Is forgive-ness a phenomenon that is learned or is it something that some of us are inherently better at than others?
It’s been just over two weeks since my return from India where I was invited to attend this year’s Mind & Life Conversations with the Dalai Lama under the themes of compassion, interconnection, and transformation. I sat through the two-day event, where two thought leaders joined in conversations with the Dalai Lama Dharamsala at his residence in exile, with significant discomfort.
The first day of the event highlighted the importance of interconnectedness—communication and collaboration for survival. According to recent experiments conducted in the fields of evolutionary biology (which now takes into account both genetic as well as cultural evolution), both compassion and aggression are inheritable. And from a cultural evolution perspective, compassion is the only way a species can survive. Unless we practice a collective compassion, in a few generations, we will all be extinct.
This was neither an uncomfortable realisation for me, nor surprising.
It was only during the second day that the discomfort really began to sink in. The topic of the day was an African tradition, called ubuntu, often translated as “I am because we are”, or “humanity towards others.” The term is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”, enabling a culture of forgiveness threaded through the very fabric of Africa, through her language and deep communal structures.
We Bangladeshis, on the other hand, at risk of evoking nationalistic defensiveness, aren’t exactly great at forgiveness, primarily as a result of two things: 1) we are a nation formed through a genocide, which is, largely, yet to be recognised as one, and 2) the political rhetoric that is continually perpetuated doesn’t allow us to forgive and/or forget. So, we live and relive the past and create a kind of hostile political consciousness deemed as a necessary part of patriotism.
I consider myself a patriot. At this point, I am hoping my discomfort is starting to make a little more sense. Whether as a result of generational trauma, cultural violence being absorbed into my internal value system or the vicious cycle of relentless unkindness we seem to regularly witness and be subjected to—forgiveness is a difficult, uncomfortable and foreign process for me.
But Dr Pumla Gobodo Madikizela, the speaker of the day, who served as a member of post-genocidal South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, had also come from a post-genocidal nation. One that was subjected to gross violations of human rights, dehumanisation resulting from a system of institutionalised racial segregation and unimaginable violence known as the apartheid. So when she spoke of mothers who had watched their children being murdered in front of them but forgave the murderers anyway, I was intrigued.
But that was only the beginning.
The Dalai Lama’s response, unwaveringly grounded in compassion, spoke of feeling gratitude toward his enemies for giving him the opportunity to learn and practise forgiveness. “We don’t expect the ones who are close to us to hurt us, to betray us. Who else but the enemy, through antagonising us, would give us the opportunity to learn patience?”
Then I started to wonder about the pain that is inflicted upon us by those who we believe are our closest. Our next-door neighbours who turn their backs on us when we are subjected to violence by oppressive forces or regimes, our husbands who beat us until we bleed, or friends who rape us when we are intoxicated, our parents who set us on fire for not protecting our “honours”, teachers who harass and molest in attempts to hijack our honour. Or even in less extreme forms, what do we do when those who we trust not to hurt us, hurt us?
I had grown up with the idea that if you perceive an assault on yourself and your body as too wrong to forgive, you are not necessarily being small-minded. Even though we are often told that we’ll feel better if we forgive people who’ve done us wrong, the very act of forgiveness—by its very nature—can be an act of denial. So, can’t the decision to not forgive represent a legitimate response to an offender’s continuing actions and place in society and/or our personal lives? Should we then, in order to reach peace or spiritual enlightenment, practice coerced forgiveness—a forgiveness granted because it is believed to be the only virtuous or healthy thing to do?
But according to the Dalai Lama, there is no alternative to forgiveness. He laid the foundation of his response with the following Tibetan prayer:
When it comes to suffering, I do not want an iota of it
When it comes to joy, I cannot have enough of it
In this regard, there is no difference between me and another
May I be blessed so that I can take joy in the joy of others.
It all starts with the recognition of the fact that we exist only in relation to others. “I am because we are.” If we see ourselves as only a part of an interconnected whole, there is no Self that is separate from the Other. There is no “I versus you”. There is only a collective We. And then forgiveness becomes the only way of being because not forgiving entails perpetuating a kind of unkindness toward oneself.
This, then, also necessitates a better understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a conscious, difficult choice that is a learned process and takes significant work even after the decision to forgive has been made. It is a decision to let the past be what it was and not what we wish it had been; and an openness to meeting the present moment freshly. It is a willingness to drop the existing narrative on a particular injustice, to stop telling ourselves over and over again the story of what happened, what this other person did, how we were injured, and all the rest of the things we keep reminding ourselves of in relation to this unforgivable-ness. In doing so, we stop employing the present moment to validate, correct, vindicate or punish the past. We show up, maybe, forever changed as a result of the past, but nonetheless with all of our senses wide open and available to Right Now in all its possibilities.
So, the process of forgiveness of the other, interestingly, invites and guides our attention away from the other, away from what they did, haven’t done, or need to do. We no longer wait for or want them to be different. There is no further need to get compassion or acknowledgment out of the other, to get them to see and know our pain, to show us that our suffering matters. Forgiveness means that we lose interest or simply give up the fight to have the other get it, get what they’ve done, get that we matter. We move towards ourselves, our own experience, our heart. Through forgiving you, I come into being.
What an empowering thought. Now, how do we go about it?
Shagufe Hossain is the founder of Leaping Boundaries, an organisation that aims to raise visibility of female madrasah students, and a Dalai Lama Fellow.