Tuesday, October 23, 2007


(Maggie at Bean Hollow Beach, near Pescadero, California, 1980)

A decade ago, a friend in Oakland sent me several back issues of The Sun. One of them, from 1994, contained an essay by D. Patrick Miller called "A Primer on Forgiveness". It was one of those cases of receiving exactly the information you needed out of the blue just when you needed it. I reread this essay so often that eventually I typed it into a form I could send to others. Since then, Miller has gone on to teach and publish something called A Little Book of Forgiveness at Fearless Books, which may be the same as his original essay. I hope I'm not violating fair usage or infringing on Miller's copyright by sharing his essay with you here. If I am, I'll pull it down. But I'm hoping it does some good out there first.


copyright by D. Patrick Miller; published in The Sun, September 1994, Issue 225

When I was a fledgling investigative reporter in my early twenties, I wanted to save the world, to uncover wrongdoing and make room for rightness. It didn’t take me long to realize that I could spend my whole life trying to expose the evil deeds of “bad guys” and never answer the fundamental question: What makes people bad?

Uncertain how to blow the lid off that story, I decided that world saving was too tough an assignment. I set out to make a decent living as a freelance graphic artist instead. That didn’t work out so well either. Then, at the age of thirty-two, my career began to crash – along with my health, my closest relationships, my pride – during a prolonged struggle with Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome (CFIDS).

What I first perceived as a vicious insult of fate eventually proved to be a great blessing in disguise. The profound psychological surrender induced by CFIDS was followed immediately by the deepest, most rapid learning of my adult life. I discovered the key that would renew my health, redeem my relationships, and reveal to me my true work as a writer: Forgiveness.

Before I became ill, I thought forgiveness was something you did every now and then to let someone off the hook for his or her stupidity or meanness, and to give yourself a fleeting feeling of warmth toward humanity in general. Now I see it is a radical way of life that openly contradicts the most commonly held beliefs of this troubled world. I’ve also come to believe that it’s the lack of forgiveness that makes people bad, spawning every kind of crime, from the intimate to the global.

It might be a lot easier to forgive someone if only he or she would show signs of changing. The paradox is that we are unlikely to see signs of change in others until we have forgiven them. This is true for two reasons: First, resentment is blinding. It limits our perception of what is real in the present and eclipses our vision of a happier future. Second, forgiveness tacitly gives others permission to change. We think that we grow and change only within ourselves, but also grow and change partly within others, and they within us. Some people need others to let them into a psychic territory of forgiveness, where they can feel free to try a new way of being.

Soon after I began internally forgiving my parents for all the wrongs I thought they had done me, they seemed to become more open and frank about their personal history, about what had influenced them to become who they were. Their revelations were stunning to me, and I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. Had I heard these things before but not paid attention because of my resentments at the time? Or did my parents subconsciously feel permitted to tell me more about themselves because I was showing them subtle signs of acceptance?

Now I know that both kinds of change were occurring. I’m no longer concerned about which is their change and which is mine. We all change together if we change at all, in a couple, or a family, or in the family of humanity as well. That’s what makes forgiveness so powerful. Anyone can initiate the changes we all need by opening up new territories within his or her mind – our one mind, really – where others can find the room to take a deep breath, tell the truth, and shake off the cloak of guilt they have so long mistaken for their own skin.

Begin, not with the idea that you are doing a favor to someone who hurt you, but with the idea that you are being merciful to yourself. To carry an anger against anyone is to poison your own heart, administering more venom each time you replay the injury in your mind. If you cease repeating the offense inwardly, your outward anger will dissipate.

Examine carefully the temptation to catalog, classify, and update the file of wrongs done to you. In doing this, the only case you build is against yourself, as you increasingly believe that you deserve what you’re getting, even as you complain about injustice.

“Forgive and forget” is a popular distortion of surrendering grievances. The real process is better described as “remember fully and forgive.” (It’s true that we do eventually forget some things we’ve forgiven, but it’s not something you can direct yourself to do. Trying to forget is just another form of denial – and whatever is denied is not forgiven.)

