Dear Friends, I found the following excerpt by Richard Smoley in “The Sun” magazine a couple of years ago, and was so struck by it, that I ripped out the page. I hope you find it as wonderful as I did. — Judi Dressler
Perhaps the most fundamental law of the universe is that everything that exists seeks to perpetuate itself. Life, we know, does so; an organism survives by defending itself and eating other things; it also seeks to reproduce so that it may live in its offspring.
So too do good and evil seek to perpetuate themselves. As abstract as these entities may seem to us, they also in their way wish to live and grow and reproduce. In the moral dimension, this desire to continue expresses itself as the law of karma, which stipulates that good begets good and evil, evil.
Once the momentum of evil has been set upon its course, it gathers speed like a boulder down a mountainside, although it is not so easily evaded. The dynamics of karma — known to the Greeks as nemesis — serves as the mainspring for the great tragedies of Western literature. This law is so rigorously exact that those who have glimpsed its power have often been driven to fatalism and despair.
And who would not despair? Since none of us is perfect, we can expect to have to settle our accounts sooner or later. Even if our wrongs amount to no more than the petty slanders and spite of day-to-day life, the tally can still end up quite large. Yet by the law of karma, there is no escaping it. Even the salvific act of Christ does not acquit us from responsibility for our actions.
No doubt it is this crushing realization that moves some criminals to confess even when they have no chance of being caught: like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, by admitting what they have done and paying the price, they attempt to free their minds from the dread of retribution.
Nevertheless, Christianity does offer a way out of the inexorable chain of karma. It must be accounted as the unique contribution of Jesus Christ to the spiritual life of humanity, since no teacher before him seems to have given this idea much attention. It is most succinctly expressed in the verse of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
While this is usually taken merely as a high-minded sentiment, closer examination reveals how it can turn the law of karma upon its head. We sow as we reap; thus if we forgive, we are entitled to forgiveness in turn. We will be acquitted of our shortcomings to the precise degree that we acquit others of theirs. Hence Christ instructs Peter to forgive not “until seven times, but until seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22).
Of course, the whole point of this verse is that it is impossible for anyone to keep count to “seventy times seven.” Forgiveness offers an escape from the monstrous quid pro quo that is the essence of the world. It not only turns the law of karma on its head but also frees us from the karmic ledger books entirely, since, if we extend forgiveness infinitely and unconditionally, we will receive it to the same degree.
Forgiveness is a steadfast refusal to see wrongs, or, if seen, to remember them. It is the ultimate act of generosity, since it gives without keeping count, and it is the ultimate act of freedom, since it liberates those who practice it from bondage to harm or loss: by refusing to care about any supposed damage, we proclaim our immunity to it.
This is true forgiveness, and while often praised, in the world it is rarely practiced. What we generally experience in its place is the subtle hypocrisy that the Course in Miracles material calls “forgiveness-to-destroy.” In its most blatant form, an individual uses forgiveness to put himself on a morally higher plane; it is a gift condescendingly given by a superior to an inferior, much as the Pharisee in Christ’s parable congratulates himself on not being “as other men are” (Luke 18: 11). An even more sanctimonious version takes the form of “we are all to blame,” in which culpability is not released but allocated to everyone equally. Still another offers forgiveness only as a way of meeting one’s own unwholesome needs. Codependency is one instance of such transactions: someone “forgives” an abusive family member as a way of perpetuating her own self-image as a martyr or feeding an unconscious desire for mistreatment.
Possibly the principal reason forgiveness is felt to be difficult is that it is seen as unjustified. People often believe that in forgiving, they are overlooking genuine wrongs and sacrificing justice to mercy. But this is not really true. The human ego is not constructed so as to cast a fair light on a situation. The ego wishes to exonerate itself at all costs, frequently by casting blame upon someone else, and it minimizes its own shortcomings while exaggerating others’. As Christ says, “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). He makes a similar point in the parable about a wicked servant who is forgiven a debt of ten thousand talents by a king, only to turn around and have another servant, who owes him “a few pence,” cast into debtor’s prison (Matt. 18:23-35). Like the wicked servant, we tend to ask the widest latitude for ourselves while refusing to grant any to others. In this light, forgiveness is not so much an act of magnanimity as a way of compensating for our own distortions of reality.
Furthermore, exactly whom are we forgiving? Obviously, other people. But as we have seen, other people are in essence the same as ourselves. If we were to see truly, we would recognize our participation in the one, single, undivided Son of God; the chief consequence of the Fall is that the cosmic Adam perceives himself as fragmented into billions of separate and isolated specimens. To dwell upon the wrongs of others is to reinforce this fragmented state. Indeed, one could even insist that the refusal to forgive is the linchpin of the fallen state, perpetuating the human condition of conflict and suffering.
Although it may be easy to embrace forgiveness in the abstract, we often forget it at once if someone fails to return a greeting or cuts in front of us in line. At such moments the old defenses reassert themselves, and a minor slight suddenly takes the guise of an unpardonable crime. Or, with relationships that are overgrown with years of grief and vexation, we may be all too eager to forgive, but find that our deeper emotions will not go along, obstinately insisting on bearing a grudge even when we can see its complete futility.
Forgiveness is an art. Like all arts, it requires a subtle discrimination, a precise understanding of one’s material, and a light touch that strikes a balance between inadequacy and excess. There will be times when forgiveness does not seem possible, when the pain felt exceeds the capacity to let it go, and our visceral impulses are all striving toward fury. This does not always happen in proportion to the offense. Sometimes we discover that a powerful blow glances easily off our backs, while some small and all but unnoticeable grievance nags at us without cease. The emotions have their reasons, which the conscious mind does not always see, and these reasons have to be respected — at least up to a point. Forgiveness often requires steering a narrow course between nursing a grudge and pretending we have pardoned someone when we have done nothing of the kind. The chief tool needed is a rigorous inner sincerity, since the grossest forms of hypocrisy are those we practice in front of ourselves.
In practical terms, this approach may involve fostering a small willingness to forgive while anger and rage burn themselves out inwardly for weeks and months. It may require drawing a line with someone — refusing to take abuse any longer while also refusing to nurture any hatred on account of it. Frequently it necessitates an inner detachment, a freedom from emotional dependence on others. In other instances it may entail looking at the situation from other people’s viewpoint (which often leads to the conclusion that they could not have acted other than they did). Forgiveness takes forms as diverse and unpredictable as human beings themselves. For some, generous and high-minded, it comes naturally and spontaneously, while others may find that it has to be cultivated with effort in the hard soil of their natures. It is wise to be honest with oneself about such things, but it is also wise to remember that forgiveness is to be bestowed inwardly as well as outwardly and that a little mercy granted to ourselves sometimes makes it easier to extend this kindness to others.