ISSUES OF FAITH: How to begin again through forgiveness

WHAT IS NEEDED to make a new beginning?

We may be instructed by Judaism’s observance of the New Year, which began two days ago on Wednesday evening.

Rosh Hashanah (literally “head of the year”) marks the beginning of a 10-day period of personal introspection, repentance and making amends that culminates next Friday, Sept. 29, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” the holiest of the High Holy Days in Judaism.

So, what is most needed to start afresh?

In Jewish tradition, it’s the capacity to forgive and to be forgiven.

Forgiveness is the means by which we go forward; it’s how we may get unstuck.

Indeed, without a generous dose of forgiveness in our lives, we won’t make it, either individually or as a world.

Without the capacity to forgive, conflicts and animosities accumulate and escalate into intractable hostilities that appear impossible to unknot.

Justice alone won’t cut it, for there are many things, once broken, that simply can’t be repaired.

Thus, forgiveness has to supplement justice to make this world work. As Gandhi put it, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

But what is forgiveness?

Let’s start with what forgiveness is not, as there’s a good bit of confusion about forgiveness related to the well-worn phrase “forgive and forget,” which implies that we really haven’t forgiven if we still remember.

Many injuries — physical, psychic, or both — are so slight they can be quickly forgotten, easily brushed aside. But with deep injuries and wounds, it’s another matter, and how could we possibly forget them?

More importantly, why should we forget them? To do so would be a massive denial of reality — and dangerous as well.

In Paris, there is a monument related to a concentration camp from World War II that reads: “Let us forgive, but never let us forget.”

Author Dr. Louis Smedes, in a book titled “Forgive and Forget,” says forgiveness is not forgetting, or excusing, or tolerating, or condoning, or accepting, or smothering conflict.

“When you forgive,” he writes, “you heal your hate for the person who created that reality. But you do not change the facts. And you do not undo all of their consequences. The dead stay dead; the wounded are often still crippled.”

Essentially, forgiveness is an internal process — typically, a slow one — that takes place in the heart and the mind of the person who feels injured or wronged by another person.

It’s a process that has to do with releasing one’s hatred, hostility and bitterness toward that person and again beginning to wish that person well.

But we must be clear that forgiveness does not erase the disfigurement or the scar tissue from these wounds.

If you have been wounded, particularly if you have been badly wounded, you may expect there will always be tenderness at the place of the injury; touch the scar tissue, you will remember.

So, even if you have forgiven, when a past injury or hurt is recalled, many of the old feelings and thoughts may still come with it.

To have such feelings and thoughts does not necessarily mean you have not forgiven. Forgiveness has to do with an aim, a direction, a commitment of trying to be open to the future, whatever the feelings from the past might be.

And here, too, you can forgive and wish the person well but not necessarily want to reconcile with that person.

Just because you’ve forgiven another person doesn’t mean everything is as it once was or that the forgiven person is not now dangerous for you — or that you want the person for a friend.

Forgiveness opens the way toward reconciliation and makes it possible. It provides a space where trust can again be earned. But forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same things and shouldn’t be confused.

But the crucial value of forgiveness is that it allows us — and others as well — to go on with our lives. It’s the means for not letting past events take us over.

Forgiveness is the medicine that heals the wounds of our souls so that we can all go forward in life, for all of us are in need of forgiveness and all of us need to forgive.

As William Blake put it: “And throughout all eternity, I forgive you, you forgive me.”


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]

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