What percentage of our time do we spend on withholds and grudges? How is that energy investing in our wellbeing? Is it helping to resolve our differences? Does it guide us onward with greater wisdom?
After we have been hurt or wronged, we may wrestle with our perceived injustices in the aftermath: How can this happen to me? I don’t deserve this. The hardships we face may test our ties to the world, complicating our personal relationships, including our attachments to our values and beliefs, even our sense of moral righteousness.
When life disrupts our equilibrium between self and world, between desire and fulfillment, we are charged with reclaiming our freedom within the heights (and depths) of our inner being. In the best way we can manage, we continue growing by leaning into our pain with loving wisdom, separating it—carefully—from our truth.
Before we can dress our wounds, however, we must address that which has wounded us. Moving on from our life wounds, therefore, requires that we first reckon with the past. But to venture into the unreconciled past, we must sacrifice the assurance of our present comfort for the sake of our greater future potential.
Forgiveness is a fundamental stage in the healing process; the trouble is, forgiveness is often misunderstood as a prescriptive formula rather than a natural fruiting of spirit that occurs when we embrace—and release—our wounds with grace. Consequently, forgiveness has become a cheap word in Western cultures these days. The sloganeering of pop psychology is littered with tributes to concepts that have been worn to pieces like, forgive and forget. We recruit these twin f-words with reflexive abandon. Yet we should take heed, because if we can’t push through our pain on the way to healing ourselves, we can be left nursing a festering wound of one’s being that no doctor can relieve for very long.
Author Lysa TerKeurst distinguishes two facets to the emotional core of unforgiveness in Forgiving What You Can’t Forget: Discover How to Move On, Make Peace with Painful Memories, and Create a Life That’s Beautiful Again, “Resentment is usually attached to a specific person for a specific incident. Bitterness is usually the collective feeling of all our resentments. But however you define these words, they are part of the same problem.” Unfortunately, there are likely no limits to the suffering we can cause ourselves and each other. Even if we feel that we suffer alone and undeservedly, our suffering is contagious; we can perpetuate it within our own lives and pass it onto others. Fortunately, the contagion of suffering often has a logical path of development that we can learn to overcome.
It’s long seemed to me that human nature is neither inherently blameless nor corrupt. We are more often simply self-serving, preoccupied with protecting our vested interests. For the outliers among us, the pursuit of righteousness, like the pursuit of malevolence, is a life-consuming passion requiring practiced commitment. Not many rise to the calling.
Either way, we don’t exist as a blank slate in self-isolation. Self-actualization involves mindfully acknowledging the complexity of human nature alongside the social context within which we are all embedded. 18th-century English Anglican preacher Henry Melvill highlights the intricate interconnectedness of life in his sermon “Partaking in Other Men’s Sins,” “Ye cannot live for yourselves; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.” No man is an island—for very long. If we approach our connections with others with curiosity and empathy, we can help transcend the cycle of self-involvement that obscures our interconnectedness.
I can think of no more conducive medium for channeling interconnectedness than love. In the ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita (meaning “Song of God” or “Song of the Lord”), the god Krishna advises the Pandava prince Arjuna about life philosophy during an epic battle. The battlefield strategizing serves as a moral analogy for defining courage in context of our response to a world that has hurt us. Krishna explains, “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.” Love, in many ways, is life’s ultimate battleground. Yet when we are confronted by ill-will, we so often fight with love instead of living for it. Which one is more heroic?
Before we slump into moral verbosity, we should puzzle upon what it means to live one’s life under the influence of love. As 6th-century BC Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu says, a man known for his contributions to the anthology of wise sayings known as the Tao Te Ching, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” Lau Tzu continues, suggesting several values that can help us channel love within our relationships, “Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”
Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, known by his honorific title of Gurudev, has much to say about love. Gurudev explains the role of forgiveness, as an expression of the spirit of love, in times of conflict, “The readiness to forgive and ask for forgiveness is a sign of strength. When you take responsibility for clearing up a misunderstanding or conflict and create harmony, it reveals your broad-mindedness and magnanimity.” Gurudev illustrates how we are all casualties of the mistakes that we perpetuate:
“You do not plan your own mistakes. They happen because of a lack of awareness or because of stress in the mind. If you do not plan your mistakes, what makes you think that others plan their mistakes?
When you do not have compassion for others and forgive their mistakes, you tend to seek revenge and get into a cycle of negative feelings.
Forgiveness protects the mind and spirit from the poison of negativity.”
While forgiveness can help alleviate our pain and suffering, the balm it offers is always temporary. The trouble is, forgiveness tends to isolate the perceived victim and culprit from a wider web of human engagements. The process of redemption, therefore, may labor in limbo until we round up to the perspective that we are all interconnected. From this more compassionate bird’s-eye view, we can appreciate the universality of the cycle of pain that we inherit. Gurudev explores a way through this bind:
“Forgiveness can never be complete. When you say, “I forgive”, you think the other person is a culprit. However you do it, a little bit still remains. It’s not complete. But when you see the big picture that the culprit is also a victim, a victim of his/her own mind, ignorance or unawareness, compassion arises from within you.”
Angel Millar also advocates for a position of dignity in The Path of the Warrior Mystic: Being a Man in an Age of Chaos, “If a parent or childhood friend hurt you, it is not because he or she was uniquely evil and powerful but because that person had his or her own unresolved emotional issues, or perhaps even psychological issues, which probably began during childhood. Understand that this person did not act out of strength, but out of weakness.”