If you are trying to decide whether someone deserves your forgiveness, you are asking the wrong question. Ask instead whether you deserve to be someone who consistently forgives.

Living in forgiveness means yielding your grip on misery. Many people feel that this grip makes them authentic and serious; such is the melodrama of the adolescent soul. The adult soul empathizes with misery only to connect with those in suffering and lead them to forgiveness.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time communicating with friends about the state of the world, the flaws and failures of people we knew, the general difficulty of being human. Now when I find myself drifting into a pessimistic bull session, something new within me puts on the brakes and seeks a different, more useful direction for the conversation. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna, skipping gaily off into silly optimism and losing my connection with anyone who is suffering. I have to keep one foot planted there, at the ground level of another’s unhappiness. But with the other foot I try, sometimes quite awkwardly, to step in a new direction. Sometimes I think I might be a better exemplar of hope if I were more confident of where I’m going. But it’s possible that people are moved more by my tentative willingness to see things differently than by any dramatic declaration of a better way I might make. Perhaps watching someone learn to change makes a more lasting impression than having someone try to save you.

(Small creek at Sunol Regional Wilderness, East Bay Parks District, California, photo and copyright by Dorothy Gantenbein)

Don’t be alarmed when resentment returns after you think you have thoroughly released someone from blame. Our attachment to fear runs deep, and the thought of holding no grudges threatens to steal away our old familiar world of isolation and suspicion.

Every power you have sought through scheming, self-promotion, or purchase is a sickly virus compared to forgiveness. Only forgiveness opens the door to authentic, inexhaustible power, not of your making, but freely available for your use.

In a forgiving relationship, the struggle over power is replaced by a mutual impetus to serve. Jealousy dissolves into playfulness, suspicion into helpfulness, possession into shared freedom.

Early in our relationship, my wife and I struggled through an unusual pattern of conflict as each of us rushed to take more blame for our problems. “I’m causing more trouble than you are.” “No, I am!” I don’t know if this was easier for us than blaming each other, but it did lead us to allow each other to fail at crucial moments. Accepting that we both do fail – and will fail – is what might be called proactive forgiveness. It allows us to see our marriage as a mutual learning process instead of a battle over “getting our needs met.” As we realize that learning to love is our one fundamental need, we become more patient with each other’s tendencies and habits, which might otherwise be intolerable. Thus, we are able to live together with less and less anger, and to work steadily toward a constant joy in our relationship, but without any deadlines.

Make no mistake: Every grievance, regardless of degree, is an argument with divine creation, the fundamental power that made things the way they are. In other words, when you are made at anything, you are made at God. It’s crucially important to admit this; it can save many potential victims from your anger.

The grudge against God is the keystone to all one’s unhappiness. Follow all your petty, middling, and major grudges back to this keystone grudge, and then ask yourself the question, “Is it more likely that God was wrong to make the world this way, or that I’m somehow wrong in the way I’m looking at it?” If you decide that God is wrong – or that there is no God, just a faceless, mechanical universe that cares nothing about the human drama – then there isn’t much you can do. But if you realize that you can always adjust your perceptions of the world, you can start learning and contributing again. This seems to be the way to both humility and power.

I’ve experienced two fundamental ways of being in the world. Before I became ill in my early thirties, I lived the normal life of the ego: looking out for Number One, trying to preserve my habits and defend my fixed worldview, making bargains with my fears in order to squeeze some enjoyment out of life. Everything felt risky then, and there were few people I trusted. But I could always compare myself to someone less fortunate and feel like I was making out all right.

After my crisis, I undertook life on a spiritual path. This meant that I couldn’t focus on looking out for Number One, because I wasn’t sure of who or what I was anymore (or even if an I existed at all). It meant surrendering my habits, enlarging my worldview in light of new information and insights, and regarding fear as an illusion – something to be acknowledged but never allowed to dictate terms. Now I increasingly feel cared for by an ineffable, pervasive intelligence I call God. I trust everyone to be doing the best they can to find that same kind of security, even if some are seriously misguided or tragically deluded in their pursuit of it.

