Forgiveness as Recognition of Sacredness Deeper than Brokenness
Near the end of last week’s reflection, we added this paragraph. Solitude (understood as being quietly open to our inner depths), compassion for ourselves and extending to others, and authentic love relationships are inseparable. But this is a slowly growing, always incomplete, process, with many setbacks, disappointments, and even regrets. These call for gentle patience with ourselves. Our sacred worth is a gift that can never be lost, that goes with our very existence, and is not dependent on any “success.”
Perhaps it may be helpful at this time to add a few words on the topic of forgiveness, beginning with forgiveness of oneself. This is a reality that is commonly understood in terms of a surface sentimentality rather than a slow and often difficult process, both in regard to ourselves and towards others.
The underlying theme that runs through each of our weekly reflections is that each of us is a being of immense worth. Our basic life challenge is to feel, honour, cherish that worth in ourselves and in others, especially in face of the wounds and betrayals of life. In this perspective, there is a worth, value, sacredness, and beauty in each of us that neither we nor anyone else can take away. We can fail to see it, deny it, betray or violate it in self or others, but it always remains. And there is a hope, a thrust, a pull in each of us to move beyond our wounds, our wrongs, our betrayals; and to move towards forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and reconciliation.
We all have experiences of the limitations of the human condition. We sometimes refer to these as our Achilles heel. In Greek mythology, Achilles’ goddess mother dipped him in water as an infant to make him invulnerable, but held him by the heel. Later, his death resulted from an arrow that pierced his heel. The textbook that I used spoke of Achilles heel as the “human condition,”understood in its points of weakness and vulnerability. These are sometimes felt as something wrong with us, as detracting from our worth.
In my limited experience with mentally challenged children, a constant refrain I heard was, “I can’t do anything right,” and I made every effort to counter that image. Jean Vanier has written extensively about this issue. Henri Nouwen, after teaching at prestigious universities and authoring many books, came to find a real home and a place of genuine caring, at such a residence. A social work friend once related that one of her deepest communications was through eye contact with someone who was confined to bed and could not speak, walk, or take care of most basic needs.
These examples illustrate that it is essential both to acknowledge our areas of weakness that are part of our human condition, but to come to a realization that they are not a fault or wrong, and that they do not detract from our underlying worth, or from the contributions we may make to one another and to our world.
Another experience is that of falling short of expectations and ideals. Here an unfortunate tendency is to contrast where we are now with such ideals, and then to use them as a club to beat ourselves with. I think that a more helpful approach is to begin where we are as something valuable and to see ideals as a good direction to move towards. One example might be the decision to begin piano lessons. We might hear a recording of the famous Canadian pianist, Glen Gould, judge ourselves in comparison, and then give up. Or we might start to learn this art and see his artistry as a direction to move towards, even if we always remain far from that level. It is a question of seeing ideals, not as a tool of condemnation, but simply as a good direction to move towards.
A third experience is that of being hurt or wronged at the hands of another or others. If it is severe, this wounding can at first be like a prison that engulfs or walls us in with no seeming possibility of escape. Gradually it can become more of an identity, seeing ourselves essentially as someone who has suffered this injury. Finally however, it can become a resource. An outstanding example here is psychiatrist and author, Viktor Frankl, who endured four years in a concentration camp. Some time afterwards, he wrote, a person realizes that they have suffered a horrific experience and somehow survived. They recognize that there is a tremendous inner strength within them that gives them confidence and courage.
The notion of forgiveness in this context does not mean that we need to deny or minimize the wrongness that has been experienced. Nor do we need to retain or reestablish any contact with that person. What I think that it does mean is that we do need to let go of any hold that person has on us, to move beyond seeing ourselves only as a victim of that person, and to move gradually beyond the tendency to hatred. I believe it is an indigenous saying that to hate someone is to take poison and hope the other person dies. To remain bound to a past injury means that another’s past becomes our future. Instead, we need to uncover or discover anew our own sacred identity, our own authentic story or script from within.
A fourth and perhaps most deadly experience is that of violating or betraying another. I recall a vivid dream as a teenager. In this dream, I had killed someone. It was accompanied by a terrible feeling that I had done something that could never be undone and from which I could never escape. It took over an hour after waking to realize that it had not happened. Yet a new realization is that we are more not only that than the worst thing that has happened to us, but also more than the worst thing we have ever done.
This is the theme of the well known story of the prodigal son. The son abandons all his previous life lines and comes to a dead end half starved among pigs. He returns home full of remorse yet is welcomed with love not judgment. The story suggests that no matter how far we stray, or how lost we are, or how dead we become inside, we still remain a beloved son or daughter. There is nothing we can do to destroy our worth. Our sacredness is deeper than any wrongness.
In this view, forgiveness of oneself, forgiveness of another, or forgiveness from another, means essentially an affirmation of worth beyond and deeper than any wrong or betrayal, a sacredness that is deeper than any brokenness. It implies a freeing from the burden of the past and the dread of the future in order to live freely and creatively in the present.
In sum, I need not fear or run from my own pain, wounds, and betrayals–or those of others–because I am more than these. I am a sacred someone, a unique word uttered with meaning and love from the heart of the universe. Indeed, I will know fear, uncertainty, sorrow, but I will know more than these. In the silence of my own heart and in the caring of others, I will also rediscover joy and compassion, and especially a hope that is deeper than all of these and remains ever the seed of new life.”
May the wounds that you have felt and even those you continue to feel, and even those that you have caused, become in you a pathway to a greater depth of spirit, a fuller compassion of heart, and a healing and renewal of life, for yourselves, and for all who come within the circle of your light.
Norman King, July 11, 2021