By Kellie Schorr
May You Be is a 4-week series designed to coincide with the “Metta in May” theme going on through the month of May. Each week looks at one of the statements of the Loving Kindness recitation.
May you dwell in safety
May you be happy and healthy
May you be free from affliction
May you live in peace
It’s a drama played in every school yard on a daily basis somewhere in the Western world.
Greg and Seth get in a spat over which one Amber likes more. It escalates until the moment Greg throws a rock at Seth who screams louder than the lunch bell until the teacher arrives. Standing there forced to face each other, the two little lions pace in the dirt.
“Greg, say you’re sorry,” the teacher instructs.
“Seth, say you forgive him.”
“Seth!” The teacher’s raised eyebrows make it clear no one is moving without compliance.
“I forgive you.”
This generational rite of passage plays out again and again because adults believe the ritual will teach children the two skills that can bring peace to the world: accountability and forgiveness. Why don’t we have world peace yet?
Because Greg isn’t sorry, Seth doesn’t forgive him, and Amber went back to math class where she was too mesmerized by algebra’s mysterious X’s and Y’s to even care what happened at lunch.
When we say Metta, the last thing we pray for ourselves and others is, “May you live in peace.” Yet, like our playground friends, peace seems to elude us when we need it most. Real peace is not in the circumstances around us, but the heart-mind we carry within us. We can sit all day long, pray all the prayers, bow all the bows, and make all the amends, but as long as we internalize the pain put upon us, peace will be that jittery butterfly we can never tempt to land in our palm.
Too often we are told the balm to heal our pain is found in a mythical, blissful valley of forgiveness. Only then, they say, can we make the pain stop and the path move forward. Sometimes that’s true and what a blessing when it is. Other times, the pain just circles around our core like the fingers of a clenched fist. There are some things we simply cannot forgive. It’s not the lack of forgiveness that fuels our sorrow, it’s the very mixed up ideas we are taught about this important element of the human heart. Think of the things we’ve heard or said:
- “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
- “Forgive and forget.”
- “They are your mom/dad/brother/spouse. Let it go. Family is more important.”
- “Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” *(Note: this quote is sometimes falsely attributed to the Buddha. He did not say that).
Not only are these ideas unhealthy to an authentic state of being, they bring about the worst possible scenario for someone seeking to be at peace—cheap forgiveness.
Cheap forgiveness is when you forgive someone too quickly, or too easily, because of peer pressure, societal expectations, or just a desire to move forward without the effort of actual reckoning. When someone has power over you, or you don’t have the energy to pursue the matter, “I forgive you” is a perfect escape hatch. Until your resentment, your memories, or your scars remind you that you didn’t really forgive.
When something is so wrong, damaging, or shattering that there are no words, no gifts, no prison time, or no amends that can bridge the gap to true forgiveness, how can you turn that fist back into an open hand?
The best thing to do is really explore and understand what forgiveness is in the first place. Forgiveness in its most distilled form is the choice not to carry someone else’s burden forward in your life. To forgive someone does not mean:
What that person did was okay.
What that person did doesn’t matter anymore.
The amends that person made (even incarceration) cancel out to the pain you felt.
You will continue to have a relationship with that person.
You can move forward like it never happened.
You have an obligation to help them feel better about themselves.
For people who have endured physical, emotional or sexual abuse, a violation of trust, or an intentional misuse of vulnerability, saying “it’s all over now” isn’t going to be something real or possible. Trying to offer those kinds of “olive branches” is more likely to result in painful delusion not peace. It is really okay not to attempt or say these things.
In those cases, forgiveness in its most possible form is to refuse carry that action into your future, not by pretending it didn’t happen, but accepting that it did. That may take considerable time, reflection, and therapeutic alliance. Some memories and scars are designed to last.
When you are ready to accept the pain as a reality of your past, but not an agent that dictates your present, the scar will not disappear. It can change from a reminder of the way you were wronged to a symbol of your ability to survive. It can connect you to your own suffering, which inspires you to want to reduce the suffering of others. As you accept this scar, it can empower you to transform the bondage of memory to the liberty of courage.
In Buddhism our path is best walked with compassion for all beings, including those who harm us. However, like cheap forgiveness, there is such a thing as “idiot compassion”—a set of feelings or actions built on sympathy or false narrative instead of consequential action (karma) and realism. Compassion isn’t weakness, it’s accountability.
Compassion does not mean feeling sorry for someone who hurt you. It means empathetic understanding that the pain they caused you has come from and created more pain in them. Hurt people hurt people.
When you get to that place where you see a revolving cycle of pain between you and the other person, compassion encourages you to stop that cycle in the healthiest way you can. Compassion may mean:
- Making them aware that you have made a conscious decision not to carry the pain they gave you, and in doing so you will not revisit the issue again.
- Refusing to be in contact with them which will keep that person from hurting you (and thus, hurting themselves).
- Professional counseling or help to create a new trust.
- Being clear that you are responsible to heal your own pain, and they are responsible to resolve their own pain, or seek help from someone who is not you.
When we compassionately let go of someone’s burden by refusing to carry their bad act into our good future, we will take a great step on the road to healing, and a return to the days of open hand.
May you be at peace.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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