Understanding forgiveness

I’ve been thinking lately about forgiveness. I want to understand it experientially, not just intellectually.

Genuine guilt in both the logotherapeutic and Jewish concept of living is to be viewed as an opportunity for regret and change. If you learn from your mistake you will be a different person now in a way you could not have been otherwise. In addition, for my own sake it’s not good to hold a grudge and to walk around with anger and hate in me. It’s doesn’t do me any good.

I can accept these things. However I still had trouble making peace with the idea that there is a tangible consequence of my own or another person’s wrongdoing, and this consequence will never go away no matter how much the perpetrator has changed personally.

There is a good reason why people who have gone through a crisis have an easier time dealing with a natural disaster than they do when it is inflicted by other human beings.

For one, in our rage and helplessness it’s easier to blame another person than it is to blame God as the cause of it. Sure, we can blame God and we do it all the time. But we can’t exactly fight back. With a person we know who did it and we clearly see the direct cause and effect of their actions. And of course we want the person to take responsibility for having hurt us.

But does this assigning of responsibility help us deal with it any better?

In response to a natural disaster like a tsunami or hurricane, as devastating as it is, we are able to put it into some kind of meaning frame. We have a need to feel there is sense and order to the world. Many things are beyond our comprehension. So we can accept that a natural disaster is one of these. In particular, we can imagine that there are times in the grand scheme of things that apparently something needs to be destroyed in order to make rebirth and regeneration possible. We see this even in the decomposition of a seed in the ground that allows for growth to take place.

At the end our philosophical relationship to life and a friendly universe remains intact. We assume there is a meaning even though we are not capable of understanding what that meaning is.

This is not the case when a human being does something hurtful. if a person does something hurtful we feel this is senseless and meaningless. A person has free will. He didn’t haveto hurt me. This didn’t have to happen.I once had a client who complained about being the subject of physical and emotional abuse as a child saying, “It didn’t have to be that way. There was no good reason for it. It was senseless and meaningless.”

We can’t put it into a meaningful context. In fact, it seems like the most meaningless thing there could be. Furthermore I see this tangible consequence of the meaningless act and I ask myself: How can I possibly relate to this as meaningful?

Yes, I can distance myself from what I’ve done. I can say “I am not the same person who did this act.” I can say “This person is sorry for what he did. He is not the same person today. He does not identify himself today as the person who did that then.”

I can accept this concept of correction and rebirth. It’s a beautiful concept. Yet, the question stubbornly remains: How am I to I to relate to this tangible consequence? It didn’t just “happen” Am I to attribute it to fate, just because I no longer identify with the self that did it?

No! I did do it and I need to take responsibility and be accountable. If someone else has done wrong I will hold them accountable as well. This has nothing to do with forgiveness. I have a responsibility to own what I did. My having changed now doesn’t alter the fact that I am the one who did it. At the same time that I no longer identify with the self that did it, I have to take responsibility for the self that did it then: to admit it, regret it and resolve not to do it again.

Therefore the question remains. How am I to relate to the unfortunate tangible consequence of the former self and how can I be forgiving?

A couple of answers occurred to me as I was jogging this morning. This past Shabbat I was studying the meanings of the 13 attributes of God’s mercy from Rav Ezra Bick’s new book. The first two attributes, Hashem Hashem refer to God’s lovingkindness both before there was sin and after there was sin in the world.

Before there was sin, when nothing existed, creation did not come about in response to any need or situation; there were no situations to respond to. The act of creation was an act of pure lovingkindness.

The second attribute of God’s name is different. God’s relationship to the world after the sin includes relating with lovingkindness after sin comes into the world. Here God is no longer willfully bringing into existence a world that does not yet exist. God is continuing to relate with lovingkindness and willfully maintaining a world that includes sin within it, which by definition is a disregarding of God’s will. God’s seemingly wanting what He doesn’t want is an internal contradiction. How can this be?

God wants sin to be a possibility for the sake of the positive rebirth and reconnecting that takes place after the person sins and feels the need to correct what he’s done wrong.

Placing sin within the context of an intrinsic part of God’s will in creation puts human behavior into a different light. Just as we can imagine that natural disasters are part of the natural order of life even though they seem to be anything but orderly, similarly the behaviors of human beings can be incorporated into our idea of sense and order in the universe. – Perhaps this other person or I myself needed something to break down and go wrong in order to make room for rebirth to take place.

After all, we see this all the time. We painfully learn from our mistakes and we come out the other end better for it than we were before the mistake. We wish it didn’t have to be that way but that’s the way it is.

Furthermore making sense of sin involves a process within a process.

Human beings have free will and therefore they don’t have to sin. They don’t have to hurt one another. Yet they do. And when they do this, they are not in touch with their humanity. They are not aware.

So a sin or a mistake is not only part of a process of failing in order to learn. A sin is part of a process of gaining awareness and greater capacity for choice. To be human is to be aware of our responsibility. The fact that we’ve sinned is a sign that we are not living up to our full humanity.

When I go back and say I no longer identify my self as the self who did that in the past, I’m in effect saying a) I did something destructive and b) I was not aware. Now, a) I want to correct it and b) I am aware and able to choose what is good.

Going back now to the question of how to relate to the tangible consequence of sin we can say two things:

1. I can relate to this tangible consequence as a learning experience. As such, I can frame it as part of the order of creation and instead of feeling it as senseless and meaningless I bear witness to the process of destruction and rebirth. When someone else has hurt me or hurt another person, this too is an opportunity for rebirth, and we are bidden to help one another in this process by informing someone that they’ve hurt us.

2. I or this person was clueless. In the order of things, although human beings have free will and therefore it should not have had to happen, but given that I was clueless at the time, it had to happen. I can relate to this tangible consequence as a potent reminder that I am capable of losing my free will and therefore it serves as an imperative to grow in awareness.

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