When you are forgiving someone you are choosing what – and who – is important to you.
Last week, I read a story that talked about Sabrina Lal forgiving Manu Sharma, her sister Jessica Lal’s killer. Interestingly, the same day Vaani and I bumped into a former colleague of ours who had maligned us in public for issuing her a pink slip when our erstwhile Firm went bankrupt and we had to lay off several team members. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal)
After we met the lady (our former colleague), Vaani and I discussed that dark time of our Life, which took place over 12 years ago. We recalled how it was incredibly painful then. The team we had built was made up of committed, enthusiastic young people. But our Firm’s financial woes necessitated that we laid off several people – all at once. This didn’t go down well with many, including the lady. She sent out mails to all our colleagues and clients literally calling us names and saying we were “heartless and remorseless”. However, when we met this lady the other day, after all these years, we exchanged pleasantries and enquired about each other’s families. We felt no rancor towards her when we spoke to her. The former colleague’s behavior back then surely caused us a lot of anguish. But we had long forgiven her. Not just her. But anyone who has judged us, who has hurt us – including my own family – has been forgiven.
We have learnt that forgiveness sets you – the forgiver – free. It may never erase a painful memory. In fact, you may never be able to forget what happened, but you will not be bitter over it. Not after you have forgiven and moved on.
To be honest, initially, I loathed the idea of forgiving people. But being this way didn’t help me one bit. I cooked within myself – I wanted to prove to people that I was right and they were wrong in doing what they did to me or to Vaani; I wanted to avenge their actions; and I wanted to see them suffer. But the more I held on to these feelings of being wronged, of wanting revenge, I was the one who suffered. My suffering made me angry, angsty and kept me perpetually on the edge. Clearly, I was not enjoying being that way. It was through weeks and months of practicing mouna – daily silence periods – that I understood the futility of clinging on to thoughts of hatred and revenge.
One day, at a Sai satsang bhajan session, which we were attending regularly around that time, I thought of all those people I hated. Several names and faces flashed through my mind – almost as if I was flipping past images rapidly in my phone’s picture gallery. As I thought about all those people, anger gripped me. I started praying feverishly for an opportunity – just one opportunity – to get even with each of them. Then, as if a switch had been flipped within me, I realized how vain my thinking was. And, miraculously, involuntarily, I decided to forgive all of them. And even as this feeling of forgiveness swept me, I broke down. I cried inconsolably for several minutes. At the end of that cathartic outburst, I felt so much at peace, so free, and so light. I realized I had unshackled myself, I had set down a huge, huge burden. That night I slept peacefully, like a baby.
So, from my own personal experience, I can completely relate to Sabrina Lal’s choice. Did Manu Sharma deserve her forgiveness? Is he really a reformed man? Will he value her sentiment? All these are immaterial. What matters to Sabrina is that she has forgiven him and so she is free – having let go and moved on.
That’s what forgiveness does to you. It makes you get out of this trap that your mind holds you hostage in – this trap of hatred, revenge and bitterness. It is irrelevant to you what happens to the other person, when you forgive someone. Forgiveness is a deeply personal choice. It is about what is important to you and you choosing that over everything – and everyone – else.
When you forgive someone, you are freeing yourself.
A lady told me the other day that she is finding it very difficult to forgive her husband for having an affair with another woman. She and her husband are going through a separation. “But I can’t get down to forgiving him. I am unable to move on,” she confessed. She wanted to know if there was a way to forgive.
I told her that forgiveness is the only way to move on. But let us first understand that people do things we dislike to us, stuff we don’t want done to us, like causing us hurt and grief, only because they don’t see themselves as doing anything wrong. So, in this lady’s case, it is possible that her husband saw nothing wrong in his relating better with someone else and being drawn to her. Now, with the lady clinging on to the hurt, while her husband has moved on, is what is causing her suffering – unnecessarily. And she will suffer until such time that she forgives her husband and moves on.
This perspective applies in all contexts to all of us.
