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.
Be willing to face your new reality when you end up causing shit to happen.
The lead picture across all media today led me to reflect upon a deep, spiritual, perspective and revisit a Life lesson. This is an image (like the one below; image copyright with original creator) of former Australian cricket captain Steve Smith breaking down (while admitting to his mistake and owning responsibility for the ball tampering scandal that his team has recently been involved in) while his father Peter Smith stands by him.
I believe, like Peter Lalor writes for The Australian, that Steve has done right by accepting that he messed up, by acknowledging that he is guilty and by facing up to his demons. He will emerge as a stronger human being – and cricketer and leader – from this experience.
I can relate to how Steve is feeling just now.
I too have been torn by guilt, anger, grief and shame over my actions – decisions I took and choices I made – that led to the bankruptcy of my erstwhile Firm and plunged my precious family into abject penury. Despite 10 years having gone past, despite every effort we have made in this time, that’s a state that we are still to climb out of. So, at times the guilt still comes gnawing at me. But, unlike in the past, over time, I have learnt to deal with it. I have discussed it in my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal (Read more here). I share reflections about it in my Fall Like A Rose Petal Talk and I have blogged about it a few times here too.
I have understood from my own experience of making mistakes – and learning from them – that it is important to be honest with yourself. When a choice you make in Life goes awry and the consequences of your actions come to haunt you, don’t run away from that moment, that reality. Turn around instead and face those consequences. Look yourself in the eye, in the mirror, and admit to yourself that you are guilty and that you screwed up. In such a situation, you will feel stupid, you will feel guilty, remorseful and angry with yourself – and with the world, with the people and circumstances that caused you to act in a certain way. Forgive yourself and forgive everyone around you. Do not cling on to the guilt or to the shame or the anger. Set them all down. By forgiving yourself you cannot repair what you have done, you can’t undo what is past, what is over. But forgiving yourself helps you unburden and deal with the consequences of your actions and your new reality better. It gives you focus and the courage to pick up the threads of your Life again.
I have clung on to guilt, shame, anger and grief for the longest time and have been held hostage by all of them. I have cried, screamed at myself and have, on several occasions, literally banged my head against the wall. But only when I admitted to my mistakes wholesomely, and forgave myself, did I understand the value in moving on. In this time, Vaani – like Steve’s father Peter stands by him today – has stood by me. Her presence, and trust in me, has given me immense strength and I will remain eternally grateful to her. And although we have a long, long way to go before we fix our bankrupt situation, we see it as our responsibility now and don’t see it as a burden anymore.
Let’s recognize this truth about Life. No one is perfect. Shit happens. And sometimes you make choices that you should not have made. When confronted with a Life situation that you caused but which you find too hot to handle, too heavy to hold, take it one step at a time. You can’t solve the problem overnight. First, face your new reality. Cry if it makes you feel better. But be honest with yourself and own the outcome of your choices and actions. At the same time, set down the guilt and let go of the grief, anger and shame. Believe me, your Steve Smith moment, whenever it comes calling, will not burn you – it will only steel you. It will make you stronger, wiser – and happy.
You must fight the good fight if the process of fighting makes you peaceful. But if your inner peace is lost, then the cause, the raison d’etre – to fight – itself is lost.
I am often asked by readers or audiences on how we can differentiate between a good fight, a fight worth fighting for, and one that isn’t? This question often arises when I recommend a principle that I stand by – that the best way to win any battle is to not fight at all – or when I tell people to forgive and move on – even if they can’t forget – than cling on and suffer. Let me share my understanding here though, let me quickly clarify, choosing to fight an individual, situation or system is an intensely personal choice.
First, why do we fight anyone or anything? The idea of a fight arises only when you disagree with what’s happening to you – either with the way you are being treated by a person, by an establishment (a community, organization, society or even by a government or legal system) or by Life itself. So, essentially, you fight every time you see a lack of fairplay in an interaction, relationship or context. But just think about it – when did Life promise any fairplay? Life itself appears so grossly unfair when you weigh your intent, integrity and values against situations that you have to end up facing. So, when Life doesn’t guarantee any fairplay, where is the question of expecting it from humans, and from human-made contexts, systems and situations?
Even so, this doesn’t mean you must not raise your voice against acts that are inhuman or are against social interests. This doesn’t mean you must not want to or try to correct an action or system that urgently needs correction or fixing. Surely you must. But do whatever you must do, do whatever it takes, without agonizing, without suffering, without losing your inner peace. This is where the choice becomes very personal.
My close friend got into a litigious separation process with his wife some years ago. She is 16 years younger to him. They married after a breezy romance. But within a year, she separated from him and sued him for dowry harassment, impotency and domestic abuse. All this, because my friend confronted her with evidence of an affair she was having with a colleague at work. Given the women-friendly anti-dowry laws in India, the lady’s strategy was clear – harass my friend so that he grants her a divorce immediately and compensates her with a huge alimony that included a red Pajero! We advised our friend not to take the legal route. I encouraged him to settle out of court: “Just forgive her, don’t ruin your peace of mind, buy her the car and get out of this mess.” But my friend decided to fight her. In court. The process took over 8 years and it was hell – repeated impotency tests, dowry harassment charges against him and his aged parents having to be defended at every level from police stations to courtrooms, huge legal expenses and his inability to keep a job because the matter required 24×7 attention all through the years. Ultimately my friend won the case at the Delhi High Court. He was exonerated of all charges. And the lady apologized to him in court in return for being granted divorce. Now, all through the fight, through all this drama and humiliation, my friend remained stoic. He was always deadpan, unruffled. I never found him beaten or defeated. He anchored very, very well. Now, if you can deal with a fight with such clarity, such equanimity, then, it is perhaps worth it. But if you are going to suffer fighting, then you might as well not fight at all.
I too have the option to fight many fights. But I have chosen not to. For instance, there is so much corruption around us. Just take the state of the Chennai Airport. The contractors and the Airports Authority of India have a lot of explanation to do over its pathetic condition – falling glass panes, leaking ceiling, unsafe carousels and escalators. It has been rated as the worst airport in the world. Yet, no one has fixed any of these things in the last five years. Worse, no one has been held accountable for this shoddy piece of critical public infrastructure. I do feel like filing a public interest litigation demanding a court direction to the authorities to hold the people concerned liable. But between dealing with my existential crisis and public interest, I prefer preserving my inner peace for investing in resolving my own problem first. Or let me take another instance, of my need to be exonerated by my own family – I have been branded “a cheat” by them despite there being no evidence of my having frauded them at all. Now, this is a fight that I will never fight. Because I believe that if members of a family cannot trust one of their own, what is the point in making them realize their mistake? I have decided to let them live with their theory, and I have learnt to be accepting of my reality that I will never have their understanding all my Life. Important, I have forgiven them – even though I can’t forget the way in which I was treated – and I am at peace with myself and with them.
This is how I choose not to fight each time I am provoked – I go simply by wanting to preserve my inner peace. Because the only reward worth cherishing in Life is your inner peace! It doesn’t ever matter whatever else you have, or gain, if you have lost your inner peace!
So, to fight, to forgive, to move on is an intensely personal decision. The only way you can take that decision is to ask yourself what will make you peaceful. And go do what gives you peace. The key is to be at peace, to be happy with whatever is, even as you are making a sincere effort to change your current reality!