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Finding Freedom in Forgiveness

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The capacity to forgive reveals a soul that is free of anxiety, one that is mature and equal to the complexity of human interaction.

A man came to me complaining that his wife had been having an affair. She had ended it several months previ­ously and confessed it, asking his forgiveness. He felt devastated and utterly betrayed. I looked for some room in his heart for forgiveness, but forgiveness was not a possibility at that moment.

The wife was full of remorse and ready to go on with life. The husband clung to his feeling of being betrayed. It wasn’t difficult to see which of the parties was more stuck.

Betrayal has a way of pushing the betrayed into a sense of virtuousness that isn’t really merited: How could anyone betray him? He was too virtuous to ever break his vows.

I write a relationship advice column and long ago published a book called Soul Mates on love and relationship. I always urge forgiveness and understand­ing, knowing that passion and emotional need sometimes move us to do things that contradict our principles. Often, I receive critical letters telling me that I’m too easy on betrayers, that I condone immorality, and fail to honor the sanctity of marriage.

I wonder why this hardness of heart, this clinging to unforgiveness is so often associated with religious conviction and valued as moral strength. What hap­pened to the Gospel teaching to forgive seventy times seven times? I wonder how people can be so clear about right and wrong, so quick to judge.

The capacity to forgive reveals a soul that is free of anxiety, one that is mature and equal to the complexity of human interaction. Forgiveness requires what Aristotle called “a great soul” and is captured in a virtue often ignored and not appreciated. Magnanimity the Greek philosopher said that this power lies between the extremes of vanity and timidity. That’s exactly where I think forgiveness is to be found—that place uncovered when we get over our “too big” sense of self and grow out of our smallness of mind and spirit.

The Greek word for forgiveness means release. When you forgive, you release yourself as well as the other person. You allow life to go on, to bypass your exag­gerated sense of virtue and your worry about being offended. As long as you sit on your power to forgive, you suppress your joy in life. You also limit yourself: If you keep those you love within tight boundaries of behavior, you have to bind yourself as well lest you be a hypocrite.

You can’t manufacture forgiveness.

It rises up from deep within a soul that allows life to flow. If you are afraid of life and hold yourself and others to a timid, limited view of what is possible, forgive­ ness will remain locked up. One step toward release might be to ask yourself if you have the capacity for betrayal.

If your answer is no, I would say, look again. Ordinary mortals betray Betrayal is the shadow of loyalty. It’s not pleasant, but it completes the picture. If betrayal is repressed, it is more dangerous and potentially destructive than when it is owned and acknowledged.

I had a small part in a new film called The Power of Forgiveness which examines extraordinary examples of forgiveness, including the famous act of the Amish when young girls were murdered. Cultivated through years of reflection, their forgive­ ness was immediate and unwavering.

In another recent story a farmer, Hector Black, tells how he came to forgive his daughter’s murderer. First, Black wanted the murderer to hurt. But when he learned the murderer’s pain­ful, twisted past, he unexpectedly found forgiveness and petitioned the district attorney not to pursue the death penalty.

As important as it is to forgive, some­ times it’s important not to forgive. It does no good to use words of forgiveness if the feeling isn’t there. You may have to consider the situation closely and openly. Some aspect of your imagination may have to shift before forgiveness is pos­sible. In that case, the effort toward for­giveness heals you and opens a valve that allows life to flow. The sense of release is the sign that forgiveness is at hand and you may now come back to life.