Simply, there is no point in grieving over others’ behavior. Because you have no control over them. What you can control is how you respond. Therefore, forgiveness needs to, and must be, cultivated. This does not mean you give up your stand or stop being firm in a situation. Fight the issue, fight the good fight, be dogged about what you believe is right, including the way you want to be treated, but forgive the person.
The practice of forgiveness involves training your mind using three steps: 1. Give the situation love. Send peaceful thoughts and energy to that person. This may be initially difficult, because the very thought of that person may make you feel angry. But keep at it. Keep saying, “May everything that this person wants to achieve in Life, and with me, be possible and may there always be light, happiness and peace in this person’s Life”. 2. Find ways to communicate to the person what your stand or views on the issue you are fighting over are. Avoid getting even. Stick to the point. Text messaging or sending a simple email are good options for such a purpose. Remember a physical interface can only aggravate and lead to a verbal duel. 3. Work hard on not revisiting that hurt. Immerse yourself in what gives you joy. Music, children, work, nature…whatever; keep reminding your mind that you don’t want to think about the hurt.
When you forgive someone, you are freeing yourself of all the emotional burden you would otherwise be unnecessarily carrying! Holding on to a resentful episode at a personal level means you are continuing to hurt. This will only chew you up, keep you unhappy and make you suffer. When you walk away, with forgiveness in your heart, from a hurtful, resentful situation, you are walking away happy. Doesn’t that matter the most?
Forgiving someone for a transgression and yet being firm on the issue need not be mutually exclusive.
A young manager I know is in a quandary. His boss has been harassing him at work – to the extent that the young man went into depression. His colleagues advised him to report the boss’ behavior and to seek a new role within the organization. The manager got himself assigned to a new project within the company over some months but he has chosen not to complain about his ex-boss. Over coffee the other day he asked me if was right or wrong in a. forgiving his boss and moving on and b. not reporting his boss’ behavior to his company’s HR leadership on grounds of breaching an organizational value – ‘respect for the individual’. “I am not sure I can be forgiving and also report him,” he confessed.
As I have learnt from Life, you can – and often must – do both. There’s a warm and compassionate side to each of us. We are, by nature, willing to forgive people for their transgressions. But often times our softer side is viewed and interpreted as our weakness by people who trample upon our emotions or deny us our freedom or even basic, fundamental, human courtesies. In such situations, it is absolutely fine to stand up for yourself, look the someone who is bullying or harassing you in the eye, and say that you will not take this treatment anymore. Besides, in this particular manager’s story, it is important that his boss’ behavior is reported. Because it conflicts with an organizational value and if left unchecked it may cause serious emotional injury to other employees and also impair the organization’s culture.
Important, when you are forgiving someone, you are gifting yourself freedom from the trauma that following any pain that has been inflicted on you. Forgiveness frees you of suffering. But fighting for the injustice meted out to you in the first place, that’s issue-based. So if you choose to stay firm, and unrelenting, on not allowing such an issue to arise again, either to you, or to anyone in the future, there is no conflict whatsoever.
I have learned this from Swami Sathya Sai Baba: “In any relationship between two people, one may well be a cow and the other, a bull. There’s nothing wrong in being either. Each has a role to fulfil and each has something to offer the other. But at any time that the bull starts taking advantage of the cow’s benevolence, mistaking it for meekness, the cow will be well within its rights to assume the ‘avatar’ of the bull. In taking a stance, in your own interest, there is no right or wrong. Just be true to yourself – do what you believe must be done in any context. The cow need not perpetrate any acrimony, aggression or animosity. But the cow shouldn’t suffer any of these either.”
In essence, while to make a mistake is human, and to forgive such a mistake too is human, to suffer in silence and sorrow is both unjust and inhuman. It is the biggest hurdle to inner peace and joy. So, don’t confuse being compassionate and being firm. They need not be exclusive. Simply, no matter who it is, don’t let anyone take you for granted, trample upon your self-esteem, piss on you and pass you over. Remember: if you don’t stand up for yourself – chances are, perhaps, nobody else will!