As I write there is a conference going on at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. It is entitled Forgiveness: The Great Undoing.
Anger and hatred towards people who have done us wrong lies at the foundation of most wars, most acts of violence, and a great deal of human suffering. This happens at the interface of our personal relationships too, often in small, hidden ways, however civilised we think we are. Everybody knows that forgiveness is good, so why is it so hard? This week's tip explores.
'The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong'
Last weekend Ii went to see Hannah Arendt, a new film about a political theorist who was invited by the New Yorker to cover the Eichman trial in Jerusalem in 1946. Eichman was a senior Nazi who was charged with managing the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in eastern Europe. After the war he escaped to Argentina, but was eventually arrested by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, and taken to Jerusalem to face trial. Hannah Arendt sat through his trial.
When she came to write her articles she caused outrage, especially among the Jews, by saying that Eichman was not the incarnation of evil that everyone had imagined, but a very ordinary, unthinking man, who happened to have good organizational skills. He was a product of a society where children were brought up in strict discipline and had performed the task of planning the deportation of the Jews because he has been told to. It became clear, under questioning, that he had never given much thought to the rights and wrongs of what he was doing, he was merely a technician.
The idea of 'the banality of evil', a phrase coined by Arendt to describe Eichman, was hard enough to contemplate, for Jewish audiences especially, but she went on to say that some Jewish leaders had collaborated with the Nazis, and that caused the greatest upset of all. She was branded heartless and as having no sympathy for the Jews, and many of her friends dropped her.
I quake at the thought of discussing forgiveness in relation to the holocaust, as of all wrongs this must be the hardest to forgive. This story nevertheless illustrates the obstacles to forgiveness that seem to be common to all of us who have been wronged in some way.
When we have been wronged we tend to focus on the perpetrator - how wrong they are, how unkind, how immoral. This has the effect of diverting our attention from two things - our own pain, and what we believe is the part we have played. Both these things can feel intolerable. Forgiving someone, or as in the case of Eichman, accepting that the perpetrator is not so much a monster as depressingly inadequate, leaves us only to face ourselves. Why would we do that when there is so much pain there?
You may wonder why on earth a Jew would feel bad about the part they played in the mass slaughter of their people, but I have heard many talk about their guilt in surviving when so many died. And however crazy it may look to an observer, we all believe that we are more powerful than we are, that we should be able to protect ourselves.
The power of the bully is less hurting the target than in convincing them that they deserve the treatment they are getting and that it is their fault if they can't protect themselves. Children who are sexually abused often feel guilt at having felt aroused during the abuse, and shame at not having stopped the abuser. When a friend snubs us, we may think what a fickle unpleasant person they are, but the real damage is that our friend has made us wonder what is wrong with us, not them.
It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said 'Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent', but in fact they can. The undermining of your self-worth can take place at a subconscious level, without even your knowledge, let alone your consent.
So, given the deterrents, what is the case for forgiving? Why are hundreds of people going to Findhorn this week to learn about it? Robin Shohet is one of the organisers of the event and, in his excellent article, says that forgiveness is 'a process of healing that one does for oneself'. He quotes the novelist Alan Paton who says,
'When a deep injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive'.
He quotes another writer who said, of people who have lost a child through murder, 'Having been through one hell, it seemed to me their inability to forgive and let go was putting them through another. Every single day, they were consumed by hatred and bitterness, as deadly as any cancer'. Forgiveness frees us of hatred and bitterness and allows us to move on with our lives.
So it is a paradox - if we forgive we feel better, and if we forgive we feel worse, at least to begin with. But, and this I think is the crux of the matter - before we can forgive anybody else, we need to be able to forgive ourselves. We need to turn our attention to our hurt, our shame, our lack of self-worth, our guilt and, very kindly, forgive ourselves for what we did or failed to do, and for what have done to ourselves. Only when we have given up doing the perpetrator's work can we turn our attention to them and their inadequacies.
When I was nineteen, a first year student, I was conned in an Oxford St shop into paying �5 for a wrapped parcel which turned out to be full of plastic nonsense. I never told anyone about it at the time because I was so ashamed at having been taken in. It shocks me, even now, to realize how I blamed myself, not the man, for what happened. Going through the process below I can report that I have forgiven myself for being taken in, and for being so very unkind to myself.
Who in your life have you not forgiven? It may be your parents, your boss, your friend, your ex, or it may be the person who diddled you out of a few quid when you were nineteen, or the one who didn't pick you for the netball/football tem. Or, like me, it may be yourself. Be prepared for a long list!
Take one, perhaps a relatively trivial one, and allow yourself to feel that lack of forgiveness fully. Is it anger, resentment, hatred, disgust or is it more a coolness or indifference to that person? What are those feelings about exactly? Let yourself really have them.
Turning your attention to yourself, what was the hurt precisely? Was it physical, did it damage your confidence, assault your values, make you look stupid or unimportant, did it hurt your feelings?
How did you interpret the event, and what did it make you feel about yourself? Did you feel that you should have handled it better, or protected yourself? Did it make you feel less of a person? Are there things you would have liked to have done differently?
What would it be like to forgive yourself for how you handled the situation and also the way you interpreted the event and so hurt yourself?
If, and only if, you are able to forgive yourself, what would it be like now to forgive the other person? Notice how you feel about that.
Enjoy forgiving yourself this week.