In a day-to-day sense, I don’t know if my spiritual way of life is any easier than my old, ego-driven way. In some ways, it’s more demanding. What has made the shift worthwhile is that now my life makes sense to me; I feel consistently guided toward growth and service, whereas before I deeply doubted my purpose and secretly thought that I had too many insoluble problems to be of real help to anyone. The bridge from my old life to the new one was forgiveness: the complete release of my pained idea of who I was. This is the most important work I have ever done, and in retrospect I marvel at the victory I was achieving during the time when I felt I was suffering a total, grinding defeat.

Begin with the dull ache of a long-held shame. Don’t try to argue it away; you’ve lost that argument too many times already. Accept that your shame has helped make you who you are. Then compare your sense of self to your sense of who you could be, who you’ve always wanted to be. Between your shame and your ideal vision of yourself lies a great longing. Shift your attention to that longing – and look back on your unforgiven shame.

Forgiving your flaws and failure does not mean looking away from them or lying about them. Look at them as a string of pitiful or menacing hitchhikers whom you’ve picked up on your journey to a changed life. Each of them has a piece of the map you need, hidden in his or her shabby clothing. You must listen to their stories and win the friendship of each to put your map together. Where you are going – a forgiven life of wholeness, passion, and commitment – you will need all the peculiar denizens of your dark side working diligently on your behalf.

Perhaps there is an insult or injury you have dealt that cannot be taken back or dismissed. It seems to be proof of your sinfulness, a personal stain that will never wash out. In fact, it is a mark of your initiation into a more serious life, the business of which only begins with apologies and recompense.

When did you decide that you had the power to ruin your whole life? How do you know how much healing is possible? Are you in charge of all creation? Are you calling all the shots?

When I came to understand how arrogant I was to believe that I was deeply flawed and doomed to failure, I was chagrined in a way I had never been before. The difference was that this chagrin did not add to my burden of shame, but helped dissolve it. I saw clearly my errors of thinking and truly released them – which meant giving up the expectation that I would continue to think stupidly!

Never forget that to forgive yourself is to release trapped energy that could be doing good work in the world. Self-prosecution is never noble; it does no one a service.

Don’t be fooled by the subtlety of self-punishment, and don’t mistake what is habitual for what is natural. Brooding, feeling bored, and reviewing your laundry list of grumbles may seem like understandable reactions to a cruel world. In fact, they are all ways in which your attention wanders from the purpose of healing, the only worthwhile work there is.

To accelerate forgiveness, practice gratefulness. Every night, try to give equal thanks for all the day’s events and encounters. When you become grateful for things that seemed unpleasant, you will no longer need to take pride in your wounds as a defense. When defeats, downturns, and disappointments are forgiven, misfortunes only add to your strength, alertness, and responsibility.

Learning is slowed less by lack of intelligence than by reluctance to let go of bankrupt ideas and exhausted ways of thinking. This is why some problems never seem to go away even when their solutions are clearly within our grasp. When you feel cursed by fate, look to your own stubbornness; when you seem blocked by others’ stupidity, question your own reasoning. When nothing seems to work, consider whether you have correctly identified the fundamental problem behind your struggles. The object of your blame is always less of an obstacle than your decision to blame.

Can be begin to imagine a politics of forgiveness? We’ve had the politics of one-upmanship, deception, and belligerence for so long that we have mistaken this way of doing things for “human nature”. If we believe this is our nature, then peace, justice, and human equality become unachievable, romantic ideals – used as excuses for more war and sacrifice, to keep the enormous wheels of global misery grinding along.

The extent to which we think world peace is possible is exactly the extent to which we think our own minds can someday be peaceful. To understand why distant nations fight over territories, national pride, or religious beliefs, we need to look no further than to our fight for a parking space or our struggle to procure a prestigious position over our competitors.

