But I realized during a meditation recently that the word “forgiveness” is not the most appropriate term to use. And in spirituality, as in all else, semantics is very important.
In our culture (meaning Western culture; I cannot speak to Eastern), the basic assumption in both social interactions and the criminal law is that all people know right from wrong (that is, have the same understanding). And that they have the ability to control their actions, except for those who are declared “insane.” The assumption is one of free will. Thus we say that someone is guilty of having done some misdeed or guilty of having committed a crime. Or “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
And so when we talk about forgiving someone, or forgiving ourselves for that matter, we are assuming an underlying guilt for what was done. But as I’ve written in the past, the question of responsibility and the question of guilt are two separate issues.
Because we are a product of our learned experience … that is our ego-mind, not our true self … we are programmed in a certain way. And because of that programming, we often have a different perspective of right and wrong from each other, sometimes subtlety, sometimes dramatically. Not even people within the same social grouping or even family will have the same perspectives because while the global images we receive are the same, we each have had different individual learned experiences.
Because of that programming we think and act the way we do, both towards ourselves and others. The practical impact is that we really have a very narrow range of free will. Certainly not the broad range that is normally assumed. As I’ve often said, no one chooses to be bad or unkind or evil. It’s the way someone is programmed.
Yet as I’ve argued elsewhere, while we may not be guilty in the traditional sense, we still must take responsibility for the actions we take that harm others. This is a requirement of civilized society. The difference this understanding brings is in how the person who harms others is then treated, whether by family and friends or the criminal justice system.
This understanding also informs us that “forgiveness” is not really the appropriate word since forgiveness implies guilt. So for example, we should not talk about forgiving ourselves, for that implies that we are guilty of having made a choice, when in reality there was little choice for us to make; we are who we are. This is not a cop out; it is the truth if one is not far along the spiritual path.
Instead of forgiving ourselves, we should have compassion and accept ourselves. Again, not in the sense that what we did was ok but in the sense that we have compassion for how it came to be. We should take responsibility; we should be aware; and we should have the intent of changing our habit-energy.
Likewise regarding others, whether an individual, a group, or society at large. Instead of trying to forgive them we should work on having compassion for them and accept that they are the way they are for reasons beyond their control, absent strong spiritual work.
One could argue that what I’m saying is a distinction without a difference. Certainly the impact on the person doing the forgiving or having compassion is the same. It relieves them of the suffering caused by anger and resentment.
But it does make a big difference in that forgiveness implies guilt in the Judeo-Christian sense. Therefore using that word continues the false belief of society that people are in total control of their actions and know an absolute right from wrong unless they are insane. That belief has many practical implications, both in the relationship between individuals and in how the criminal justice corrections system operates.
Instead of working towards forgiving people, we should work on having compassion for people and, of course, ourselves. No one would be relieved of responsibility, but our perspective on people’s actions would be based on reality, not some illusion.
See my newly edited and retitled post, “The Stages of Forgiveness/Compassion.”