What Me Forgive? 

UU presentation, January 4, 2009

By Bill Bradshaw


 “Well, forgive me” as in what’s your problem, or “ok, ok I forgive you, (as in please stop bugging me about it).  This approach to forgiveness my be illustrated with this quote ”When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me”.  as opposed to (Heartfelt), “yes I forgive you. The first versions of forgiveness have nothing to do with Beloved Community (BC), while the latter version, a heartfelt and real forgiveness, is indispensable to Beloved Community.  Victor made this point of indispensability of forgiveness quite well in a presentation he gave about Dr. Kings Beloved Community and UU principles.


There are no strangers to ideas about forgiveness in this group but revisiting familiar themes, especially important ones, does no harm.  In fact, if church doesn’t improve individual lives or build community through continually reinforcing and promoting higher principles, than what does it do?  Forgiveness is obviously a biggie in that major religions have always promoted the value and importance of it, there are all sorts of books about it, and the internet is loaded with all manner of discussion about forgiveness.  It’s a major human concern, and in that regard, I think it’s always appropriate to re-trod this solid and fertile ground.  So this morning, if new or dormant thoughts or feelings are stimulated, great; if lively discussion ensues, even better; and should someone experience a brief moment of revelation or redoubled their personal commitment to live a more forgiving life, well then halleleluah – it’s a home run!!!!



Given the title of this talk, you probably expect to hear about Alfred E. Newman, but I’m only going to mention him once.  His famous line popped into my head when Janelle asked me for a title.  As a Democrat, I was then pretty incensed at how quickly the campaign rhetoric of reconciliation and new working relationships between Republicans and Democrats, gave way to revenge against Joe Lieberman for supporting John McCain.  I don’t recall any discussion about whether he did a good job as a committee chair and should he stay on, only will he be punished, and how hard.  Hence, What, me forgive? 


Well, maybe cooler heads prevailed, as he was only punished a little. So that’s probably a good sign.  But plenty of people wanted revenge, and revenge certainly doesn’t promote a Beloved Community at any level.  After all the talk of people working together, why was revenge the first thing out of the gate?  I don’t know, but it caught me off guard, was very disappointing, and didn’t feel very good.


So I decided to forgive the Democrats who sought revenge, and I forgave the Republicans for what I perceived as their misdeeds while they governed and who had just struggled mightily only to lose a big chunk of governing power. Imagine their collective relief?  Sure, it seemed a little strange forgiving 50 million or so Republicans and 10 or 20 million revenge-minded Democrats (assuming some were more magnanimous than others, I didn’t feel the need to forgive them all), but I felt better.  No more angst about what “they” had done (R or D), no more projecting my anger and anxiety onto 60 or 70 million people who don’t know I exist (though I’m sure they’d like me if they knew me).  No more giving part of myself away to so many strangers or a non-entity (political party).  It’s been very liberating.  I still have political opinions, I still care, but I’m no longer wasting emotional energy being mad at a lot of strangers or feeling aggrieved by them. 


Of course my little act of forgiveness pales in comparison to other transgressions that would obviously be much are harder for someone to forgive (think genocide, robbery, etc), but I think it shares some commonalities with these bigger forgiveness issues.  For example, forgiveness requires that someone suffers a grievance (real or imagined) by someone (or themselves), (knowingly and intentionally, or unknowingly or accidentally).  This leads to anxiety, resentment, judgment, frustration and other unhealthy emotions accruing to the aggrieved.  Eventually, or hopefully sooner, the aggrieved can release the unhealthy emotions and energy through the process of forgiveness (with or without the knowledge of the transgressor).  So, what is it to forgive?  And what is it not.  Let’s hear from some others who illustrate the basic ideas.


I liked how Erika Ginnis (a spiritual counselor) describes Forgiveness as a spiritual energy that allows you to simply release and let go.  She goes on to say “Forgiveness has to do with letting go, releasing something you no longer want, are completed with. Forgiveness has a lot to do with non-judgement. When you judge, you tend to hang on to whatever it is, forgiveness allows you to let go of the clenched fists so you can move on without taking unwanted things with you. As you release judgement about yourself and your creations, about other people and where they are at, you can begin to forgive yourself and others and in so doing you free yourself from unwanted energy. Forgiveness doesn't have to do with judging something good or bad, it's simply letting go. And this applies not only to forgiving others, but to ourselves as well. If you hold on, it's difficult to allow your own forgiveness or to see that the Universe has already forgiven you. And if you find it difficult to forgive someone else, then you will continue to carry the burden with you, perhaps even longer than the person you're upset with. As you allow forgiveness, you lighten your load. You can allow others to simply be where they are at, you may not agree with their choices, but forgiveness allows you to accept, release and let go, and continue on your own way.


Other thoughts (not necessarily mine, but I selected them because I agree with them) Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. It is not something you do FOR someone else. It is not complicated. It is simple. Simply identify the situation to be forgiven and ask yourself: "Am I willing to waste my energy further on this matter?" If the answer is "No," then that's it! All is forgiven.  


Forgiveness is an act of the imagination. It dares you to imagine a better future, one that is based on the blessed possibility that your hurt will not be the final word on the matter. It challenges you to give up your destructive thoughts about the situation and to believe in the possibility of a better future. It builds confidence that you can survive the pain and grow from it.


