Finding Forgiveness

Symbol fo the Sri Aurobindo Ashram

Say what you will about His Giggliness the Dalai Lama, but the lessons he has taught the world about the power of forgiveness are pretty significant.

I count myself in the camp, ugly as it may be, who draw a degree of strength from the art of the grudge. Somehow, I find both creativity and motivation from the self-righteous sense that someone has done me wrong, even as I understand that the energizing feelings it engenders are probably more-than-counterbalanced by the negativity of focus, and know that such enmity is hardly the thing I wish to be propagating in the world.

So, I work on forgiveness. The process is, perhaps, all-the-more interesting because it does not come easily to me. For that matter, it may not come that easily to anyone, even the Lamaisto Giganto himself. Forgiveness is a concept we throw around pretty easily. It is not difficult to utter the words of forgiveness; it is altogether a different proposition to work through the resentment and excise the satisfyingly ingenious, mouse-trap acts of revenge the mind cooks-up, to arrive at an attitude of true indifference to the slight.

My more spiritually-oriented friends would describe the correct mindset as incorporating an element of love in the mix; but then, these folks always want to gild the lily. There is an element of compassion that comes into play, but it is mostly in exonerating the offender and sparing them from the pain that one’s no-doubt-perfectly-exacted revenge might cause them. Kindness is part of the process, I think, and perhaps a byproduct of the outcome. But, for me, any stronger feelings of affection are not salient features of this mental shift from hostility to forgiveness – and I call “bullshit” on those who claim they are, even His Robedness. One treats well those they forgive not because one has come to love them, but because they are people, and that status alone earns them a degree of kindness.

These reflections on forgiveness come after many hours of hard work toward forgiveness over the last two days, while writhing around in post-surgical discomfort, following my emergency appendectomy.

We are encamped at the Delhi outpost of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram; and it was from here that I decided I’d better get my ass to a hospital, post-haste. Since I was alone at the time, it was a struggle to get myself dressed, packed, down two flights of stairs, and over one building to the reception area at the entrance to the main ashram compound. Still, this was the easy part. I had more than 100 meters of ground yet to cross before I would reach the street and attempt to flag-down an auto-rickshaw to serve as my ambulance.

So I stopped in at the reception desk to ask if someone would help me to get to the hospital. I was doubled over in pain, and had already stumbled to the ground twice, once when entering the reception area itself. I don’t know if I actually looked like I was dying, but I think it would have made a pretty decent theatrical portrayal. Without recounting the entire dialogue, which would be cruelly unflattering to the woman who greeted me from behind the reception desk, suffice it to say that she was too indifferent to my predicament to offer me any assistance. So she watched me crawl out of her office and make the seemingly interminable journey to the roadway, and on to the hospital, on my own. So much for the quaint notion that, in India, “the guest is god.”

For two and half days in the hospital, even more-so since my return to the ashram, this woman’s unwillingness to help me – or even to dispatch someone else to the task, something at which people in India are unusually adroit – outraged me. It is no exaggeration to say that her lack of sympathy or concern caused me more than an hour of blinding, needless pain I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Damn the bitch!

Last night it occurred to me, though, I ought to be working toward an attitude of forgiveness. For several hours as I lay still on my bed, I thought-and-thought about the situation; and by the time sleep found me, I felt I had made good progress. When I emerged from my room this afternoon, after days of being an invalid shut-in, I happened to spot both my tormentor and her superior; and it became instantly clear to me how little change there had been in my feelings of injustice. So this afternoon I went back to work. And guess what? I made it.

I saw her again this afternoon as I took tea at tiffen-time, and not a single feeling of ill-will remained.

The key, in this case, was to reach an understanding that, on the afternoon of my illness, this woman owed me nothing. To put the proposition starkly: it was neither her duty to look after me, nor her concern whether I lived or died. I would have greatly preferred, of course, that she spare me a little compassion; but that was entirely within her control, not mine for the taking. All too often we assume we are entitled to certain treatment because good manners, keen wits, or the exercise of basic human decency would seem to suggest it. But if we take the point of view that the world owes us nothing, not only do petty resentments fade away (or fail to materialize in the first place), but the gratitude we feel when we are beneficiaries of true compassion becomes even more immediate and genuine. Both are nice outcomes.

