Reflecting on Forgiveness in the Season of Renewal

We all have the capacity to change.

Arterra / Contributor/ Getty Images
Arterra / Contributor/ Getty Images

The week between Western Easter and Orthodox Easter, which I was brought up to observe growing up in Greece, got me thinking of the power of forgiveness. The world isn’t united by much, but this year the holidays of Passover, Ramadan and Easter all landed at the same time. The ceremonies are different, but they’re all celebrations of rebirth, renewal and reflecting on something larger than ourselves. And the ancient wisdom and traditions put me in mind of our modern paradox: we’re at a crossroads of long overdue reckonings on racial injustice and gender inequities. At the same time, we’ve seldom been more divided, polarized and paralyzed. So in this ecumenical — or at least calendar-driven — season of renewal, how can we reorient our focus away from hatred and vilification and toward transformation and impact? This is a question not just for us collectively, but also for the individual journeys we’re all on.

We’re just emerging from a searing collective shared experience, and yet we’re as apart as ever — inhabiting different worlds with very little shared reality, and no shared values. As the Franciscan priest and spiritual teacher Father Richard Rohr, wrote recently, “Western civilization appears to be in a state of spiritual emergency.” It’s a state in which not only are people increasingly consumed with demonizing each other, they are doing their demonizing in the name of “holy and noble” virtues, like God, religion, truth, morality, their children, or love of country.

I had just read Father Rohr when I happened to listen to Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast with Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman on the theme of loving our enemies. Salzberg and Thurman are both renowned Buddhist teachers and writers — and literally co-wrote the book on the subject: Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier.

As Salzberg explains, so many of us think of love as passive or weak, or that looking for the good in people will result in allowing ourselves to be treated like a doormat, or overlook injustices. The opposite is true. Yes, as Salzberg said, “it’s very hard to see love as a force, as a power, rather than as a weakness, but that is its reality.”

Forgiveness isn’t acquiescence. Thurman calls it “fierce compassion,” a Tibetan term for a kind of tough love where you neither tolerate injustice nor do you indulge harmful behavior but instead acknowledge the possibility of transformation.

In the same way, letting go of anger and revenge does not mean letting others off the hook. It means giving ourselves the chance to change and evolve. “Whether it’s a minor annoyance or a very grave injustice, there’s a way in which we want to be whole,” says Salzberg. “And we want that energy to return to us, and for us to be able to go on in a more creative, generative way.”

Anger, says Thurman, becomes an addiction, “something that people think is helping them, because it gives them a momentary relief from something else — but actually, it’s leading them into a worse and worse place, where they’re getting more and more dependent and less and less free.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, “forgiveness is like this: a room can be dank because you have closed the windows, you’ve closed the curtains. But the sun is shining outside, and the air is fresh outside. In order to get that fresh air, you have to get up and open the window and draw the curtains apart.”

That’s why forgiveness and loving our enemies is at the heart of virtually every spiritual and philosophical tradition throughout history. In Buddhism, writes Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, forgiveness is “a way to end suffering, to bring dignity and harmony to our life. Forgiveness is fundamentally for our own sake, for our own mental health. It is a way to let go of the pain we carry.” In the Qur’an, Allah is called Al-Ghaffar, meaning most-forgiving, or oft-forgiving. In Judaism, forgiveness is required to be given when genuinely sought. “We are absolutely obligated to forgive those who have offered apology, sincerely repented and tried to repair the damage their actions may have caused and who have refrained from repeating the original offense,” says Rabbi Edythe Mencher. And in Christianity, the New Testament lays it out very simply in Luke: “Love your enemies.” 

Forgiving and loving, however hard, are the only way for us to grow and evolve, both individually and collectively. In a brilliant essay in The New York Times, “Why Did We Stop Believing That People Can Change,” Rebecca Solnit identifies three criteria for forgiving: the first is whether the person has made reparations or amends, the second is whether there’s enough information to decide, and the third is the most fundamental. “Beyond the individual cases,” writes Solnit, “comes the need for something broader: a recognition that people change, and that most of us have and will, and that much of that is because in this transformative era, we are all being carried along on a river of change.”

This transformative era, however, is plagued by the impact of social media. As NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in The Atlantic, this is why American life has grown so “uniquely stupid.” Haidt compares our current moment to the biblical story of Babel, when God punished the descendants of Noah by creating different languages, sowing division and confusion. Our techno-version of Babel has left us “unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth,” Haidt writes. “We are cut off from one another and from the past.” This extreme fragmentation has led to “the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community.” A common life becomes impossible.

Social media, according to Haidt, has weakened all three of the forces that hold society together: social capital (high trust social networks), strong institutions and our shared stories. By leveraging and exploiting our worst impulses, social media encourages us to likewise see the worst in others. That destroys the foundation that makes shared stories — and along with them the possibility of shared progress — possible. As Émile Cammaerts wrote in his book on G.K. Chesterton, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.” Like QAnon. Or that anybody who disagrees with them is a mortal enemy.

Our new algorithm-driven platforms of communication equate outrage with “engagement” and favor heat over light. The assumption of bad faith isn’t a byproduct, it’s the business model. As Haidt notes, our electronic Tower of Babel encourages “dishonesty and mob dynamics.” He quotes James Madison’s warning that human beings’ tendency toward division is so strong that even “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.” Hard to think of a better description of Twitter. 

Though Haidt admits his sketch of contemporary life is bleak, it’s a call for us to “change ourselves and our communities… to reflect, listen, and build.”A good first step: not “othering” others. Yes, this is hard to do, but that’s the task in front of us. Learning to see the humanity in others, to forgive them, to forgive ourselves, and to let go of the accumulating weight of grudges and resentments is the only way to grow. And it all starts with the recognition that we all have within us the capacity to change, to evolve and to grow. It’s our birthright. And this season of renewal is a great time to start.

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