Forgiveness: the (im)possibility thereof


(the treacherous black rocks of un-forgiveness)

I’ve been pondering forgiveness, and what feels like, in some circumstances, the utter impossibility of it, every bone in my body resistant to the ‘should’ often attached to it. Desmond Tutu’s book helped, suggesting forgiving others is the best thing we can do for ourselves, to set ourselves free from the corrosive impact of un-forgiveness ….. and like all sorts of other things I know to be good for me (eating healthily, exercise, prayer), still it feels impossible!

I’ve discovered another wonderful author who offers wisdom for this rocky road: Rabbi Rami Shapiro. With humour, humaneness, and generosity he suggests in his book ‘Forgiveness‘ that this challenging quality is not an action, but an attitude, a whole-of-life stance towards the messy world of people.

Just how do we live in this attitude? By recognising that, for the most part, we humans are only trying to be happy; and that, as we stumble about in understandable pursuit of said happiness, we tread on each other’s toes, or worse (we may sometimes do this deliberately, but mostly, not).

In addition to that first lens, the Rabbi suggests, it helps to recognise that in any unhappy encounter or relational dynamic, we are each complicit, even if we are the ‘victim’.  (This is not to condone any version of abuse or mistreatment, or to disregard the complex layers of our relationships and choices, but to understand that it takes ‘two to tango’, and that as long as we stay in an unhealthy dynamic, we are contributing to its existence.)

With these two insights, we can face the situations that have hurt us, and see that at their heart, they are usually about each party crashing about in search of happiness, in the process breaking trust, breaking promises, breaking hearts.

This is pertinent to my own life; I also spend my working week listening to a wide variety of stories of hurt, brokenness, hope, and desire, and I think the Rabbi’s suggestion bears out. We are all fragile and vulnerable, subject to so many insidious messages about how to be happy, that we end up inadvertently contributing to the ocean of unhappiness in the world – hurting others and hurting ourselves. The answer is not to beat up the other person(s), or ourselves, but to look on both with eyes of compassion for that which is within and without that conspires to make us act in these ways.

So I’m going to practice living in an attitude of forgiveness towards others, and towards myself. As I sit feeling into this possibility, it feels inviting, and very different to the tense ‘should’ of attempting ‘to forgive’.

I wonder also, if this kindlier disposition towards the fragility and vulnerability of our human condition might make those other ‘good for me’ things (eating healthily, exercise, prayer) a little easier too!

As ever, a poet says it better, so here’s my rather blissful, and challenging, poem of the week:

when the violin, by Hafiz

translated by daniel ladinsky

The violin
Can forgive the past

It starts singing.

When the violin can stop worrying
About the future

You will become
Such a drunk laughing nuisance

That God
Will then lean down
And start combing you into

When the violin can forgive
Every wound caused by

The heart starts

PS: I’ve also read the Rabbi’s ‘The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness‘ of which I’d like to keep a pile next to my ‘spiritual director’s chair’ and hand one out to each of my directees, saying ‘it’s all in here, what you’re searching for’!

PPS: There are countless seemingly diabolical acts of cruelty, abuse and injustice in the world that would appear not to fit into these suggestions. But perhaps even then, when we peel back the layers, we’ll find that the same holds true there, just as in our apparently less toxic choices.

2 thoughts on “Forgiveness: the (im)possibility thereof

  1. Shanon Shah

    I love this, Annette – thank you! Rabbi Rami Shapiro is going onto my reading list now, too 🙂

    Coincidentally, earlier this year, I read an amazing book, “The Forgiveness Project”, that touches on a lot of the themes you brought up in this post. It’s linked to a bigger project which sounds very profound:


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