There is another aspect to this. I pride myself on my self-reliance and, indeed, managed this mini-crisis pretty admirably on my own, if I do say so myself. The notion that the ashram receptionist was somehow responsible for extracting me from my predicament flies in the face of this most cherished self-conception. I realized this afternoon that I could not hold my self-satisfied viewpoint and my lingering resentment simultaneously in good-faith. I chose smugness.

Nothing about my shift in attitude makes me think the ashram receptionist is smart, competent, or even nice. But these are her problems now, not mine. When I see her, I feel the same indifference I felt before this awful incident, and in this, I think I have found the roots of forgiveness.

I do not reject the idea that better folks than I are capable of achieving forgiveness on some kind of morally more desirable level; but I am equally convinced that most who speak about forgiveness and love in the same breath haven’t the faintest idea what they are talking about. They are the spiritual poseurs of whom I tire so easily. They are good students of the game, who recognize a brilliant line when they read one, and have the skill to parrot it back with sufficient humility in their bearing and conviction in their voice to, just perhaps, look to others as having reached “higher consciousness,” whatever-the-fuck that means.

As for the remaining few who speak of love and forgiveness – probably HHTGXIVDL, perhaps even you – I think they do so from an honest miscalculation about the nature of the exercise. They already hold the world in such a state of adoration that the practice of working from resentment toward forgiveness is actually surplus to requirements.

Caveat: Just because I reached a pretty good result with my feelings toward the ashram receptionist, don’t go thinking you can piss me off and get away with it. I don’t always have this much time on my hands to do the difficult mental work that forgiveness requires; and I might just scorch your ass!

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5 Responses to “Finding Forgiveness”


  1. 1 yaniv 26 February 2007 at 6:35 am

    Mark,

    Several occasions come to my mind where I’ve had to muster up the courage to forgive some deeds I still deem heinous and wish upon no one.

    In one major case, Love was the guiding factor. I already had immense Love for the person in question, and the suffering of covering up that Love or of thinking that it would remain dormant and unexpressed the rest of our lives because I couldn’t get over my anger and resentment – that was just unacceptable. That’s the short version.

    In other ‘counter lady’ type scenarios, when there was not a personal bond between me and the forgivee, I’ve taken a slightly different approach. In brief, and without the detailed metaphysical angle, I see the presence of anger and resentment in my mind as stains which whether I like it or not subconsciously influence my perception of the world around me. Eventually if not dealt with, these lenses will cause me to act out my frustrations not just on the original perpetrators, but in unrelated situations which out of my own (unaware) paranoia will trigger these feelings.

    Leaving aside the dimension of cause-and-effect, the principle of mental freedom (a corollary to self-sufficiency yes?) itself is enough for me to then make it a point to dissolve these grudges. It just leaves a bad taste (and an auric stink) to knowingly bind my mind in a manner which adds to my feelings of little-ness and hopelessness, of being at the whim at other people’s behaviors and deeds.

    So what do I say, in some form or another, every day? “Fuck it; no one has the power to make or take away my happiness; this is something that springs from and nourishes from within; so whomever you are, I’ve forgiven you already (but don’t expect me to keep quiet or let you keep up with this misbehavior, bitch).”

  2. 3 pavi 1 March 2007 at 6:22 am

    mark —

    i wish you would remember to have these things happen to you in madurai or pondi! hope you are feeling better now. we read (a somewhat censored version of :-)) your entry when we were out to lunch with sudha and the hema sisters. it sparked quite a discussion…reading it again now, i am struck by the juxtaposition of the word indifference with your phrase “found the roots of forgiveness”… i wondered whether it was really a return to indifference you meant that facilitated that find –or if it was rather, a return to a place unburdened by active ill-will or wounded memory (which is maybe a slightly different space from indifference?).

  3. 4 mbjesq 1 March 2007 at 9:10 am

    Pavi:

    I think your distinction is extremely helpful. I seized (gleefully, shit-disturber that I am) on the word indifference for its callous, anti-poetic ring as a way of emphasizing my inability to place love squarely into the equation of forgiveness — even as His Avuncularness and others invariably speak of the one with the other. I am happier, though, with your formulation, which more than makes up in accuracy and insight what it lacks in provocation. Oh well, we can’t all be Nietzsche and have it both ways.

    Fish!


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