Whatever issue we confront, whatever hurt we experience, it’s rarely, if ever, personal. By failing to resolve our wounds, we cling to them, thus strengthening and preserving them; as the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung warns us, what we resist, persists. Contrary to the grain of the egoic self, relating to other people with compassion doesn’t imply ignoring the wounds that we have received; rather, meditating upon the physics of interpersonal relationships inspires contextual awareness, helping us detach our truth from our pain. Love then allows us to exercise compassion without pretense, bridging the gap between our mutually wounded hearts in a union of equals.
The way we describe our experiences matter, influencing the way we perceive them. Our language has a life of its own. Like love, truth is a simple word with a dense history. On one hand, both love and truth have left a trail of broken hearts and bodies throughout humanity; on the other hand, they have also spawned new life forms and civilizations. In the West, we tend to think of truth as a fact we can plot on a spreadsheet or a cause we can champion on a ballot. Equally shallow, we think of love as a fountainous feeling that we attempt to contain—for our benefit. But perhaps neither truth nor love are terminal outcomes as much as endless processes of becoming.
We may never discern where truth and love begin or end. Nor may we ever discover their chemical compositions. That’s okay. We are still enriched by their guidance. However, harnessing the influence of truth and love for the betterment of humanity requires that we first confront the nemesis guarding the gate to our potential.
We are that adversary. We must mind the creaky bridges leading to the buried treasures we seek. While we’re all well aware of one obvious gatekeeper, malevolence—a nasty mountain troll responsible for horrendous crimes against humanity—there are more subtle goblins creeping in the hedges that ambush our consciousness—consider the arrogance of certainty, the insecurity of fear, or the self-pity of hopelessness.
If we must be kept up at night as we are wrestling with the burning questions of our existence, it is best to be haunted by a specter that conspires to delight or instruct us, something we can’t quite shake, but in whose company we are vitalized. Of course, what we invite into our minds we also invite into our beds. Although we don’t always choose what comes knocking at our door, we always get to choose whether or not to welcome the visitor inside—offer it some tea; then wish it farewell.
However sensible we may be, the integrity of our truths can be compromised by the way we express them. While whole-hearted truths are made honorable when driven by devotion and buoyed by awareness, half-truths are full of triggers and extra baggage that eclipse their well-meaning message.
A half-truth is a troublesome response to one’s self and the world, a blurred mix of as-it-is-in-itself with as-it-is-in-my-likeness. A half-truth is linear and personal: a transaction we command in the moral economy that can be bought or sold with our earned worth.
A whole-hearted truth is cyclical and trans-personal; it’s a self-transcending experience that fuels and consumes our inner being. We manifest whole-hearted truths in our lives through service to a noble purpose that frees us from our perceived limitations: The price of admission is an intractable sacrifice of who-we-once-were in service of who-we-can-yet-be.
When our attention slips away from our whole-hearted being, we allow ourselves to succumb to the laws of market transactions. All is not lost. Or at least we are never lost for long if we can gain new ground during the trials that we encounter. As things go awry, we are wise to ease ourselves away from the weight of our past expectations and back into the presence of our weightless agency.
Of course, the pursuit of truth requires courage as much as strength. But truth is best served on all sides when we embody it with kindness and humility. Without humility, truth is a hungry lion unleashed in a library—a terror and a public menace; without kindness, truth is a tower waving in the face of grace—a reckless force collapsing upon itself.
More problematically, our truth can be corrupted when shaped in our image. It’s a unique tragedy of humanity that the things we do for the sake of truth can be as destructive as anything we do out of ill-will. As American humorist Mark Twain observes in On the Decay of the Art of Lying, “What I bemoan is the growing prevalence of the brutal truth. Let us do what we can to eradicate it. An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered.” Enacting our truths at all costs may demand a cost that we can’t afford. Rather than brooding like moral tyrants over who is right or wrong, then justifying our actions in our favor, we can share our truths with authenticity without forsaking compassion.
Lest we forget, we are capable of compassion even in the darkest of times. Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor known for his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, shares a humbling awareness he had while detained in a concentration camp; instead of fellow prisoners judging each other’s suffering in contrast to their own, Frankl offers a different perspective, “…the ones who seem to suffer less should not look at the others with contempt but look at the others with compassion and look for anything possible to help the others.” Clinging to the singularity of our individual experiences can prevent us from rounding up to a bird’s-eye view of an issue. In such cases, relating to each other through the indivisibility of our shared humanity pierces through the conditioning of merit-based moralities.
Encountering a world that seems contrary to our own will and understanding is inevitable. The temptations to yield to our ego triggers are numerous and effortless. Yet our ego only desires to protect us. The growth of our inner being requires that we confront the illusions of self that prevent us from transcending our perceived limitations.
In challenging times, it’s helpful to recognize the hidden opportunity: If life is a lesson that we can learn to love and love to learn, do we approach our experiences as walls that enable our inertia, or as wings that empower our expansion? Along the way, perhaps it’s best that we find ourselves shocked in the wilderness that is our freedom (and responsibility), awake in the flesh (and spirit) of our becoming. We are who we are. But if we stop at that, we’ll never know who we can yet be.