Saturday, June 27, 2009

All the things I thought I knew, I'm learning again


With Michael Jackson's death predominating the news, Governor Mark Sanford's recent scandal is already yesterday's news. Like so many politician's before him, earlier this week, Governor Mark Sanford apologized for his infidelity and his brief disappearance recently.

When hearing about this story, I can't help but think about forgiveness. In his press conference, Governor Sanford commented, "I've let down a lot of people. That's the bottom line. And I let them down, and in every instance I would ask their forgiveness. Forgiveness is not an immediate process. It is in fact a process that takes time, and I'll be in that process for quite some weeks and months and I suspect years ahead."

First of all, what does it mean to forgive? Webster Dictionary says to forgive is "to cease to feel resentment against." It indicates that forgiveness is not so much about the other person but about yourself. Forgiving doesn't mean saying what happened was ok, it isn't even understanding why someone acted a certain way. It is merely a letting go.

But at what point should we stop forgiving people lest we should be made fools of or taken advantage of? At what point is forgiving self-depreciating? Maybe it never is.

John F. Kennedy said, "Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names." 

Part of forgiving is learning from betrayal and not allowing someone the same place in your life before their transgression. Indeed, forgiving your enemies seems easy in the face of forgiving the ones you love. You know what to expect from your enemies. But when the people you love betray you, you are jilted in an entirely different way. This action betrays your very notion of stability and trust. It can make you very, very fragile. I can’t imagine Jenny Sanford’s feelings when she found a letter from her husband to his mistress. And later how she must have felt when e-mails between Sanford and his mistress were printed. In the public eye she has handled herself gracefully and there is even some indication that she might forgive her husband and even reconcile with him.

I have always thought that one of my greatest weaknesses has been a seemingly never-ending capacity to forgive. I don’t say this with any moral superiority. I genuinely spent most my life wishing I could hate certain people, that I could learn to see them only for the way they hurt me and not beyond that.

Perhaps my ideology is summed up by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find, in each person’s life, suffering and sorrow enough to disarm all our hostility.”

It is difficult to look at people and only see them as they are. Instead there are long, long roads full of stories behind them and highways of pain, regret and hurt within them. It is difficult to hate and be unforgiving in the face of a person’s humanity.

It is particularly difficult in the face of knowing that we will stand before God one day. Who is more forgiving than our God? And if He can forgive us, then who can’t we forgive? It is reported in a hadith that God says, “O Son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O Son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O Son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins as great as the earth, and were you then to face Me ascribing no partners to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.”

Likewise, the Prophet Muhummad was the most forgiving person. He was always ready to forgive even his enemies. When he went to Ta’if to preach the message of Allah, its people mistreated him, abused him and hit him with stones. He left the city humiliated and wounded. When he took shelter under a tree, the angel of Allah visited him and told him that Allah sent him to destroy the people of Ta’if because of their sin of maltreating their Prophet. Muhammad (may peace be upon him) prayed to Allah to save the people of Ta’if, because what they did was out of their ignorance.

Despite realizing all this; for the first time in my life I am struggling to forgive someone and I fully understand that what I thought was my curse was the greatest blessing. Hate is a disease that sneaks up on us and which can destroy us. It eats away at the heart and poisons our thoughts. Not forgiving someone does not hurt them in any way, it makes them stronger, it allows them to continue to dominate us, it is self-defeating in the worst way.

Whenever I have difficulty letting go of a negative feeling towards a person I always thing of an old Zen story. In the story there are two Japanese monks on a journey. In their Order, they are forbidden from touching a woman. When they reach a swollen creek, there is a young woman there. She is distressed because she cannot cross with the water so high. The younger of the two monks just looks away and prepares to cross the creek. As he steps in the water, he looks back and sees the older monk pick the woman up and proceed to carry her across. On the other side, the older monk puts the woman down and bows to her as he leaves her there. The two monks walk in silence for quite some time. However, the younger monk could not keep it in. He finally says, "How could you do that? You know that we are directly forbidden to touch a woman!" The older monk stops walking, looks at him and says, "I put her down way back there. Why are you still carrying her?"

It is difficult to let go and until we do that, we cannot forgive. It is difficult to realize that forgiveness does not mean letting someone or something back into you life. Jenny Sanford can forgive her husband, indeed it looks like she will, but that does not mean he has any right back into her heart or her life.


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