If we think of surrender as raising the white flag before our enemies, nothing within us will change. The only surrender that matters is giving up the belief that we have any enemies.

How can our politics begin to express forgiveness? Imagine politicians debating publicly in order to learn from each other, to educate the public, and to make sure all parties have been fairly heard. Imagine the media hesitating in their rush to judge people and events, in order to place reporting in the context of profound questions about human consciousness and moral evolution. Imagine our country’s diplomatic envoys arguing for peace in international conferences by admitting our warring history and violent tendencies first.

The meek will inherit the earth, not by learning to be aggressive but by bringing forth the latent power of patience and humility. If you are engaged in a struggle against certain people or ideas, you are bound to lose sooner or later. But if you are engaged in the work of resolving all opposition within yourself, you will find, paradoxically, more and more power at your disposal. This is contrary to the way of fear, which dictates the world’s rules of power.

Do not be misled by the many political faces of hatred. Jews and Arabs hating each other, Irish and English hating each other, white and black, Christians and Muslims, left and right -–there is no reason or dignity to any of it. Even chronic hatred began when someone attacked, someone suffered, and no one forgave. These insane examples were multiplied and passed on through the generations, falsely ennobled by tales of crusades, uprisings, and martyrdoms. The cycle of vengeance will never resolve itself. Someone has to step outside it and say, “I will take no pride in my tradition as long as it teaches murder, sacrifice, or revenge.”

Beware also of hating the one who hates. Remember that you are here to help that one lift off his or her yoke, not to boast that you stagger under a yoke of a better design.

I’m always amazed by the power of bigots or fascists to arouse within me precisely the kind of hatred that I despise in them. This is their real (if unconscious) agenda – to recreate their inward misery in the consciousness of others, and thus feel less alone. To understand the hater, I need to look at my own revulsion in his or her presence. And I have to look at this revulsion steadily, continuously, courageously – until I see exactly how my own loneliness has crafted such a fearsome mask. Then I am a step closer to understanding how bigotry might be undone.

Forgiveness sends a healing message much further than you might believe or comprehend. As you develop a forgiving demeanor, you change minds less by your words than by your example, saving souls less by your program than by your presence.

Forgiveness is a curious paradox of accepting everything just as it is, while working tirelessly for a complete upheaval in our behavior and consciousness. Some believe we must be constantly aggrieved to set right the injustices of the world – that good anger corrects bad anger. But an enlightened activism respectfully acknowledges all anger and sorrow while demonstrating the superior strategy of mercy.

Forgiveness is not mere sympathy, nor condescension, nor forced generosity. It is the ultimate declaration of equality, founded on the recognition that all crimes are the same crime, every failing the human failing, and every insult a cry for help.

The only way to remain angry at someone is to stop thinking about what is behind the crime or injury he or she has committed. If you thoroughly investigate someone’s motives, you will eventually find the sense – however twisted – behind even the most negative acts. They all boil down to one of two general purposes: One either thinks that causing someone else suffering will ease one’s own, or one believes that everyone deserves only suffering. These mistaken beliefs drive the world as we know it, and I doubt that anyone is entirely free of them.

You will feel a shock when you realize that you have mistaken cynicism for sophistication, and that very little of what you have so long and so bitterly believed is true. You have hoarded only the evidence that fits your theories of attack and defended your misery. With forgiveness, all that evidence will evaporate like a mist. This can be highly embarrassing – what if your friends see you losing all your vaunted toughness? But forgiveness doesn’t particularly care for your social reputation.

Forgiveness is the science of the heart: a discipline of discovering all the ways of being that extend your love to the world, while discarding all the ways that do not.

As forgiveness liberates your energy, you may be moved to sing, dance, write, make art, or otherwise celebrate. Don’t let your day job get in the way.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

Gratitude & Blessings for this essay, Maggie.... I have been dealing with CFIDS since 1993. One approach I have NOT tried is forgiveness. That will be my next step.