Those Dirty Words: On Mercy and Forgiveness

Those Dirty Words: On Mercy and Forgiveness

I have to start this off by forgiving myself. I did not write this blog in a timely manner, and I’ve really been feeling bad about it.

But sometimes I hit on a subject that seems pretty straightforward, and it’s anything but that. The truth is that I have a hard time with forgiveness, especially when it comes to forgiving myself because I talk myself into thinking it makes me weak. I don’t need forgiveness, I need to go harder! Faster! Better!

That’s how it’s viewed through the prism of our culture: forgiveness is for suckers, mercy is for the weak. In reality, mercy and forgiveness take real strength. It’s a strength many of us don’t have. But we’re working on it…

Understanding Forgiveness

To start out with, the word forgiveness is just not that easy to understand. Maybe it has something to do with that old saying, “Forgive and forget.” That’s got us all confused, I think. But, as Sharon Salzberg pointed out on her Metta Hour Podcast, forgiving does not mean forgetting. Here, Sharon talked about some of the difficulties around the concept of forgiveness:

As my friend Silvia Borstein would say, in a cautionary note, she’d say, “Forgiveness is not amnesia.” It doesn’t mean that what happened didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean it didn’t matter or doesn’t still matter, it’s not any of that. In Buddhist teaching, it’s something along the lines of recognizing the potential for change, our own and others. It’s not that someone has changed, it’s not that we know that, but there’s always that possibility, that sensibility.

It’s also recognizing if it’s someone else who’s hurt us in some way that we can give over an awful lot of our energy to somebody else. We might well want to recapture that and feel whole and not so bound into someone else’s negativity. When it’s ourselves, it’s kind of the same thing. There’s a very interesting distinction in the Buddhist psychology between what we might call remorse and what we might call guilt. When we’ve acted in a way that’s out of harmony, it hurts us, even if we don’t feel the hurt at the time. Buddha said if you really loved yourself you’d never harm another. We have such a small, meager idea of what a human life can be and what we’re capable of, but if we really loved ourselves we’d never harm another because it just harms us. It just brings us down. And we feel a lot of that through the process of introspection.

But there’s a difference between recognizing that we’ve acted out of harmony, feeling the pain of that, acknowledging that, in effect forgiving ourselves, and moving on in a really energized way. Like, I don’t need to go there again, maybe I learned some things. There’s a distinction between that and what is in that psychological system called guilt, where we just go over and over and over and over and over and over the thing we did or the thing we said. It’s like our whole sense of who we are and all that we will ever be just collapses around that. And that doesn’t serve anybody because we end up exhausted, depleted, discouraged, demoralized. We don’t have a whole bunch of energy to move on and make a difference or be different.

It’s an intricate, powerful exploration. Like, how do I change? How have I been able to move on in a better way? Is it by one more recitation of that terrible thing I did, or is it something else? And what is that something else? What are the components of it? It feels very personal. That’s why the idea of forgiveness as compulsory is sort of off-putting. It’s too static a notion that there’s this one particular thing and this is what it means. It’s a really intricate, moveable, very powerful process which doesn’t mean amnesia, it doesn’t mean we pretend it doesn’t matter, it’s something else altogether that is based on compassion for ourselves as well as for others. So, you know, this takes a whole huge long time to try to explore it. I don’t tend to use the word because it’s not that easy.

Listen to Metta Hour Episode 6: Foundations of Forgiveness.

Mercy Me

On her visit to the Mindrolling Podcast, Anne Lamott also spoke about the difficulties around words like mercy and forgiveness, and how they have become “dirty” in this culture. Here’s how she defined mercy:

Mercy, for me, means loving kindness and grace and generosity and forgiveness. I’d say those are all synonyms. Grace, I’ve always described as being spiritual WD-40, but it’s also water wings that give you a little buoyancy when you think you’re going down, or a second wind when you’re all used up. I think that grace is that loving, divine energy that surrounds us, indwells us. And I think mercy is the action word that goes along with grace, because to show mercy, to show forgiveness and loving-kindness and generosity, and to receive it, which is so much harder, is more of an action, whereas grace is the stuff we’re made of and the stuff we are surrounded by, saved by, created by, saved in. I’ve always said grace bats last. But I think mercy is the action step of grace.

