Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Brief Phenomenology of Forgiveness

Forgiving is never easy; it's also quite tricky, and often complicated. But it should never be understood to simply mean - or require - ridding oneself of hurt and pained emotions; especially not immediately.

Pain and hurt are normal human reactions, whether physical or emotional. So is anger at having been wronged.


Nature has inscribed them in us, allowing us not only to be aware of what can cause us harm, but also to avoid them in the future. They’re consequently mechanisms, not only of defense, but of survival.

God will therefore never ask us not to feel what we feel, or feel what we don't feel. And so, there's absolutely nothing wrong with allowing oneself to feel that pain, hurt, and anger, for a time; as long as it doesn't take over one's life, and as long as one understands that he has to eventually learn to let go lest they begin dictating his thoughts and actions.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus and the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius were one in counseling us to “master our feelings rather than allowing them to master us”.

And neither does forgiving mean allowing oneself to be treated poorly again and again. Christ’s command to forgive “seventy times seven times” is not a recommendation to allow oneself to be treated like a doormat.

It is, rather a ‘path’, a process, because forgiveness is never a one-shot deal. It’s a process towards the recognition and acknowledgment of two very important things.

The first is the recognition that all things are in God's hands and that His hands are larger and more powerful than ours, or those who may have harmed us.

Forgiveness is consequently a declaration of an unshakeable confidence and trust in a God who is always, and ultimately 'just'.

As Scripture reminds us: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall ever touch them... Afflicted in few things, in many they shall be rewarded; because God has tried them... as gold in a furnace he has proven them”. (Wisdom 3:1,5-6a).

Second, forgiveness is a path that leads to the recognition that one is ultimately "larger" than the hurt, “stronger” than the pain, and “bigger” than the one who has caused them.

Forgiveness is thus a path, not only towards liberation, but personal empowerment. It is a testament to the invincibility of the human person’s capacity to rise from the ashes of suffering and pain that others have caused.

Those who tell us that "forgiveness represents a refusal to allow the other who has harmed us to have power over us"—are making a most valid point. The ancient Stoics certainly thought so; and so did Socrates who was condemned by the very people he cared for and sought to enlighten.

The real injustice when one is harmed, Socrates tells us—as recounted by Plato in one of his Dialogues—is not in the harm that has been done to oneself but in the one who has caused that harm.

This is the profound truth behind the idea that something incomparably worse befalls him who causes harm than happens to the one who has been harmed. Recall the remark made by Socrates: “My dear Callicles, to receive a box on the ears wrongfully is not the greatest of outrages, nor even to fall into the hands of a murderer or pickpocket…To do such an injustice to another is a far greater evil for the doer of the injustice than it is for the victim”.

The American philosopher, Charles Hartshorne put it this way, “to cause harm to another is to corrupt and degrade oneself”.

And lest we forget, nowhere in Scripture was the power and glory of God, especially in the Gospel of John, most clearly revealed than on the cross, when Jesus forgave those who had condemned him to die, the very same persons he loved and cared for.

Forgiveness is never easy; but it remains the most potent declaration of an unyielding confidence and trust in God who is just, and in oneself as fully capable of triumphantly rising, pheonix-like, from the deepest and darkest pain, over and over again.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)