeheartedly, may secure good marks, get a taste for studies and thereby naturally give up the video-game infatuation.
- On the spiritual path, if a practitioner misappropriates a resource meant for outreach for one’s personal benefit, we may have to withhold that resource till the errant tendency is reformed, but we needn’t withhold our forgiveness, for that forgiveness may well be the impetus necessary to inspire the desired reformation.
To summarize, forgiveness involves our cultivating virtue independent of the other person, whereas trust is our reciprocation conditional to that person’s cultivating virtue. By carefully understanding the difference between the two, we can transform unfortunate episodes in our relationships into spiritual growth opportunities at least for ourselves – and possibly even for the other person.
An expanded version of this article is available here