Later on, Anne talked about a subject very close to my heart, how having a little mercy for ourselves can be the hardest thing of all:

It’s relatively easy to extend mercy to almost everyone, but the hardest person of all to do this forgiveness and self-care for is ourselves, because we know what we’re really like on the inside. And everybody thinks we’re just so sweet and giving and adorable, and we know on the inside that we’re just deeply human, and that means flawed and mealy mouth and kind of worried. For me, I need to share it. Whether it’s with my nine-year-old church school kids or with a brother or a friend in recovery or somebody at my church, I need to say, “I’m just really being so mean to myself about this stupid mistake I made.” And almost anybody, upon hearing this, upon a little truth-telling, will say, “Oh, me too. I do that too. I’ve done that too.”

Listen to Mindrolling Episode 188 – Rediscovering Mercy with Anne Lamott.

Those Dirty Words: On Mercy and Forgiveness

Forgiving the Unforgivable

On a smaller scale, forgiveness can be a dense subject but not altogether overwhelming. Someone messes up, or we mess up ourselves, we process what has happened and forgiveness can ultimately be had. But on a bigger scale, when we think about something like a parent forgiving the person who murdered their child? Forget about it. Not happening. Not in this lifetime. So how do we process forgiveness when it’s mixed in with such anger?

This is what George Pitagorsky (known as Balaram in the Satsang community) talked about when he visited Mindrolling, how we travel that road from anger to forgiveness:

I think that it requires that there be some kind of a value system that finds forgiveness as a high-value element of one’s approach to life. I’ve come in contact with a number of people who say that there are some things that are unforgivable. I’m finding more and more that people who this notion of being able to forgive the unforgivable have underlying a sense of understanding that, from a personal point of view, holding on to the need for revenge, holding on to hatred, holding on to anything that separates them from others, is self-harming.

That becomes kind of a baseline or a foundation. So if one is grown up and has eliminated all the background of having some kind of religious training or spiritual life or an understanding of the need for unifying with others, without that they’re most likely going to be reactive. They’re going to basically say, “I have this anger. It’s righteous to have this anger. I want to see this other person punished, and I’m going to do everything I can do to manifest that.” On the other hand, if I’ve got some kind of a value system that says it’s better for me to forgive, and not only is it better for me, it’s better for my children because I’m giving them some kind of example that holding on to hatred is negative and harmful, that provides the foundation for being able to go forward and forgive.

Then, there has to be also an acceptance of the fact that one is going to be angry. One is going to have a reaction that is negative, and afflictive emotions are going to arise. And based on that, there’s the acceptance, the notion that we need to accept that we are human beings and we are going to react this way. It’s hard to let go of that level of anger. So we need to be able to accept the fact that we’re angry. We need to be able to accept the fact that what has been done is a horrendous thing. And at the same time, work with the ability to transform that anger, that hatred, into something that is going to resolve the anger, without burying it, without suppressing it, but at the same time see if we can transform it into loving kindness and into compassion. It’s a tall order. That’s why it requires some kind of intention based on a value system that says I’m going to do this hard work.

Later, Balaram said this wonderful bit about forgiveness:

To me, forgiveness is a spiritual act. Authentic forgiveness frees the forgiver, whether it affects the forgiven or not. Authentic forgiveness is forgiveness that arises from the desire to express loving kindness and compassion. It stems from the belief that to hate is harmful to the hater, and that revenge is self-destructive.

Listen to Mindrolling Episode 121 – Forgiveness Power

Forgiveness in Action

So how do we get to a place of authentic forgiveness? Practice, of course. I’ve been working with a couple of very simple practices based around the concept of forgiveness, the first a forgiveness meditation from Heart Wisdom Podcast host Jack Kornfield:

Watch Jack Kornfield’s Forgiveness Meditation.

The second practice is known as the Hawaiian Forgiveness Ritual. The core of it is the Four Magic Sentences: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.” It’s a very handy mantra to use in times that call for mercy and forgiveness. It even works when you use it on yourself.

I’m sorry, my actions were not coming from a place of loving awareness.

Please forgive me, I have so much growing left to do.

I love you, I love you, I love you. Really, I mean it.

Thank you all for reading…

– Noah Markus 


Photo by Henri Pham and Maksym Ivashchenko on Unsplash