Choice is always present in forgiveness. You do not have to forgive AND there are consequences. Refusing to forgive by holding on to the anger, resentment and a sense of betrayal can make your own life miserable. A vindictive mind-set creates bitterness and lets the betrayer claim one more victim.


Forgiveness does not depend on whether the person who did you wrong apologizes, wants you back, or changes his or her ways. If another person's poor behavior were the primary determinant for your healing then the unkind and selfish people in your life would retain power over you indefinitely. Forgiveness is the experience of finding peace inside and can neither be compelled nor stopped by another.


Forgiveness is a creative act that changes us from prisoners of the past to liberated people at peace with our memories. It is not forgetfulness, but it involves accepting the promise that the future can be more than dwelling on memories of past injury.


(Lynn Woodland; perhaps the most transcendant example)True forgiveness is not something we do for another person. I often hear people speak of forgiveness as something we give to someone else, something that must be deserved or earned, and sometimes needs to be withheld. The spiritual purpose of forgiveness is self-healing. As long as we are holding anger, resentment and grudges against another person, we are poisoning our bodies with toxicity, lowering our immunity to disease and on subtler levels generating thoughts, expectations and attitudes that repel our highest good. As we hold on to the belief that someone has harmed us so badly that we cannot, will not, forgive, we give power to the part of us that feels vulnerable and susceptible to being harmed. Our lack of forgiveness actually draws more circumstances that will feed our anger and victimization. Lack of forgiveness has been related as a contributing factor to physical illness, excess weight, financial scarcity, failed relationships and a host of other problems. Lack of forgiveness inhibits love, which is the only true source of power. As we withhold forgiveness, we inhibit our power and our very life-force.

But forgiveness is not an act of negotiation between two people. It does not begin and end by speaking the words “I forgive you.” Instead, it is an internal state, an ongoing process rather than an act. True forgiveness is not about excusing someone’s hurtful actions. It goes much deeper than this. It is the inner awareness that no harm was done, thus there is, in truth, nothing to forgive.

Most of what passes for forgiveness is rooted in the belief that we are separate and vulnerable and have been harmed. In this way, the act of forgiveness directs the attention of both people to the hurtful act. The forgiver feels self-righteous, the forgiven, guilty. The whole process strengthens both people’s belief in the reality of separateness and harm, and in this way is disempowering to both.

True forgiveness is a shifting of attention away from the hurtful act, not in denial, but in release. It means identifying with the higher part of ourselves that was never harmed so we can see past the illusion of separateness to the reality of Oneness. As we understand ourselves to be one with the person who hurt us, forgiveness becomes self-forgiveness. As we transcend our belief in ourselves as victims, we are able to see the other person differently. Instead of seeing his or her “wrongness” we see the pain that motivated his or her actions. Living from a belief that doing harm brings personal gain is a prison of separateness, powerlessness and pain. Anyone who acts intentionally to harm another is trapped in this painful prison, even if he or she doesn’t recognize it as such. When we understand this, we can more easily feel compassion instead of rage.

When Victor Ashear presented in September (?), he discussed the techniques for achieving forgiveness developed by the Stanford Forgiveness project that included the importance of de-personalizing the hurt.  He recounted a story of grave personal insult to himself by some other young boys, and went on to describe how it occurred to him that not taking their insult personally was the right choice.  This struck a chord as I   recalled the advice offered in a great little book called The 4 Agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz) that talks about peoples’ inability to escape the inevitability of their actions because they are dictated by the sum of their life experiences up to that point (Mitote = fog of life).  Consequently, one shouldn’t take insults personally (or praise) as these have nothing to do with you and are simply projections of the other person.  The idea that the perpetrator is as much a victim as the aggrieved mentioned above, is I think, a variation on this idea and is very powerful.

And finally, I want to mention God.  God (or if the guy with the beard doesn’t work for you), a higher power as used in AA, the great spirit, or whomever or whatever, is a means to forgiveness that works for countless people.  Simply accepting that it’s not our job to forgive (or judge), others or ourselves, and releasing grievances to someone/something better equipped and willing to take if from you, obviously works for a lot of people. 

Regardless if it’s a secular or religious approach, the crux of the matter is the same - to let go.  Oh, by the way, The Greek word for "forgive" also means "letting go” according to one source. 


I doubt there were any real surprises here today in that most people probably already understand that forgiveness is not about the other person, but is a self-directed process of shedding resentments, hurts, guilt’s, and ill-will, of freeing yourself. It sounds simple and is for some, for others it takes work and conscious, continuous effort.  Others may never trouble themselves with it.


While I personally have a sometimes-shaky relationship with forgiveness, I do know that it always feels right and good when I pull it off.  In the case of my forgiving 60 million other people, the benefit obviously isn’t in their knowing or caring, it’s in my peace of mind, and my new attitude about Rs and Ds; perhaps it will change some personal relationships for the better.  That’s a good thing I’m sure.  And I’m also quite sure that without forgiveness in our individual hearts, BC in our lives, our families, our communities, and beyond, will always remain nothing more than wishful thinking. 


“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  It starts and ends with each of us, and I wish us all well.







First Reading:

I can forgive, but I cannot forget, is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note - torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one. Henry Ward Beecher



Second Reading:

You know you have forgiven someone when he or she has harmless passage through your mind. - Rev. Karyl Huntley