My husband Brad told me a story that Frank O. tells. A devout Catholic woman was dying. The priest came to give last rites, but she refused. She did not want to be in heaven. She did not want to be with her husband who had beaten and abused her. I wonder if she was thinking, I would rather forsake heaven than see that man again.
Aren’t we told we should forgive all those who have hurt us? Of course, we all know that forgiving is a good idea. We Buddhists receive the precept: “A disciple of Buddha does not harbor ill will.” Forgiving is ultimately freeing ourselves from the knot of pain around resentment and ill will. And, when it comes down to it, forgiving is for ourselves, for our own peace of mind, not for the peace of mind of the forgiven.
I have led workshops on the IONS Conscious Aging curriculum. One of the sessions is on Forgiveness. Last time I introduced this session, I said, “Sometimes I would like to skip this section. I am sitting up here teaching how important it is to forgive, and I have a really hard time doing this myself.” Perhaps this kind of upfront honesty is good, but, also, it is troubling to me that there are people I cannot forgive. How can I encourage others to forgive, when I sometimes have such a hard time forgiving?
One of those people I can no longer forgive is my sister. Over our fifty years together, she has repeatedly said the cruelest words she could find. The cruelty of her words has been like a knife, cutting deeply into my heart. And family can sometimes do this better than anyone else, because they intimately know our vulnerabilities. Often her words had no relevance to the trivial situation at hand. I know that she has had a lot of suffering in her life, but that does not lessen the deep hurt of her words. And, after having let go and forgiven her many, many times, I am no longer willing to do this.
I realize that I have closed the doors of my soul to her. I will protect myself. This is not a choice. It is like a sea anemone that automatically closes up when it is touched. Self-protection, self -defense is probably a deep evolutionary response. (Evolution is used to justify a lot these days!) It is not that I choose to hold on to anger; it is that I can no longer trust and risk the pain.
So we are enjoined to forgive: our families, our friends. But in some cases, I cannot do this. So then a super-ego kind of voice scolds me for not being a good Buddhist. For not being a good person. Blame on top of pain. Perhaps self-compassion is in order instead of self-scolding.
In our religious groups and sanghas, there is often a kind of spiritual bypassing: Just forgive. Just let go! A noble aspiration, but this can ignore reality as it is: trauma, pain, fear. In trauma work, in the world of psychotherapy, trauma can only be healed when it is met head on. Maybe there should be another precept that bodhisattvas take: I will honestly meet all the grief and anger and pain within. I think Pema Chodron calls this “The wisdom of no escape.” It is Buddha practicing within delusion.
When we honestly acknowledge the “inner demons,” grace might then be possible. Forgiving is not a gift we give, it is the gift we receive.