Columnist Richard S. Bogartz: To forgive is to grow into freedom

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

When you step in a mud puddle, you can stamp your feet about how unfair life is, splattering yourself repeatedly, or you can step out of the mud, wipe yourself off, and move on.

It is surprising how often people appear to almost delight in mentally recycling negativity rather than stepping past it, letting go. In life, sooner or later, we all step in mud puddles. That’s life. It happens. The trick is to know when you are stamping your feet, how counterproductive it is, how much you are amplifying the affect that is troubling you.

One of my favorite Zen stories recounts the two Zen students walking along a path through the jungle when they come across a woman on the bank of a river. The woman entreats them to help her cross the river because the current is much too strong for her. The more senior student immediately sweeps her up in his arms, carries her across the river, and sets her down on the far bank.

The two students then continue on their way. About five minutes later, seeing that the junior student appears troubled, the senior says to him, “What is the matter? You seem uncomfortable.” The junior replies, “Our master tells us that we must not even look at a woman, and you carried her in your arms. What were you thinking?” The senior replies, “Oh, are you still carrying her? I put her down back at the river bank.”

Grasping of the negative and recycling it through our mind frequently occurs when we are offended by something someone else has done. Usually, the closer they are to us, the greater the pain, and often the greater our unwillingness to let go. When we don’t let go, the offenses can pile up, and the pile amplifies every new offense and can even color the innocuous to make it appear offensive.

Like guilt, which recycles emotional negativity associated with past mistakes, and worry, which recycles emotional negativity associated with ideas about undesirable possibilities for the future, grasping and clinging to how others have offended us recycles negative emotion associated with our memories of the original pain, colored by however we reconstruct those memories. The painful experience that began as the result of action by another is now perpetuated by our own thought processes. We have become our own punishers through our inability to let go.

What can we do? The past is gone. It cannot be accessed. Nothing can be done to undo the offense. Confucius said “To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.” It is not the offense that is hurting us now. It is the punishment we repeatedly deliver to ourselves. Can that be undone? The wise have offered us a method: forgiveness.

To forgive is to grow into freedom. It takes strength. Sustained effort. Skill. It’s an escape act.

Gandhi tells us, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Criss Jami says, “Grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something; forgiveness, however, is for those who are substantial enough to move on.”

Corrie ten Boom says, “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.”

Isabel Lopez agrees: “I eventually came to understand that in harboring the anger, the bitterness and resentment towards those that had hurt me, I was giving the reins of control over to them. Forgiving was not about accepting their words and deeds. Forgiving was about letting go and moving on with my life. In doing so, I had finally set myself free.”

And from Mark Twain: “There isn't time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

Richard S. Bogartz is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.