"I cannot forgive this child molester. I just can't!" She spoke these words with contempt and condemnation. Those of us around her felt the hatred bleeding from her body.
Moments before, our conversation had focused upon the hidden aspects of forgiveness. We agreed that upon first glance, forgiveness seemed to be about letting someone else off the hook. And sometimes it felt as though, in forgiving, we were also condoning their behavior. Saying, "It's okay that you did that." And we agreed that THAT interpretation of forgiving stopped many of us from extending such compassion. It WASN'T okay that they did what they did! And we sure didn't want to send the message that they could keep on doing it.
And although most of us could intellectually understand the higher-ground of forgiveness, when it came to such abhorrent acts, being compassionate just seemed wrong. It was with strained curiosity we looked at how forgiving on this level could even be possible.
The Self-Inflicted Wound
On a basic level, any emotion you direct toward another person, YOU feel first. To hate another, you feel the hatred inside. To love another, you feel that joy inside. You cannot escape the effects of any emotion you have about or toward another. You are its first, and sometimes its only, casualty.
To hate sends a flood of caustic chemicals into your bloodstream. Cortisol and adrenalin put the body on high alert - in preparation to flee or fight. It's automatic and serves our survival. But, a constant surge of these chemicals - experienced by relentlessly reliving a 'wrong' or holding a grudge - debilitates our immune system, destroys emotional joy, and promotes disease. Negative emotions aimed at another may or may not affect them. But, there's no getting around their corrosive assault on our own physical and mental health.
What If They Don't Even Know?
I got to thinking about this woman's need to hang onto her revulsion of the child molester's being. Although she didn't know him, she did know families wounded by his sickness. In talking with her it was evident that she felt a responsibility to hold this man in eternal contempt - as if doing so would punish him eternally as well. But, the truth was, he knew nothing of her contempt. The only person being destroyed by her unyielding hatred was she herself.
Is it possible to despise a person's behavior and still forgive? Not, perhaps, if we define forgiveness as releasing someone from responsibility. But, I'd like us to consider a more spiritual definition of forgiveness. One that isn't about another person or event, but is completely focused on your own personal health.
Forgiveness Does Not Transform the Situation, It Transforms You
The spiritual side of forgiveness understands that releasing the caustic energy of negative emotions helps to heal the forgiver. You might replace the word forgive with release. When a debilitating emotion arises you acknowledge it and let it pass. Not in order to have compassion for the one you condemn, but to have compassion for yourself.
Your emotional upset upsets you far more than it will hurt anyone else. Unless you use this emotion as a catalyst to action, it will only poison you. If the lady mentioned had funneled her emotions into actions to care for molested children and families, or ensure tighter legal constraints, or create broader awareness of the issue, then her emotion would have found a path to bring her out of the depths of pain and into possibility. And many do use their pain as a motivator for change. But, in withholding forgiveness, she hadn't take action, only suffered from her condemnation in silence.
Is Being Right Worth the Cost?
She was the biggest victim of her hatred toward this man. And she was the only one who could give herself any form of relief. Why is it that holding on to our need to be right overrides our survival instincts? Was she right in her contempt? That's what the mind dwells on. "He must be punished and my hatred is justified." But, her hatred was not punishing him. It was destroying her.
You may or may not have a hatred this extreme. But, if a person or situation is bringing you ongoing upset, you may find relief in reconsidering the meaning of forgiveness. It has nothing to do with anything or anyone outside you. To forgive is to release yourself from your own emotional imprisonmentWhat's the use in taking the poison of hatred and hoping that the other person will die?
One of life's most important lessons is in learning to manage our energies and emotions in ways that give us joy and bring us freedom. Are there detestable things in life? Without question. Do they upset us? Most certainly. Can we use that upset to make the world better? Many do. But, if your loathing simply remains loathing, then you are the tragedy in the story. Freedom is a choice to not victimize yourself. Use your incredible emotional power to increase the light of the world, not add to its darkness.