The signs of our nation’s ill health are mounting in the United States right now. Our political discourse seems to be on a freefall to all-time lows, and the nation has been poignantly diagnosed as suffering from any number of grave maladies including: a failure of the heart and “serious sceptic systemic racism;” and a malignant cancer of “anti-politics.” As the climate of fear and anger becomes more stifling, I have also wondered if a bad case of asthma might be kicking in as well.
Perhaps in responding to this shortness of breath, we might find the practice of forgiveness to be one that can open our airways.
It is no accident that the word “forgive” in English and in other languages, is built on the word “give.” Forgiveness can neither be forced nor purchased; it cannot be traded or hoarded or stolen. It grows in a living, breathing ecology rather than an economy of trade and market forces. When a community is in good health, forgiveness – like our breath – travels from one being to another in an exchange that is as necessary to life as it is often invisible.
We can cite any number of reasons to resist or avoid forgiveness, especially in the current national elections. One might be a lack of clarity about whom to forgive. Who is responsible for the toxic air of our discourse today? What is its true source? And what if those we believe to be responsible for it aren’t seeking forgiveness? What if we’re certain we’re right and they’re wrong, and we’re too angry to even desire to forgive? Isn’t forgiveness just another way of giving in?
Forgiveness is sometimes mistaken for erasing or excusing bad behavior. But true forgiveness is not about forgetting at all. It is about naming and acknowledging the injuries of the past and turning from them in a transformative way that does not permit them to determine our future. In this sense, forgiveness can be powerful whether the other party knows they’re forgiven or not. Its largest impact is in opening the future to the possibility of new ways of being and behaving.
As we in the U.S. approach November, no matter the outcome of the elections, we will have significant work to do in healing the nation and ourselves from the anger and fear unleashed on all sides. How might we prepare ourselves for turning away from fear and these behaviors and opening our hearts to a healthier future? Understanding the dynamics and demands of forgiveness will be key.
Begin close to home, with yourself. Not with your guilt but first with your grief – your sorrow for the way things are and how they affect you. This opens the heart to the suffering and brokenness crying out for the balm of forgiveness. Then consider whether or how you may have participated in creating or adding to the suffering of the times. And finally move on to repentance – an intentional turning away from the ways that have inflicted pain, even if you are not the one who was inflicting it. What teachings, practices and relationships help you to find and keep your balance in tumultuous times like these? How can you stay rooted in these to keep your heart open?
Simon Wiesenthal wrote in The Sunflower: the Art of Forgiving, “When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You disengage that person from [their] hurtful act. You recreate [them].” When we forgive, we are also recreating ourselves — and creating a shared future open to new and healthier possibilities.
However the elections go on November 8, may we awaken on November 9 to the fresh air of forgiveness, recreating ourselves and each other and the road ahead.