Our Innate Innocence – Reflections on Forgiveness

An imaginary conversation on forgiveness; what I had asked years ago, and the answers I have found since – right or wrong, I do not know, but offered in the hopes someone somewhere might benefit.

Forgiveness is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Why?

There is one thing I have realised. Our difficulties don’t come from the act of forgiving itself. The difficulty comes from two things – firstly, we don’t know how. It is not just a simple decision, although making that initial decision is hard enough. It is a process that requires a lot of work and courage; a process that nobody has ever taught us. And so we have to find out for ourselves.

Secondly, and more importantly, my mind resisted it with all its might. There are so many fears – so many myths – around forgiveness. It would be almost impossible to list them all. What is the first that comes to mind?

If we forgive them, aren’t we saying they were right, that what they did was OK?

As many teachers have said – forgiveness is ultimately for us. We are setting ourselves free. If we hate someone, who really receives the hatred? We do, not them. That is our basic mistake; we think that they are suffering because we hate. But all they get is a pale imitation of the pain – if they get any at all. Many of our grudges involve people who are no longer in our lives, and yet we are the ones who carry the memories, the pain, and the hurt. Forgiveness is about letting go of all that. It is more about us and our happiness than it is about the other person.

Maybe it is helpful to remember that forgiveness is an inner experience. Our inner world can change how we behave externally, but it does not have to – it does not mean we invite them over for dinner. Neither does it mean we sit idly by and watch while it happens again.

Doesn’t forgiveness mean we open ourselves to being hurt again?

There is a beautiful quote by David Hawkins: life survives not by hating the lightning but by avoiding where it is likely to strike. If someone had hurt me physically, I do not have to hate him in order to protect myself in the future. If I hate the man, then he has not only injured my body, but as the famous saying goes – now I have also let him narrow and degrade my soul.

Some teachers say that nobody is to blame for their sins, that we do not know what we do. I don’t like that – am I shirking responsibility? Are they saying we have no control over ourselves? That it is OK for someone to hurt another?

I do not know, for certain, what they mean. But perhaps they are teaching us to separate the deed from the person. Some call this separating the sin from the sinner, but if you enter into it with all your heart, you will find that there was a sin, but there was no sinner. The sin was committed by an innocent.

Imagine a baby boy. From the first day he arrived in this world, he was allowed to drink nothing but apple juice. Orange juice, he was told, was stupid and evil. The baby is innocent. He had no way of knowing the truth, and like all babies, he just listened and believed, listened and believed. Those who drink orange juice must be evil and stupid, there is no other way, for everyone in his little world said so.

What would happen if, one day, he saw a baby girl sitting next to him, drinking her orange juice? He immediately feels repulsed. Perhaps he doesn’t even know why; maybe he had forgotten what he had learnt. All he knows is that she looks evil and stupid.

What if he had seen his parents spit at people they dislike? He thinks that is simply the right thing to do; perhaps he just wants his parents to approve of him, and without thinking, he walks up to her and spits at her. The act is hurtful and demeaning, that is true. But he is innocent. He does not know any other way.

The thing that always struck me as I learned about the psychological theories of learning and development was the innocence of the child. Some see us as conditioned by the rewards and punishment – innocence, shaped by the actions and reactions of everyone and everything around us. Other theories think children model themselves after the adults in their lives – innocence, trying to imitate what the grown-ups do. Others think we introject – take in as our own – the behaviours and attitudes of other people. Innocence has no way of knowing what is right, what is wrong.

In the adult world, things might be more complicated, but the fundamentals are always the same. We are conditioned in different ways, we model different people. Beliefs, behaviours, and even emotions can be passed down through entire generations, spread throughout an entire culture and continent. Television, political slogans, advertising, and the people we mingle with – they shape us in ways we do not realise. But the entire time – we are as innocent as a baby. Most of us, except for a rare few, were helpless even as adults. We just continue believing, listening, and modelling.

Perhaps the teachers of forgiveness are pointing towards this innocence. When we put things in this context, we begin to separate the person from what she is doing. What she did was wrong, hurtful, but she is innocent.

If this is something that you do not agree with, then please drop it. I’ve found compassionate understanding to an important attitude to take in any form of inner work. This is merely something that has worked for me; I do not know if it works for other people.

Understanding? Compassion? It is easy for you to say, but what if you suffered through war, rape and murder of your loved ones? Could you talk about compassion then?

I don’t know – I am lucky enough to have gone through life without experiencing such horrors. If I ever did, I would probably go through all the hate and rage and suffering. But at the same time, I would struggle towards letting go of all that, towards forgiveness and understanding. Remember, always, that this is an inner experience. It does not mean we give up our morals, right action, or self-protection.

My answer is not out of some desire to be seen as saintly or spiritual – it is purely selfish. To me, forgiveness is healing, and healing is forgiveness.

There is no difference.22