“Years ago, a friend of mine used to ask people, what is the most important thing in life? The answers fell within a predictable range – health, to love one another, financial security – and often came with an explanation, as if the person replying were not quite sure and wanted to justify the answer to herself a well. One day, my friend put the same question to her father. The answer was simple, calm and spontaneous. It needed no further comment: ‘To forgive.’
My friend’s father was Jewish, and his entire family had been exterminated in the Holocaust. (He later remarried and emigrated to Australia, where my friend was born). I have seen the photos of his family. They are kept in an old tin box – all that remains of the family after the tragedy. They are photos of people like you and me, completely unaware of the impending doom.
The photo of a little girl struck me most of all. You look at it and can imagine her going to school, or playing or talking with her parents. A beautiful little girl who exists no more. I have tried to understand how this man must have felt when he realized he had lost her – and with her, his wife, his mother and father, brother and sister, his world, his home. I have tried, but all I have managed, in a vague and blurred way, is to imagine the horror of that time, the incredulity, and then the unbearable pain.
And yet, this man is capable of forgiving. Not only that, he can also single out forgiveness as the most important value in his life. I regard his attitude as a magnificent victory. And it is thanks to this victory – more than to the miracles of electronics, genetics, or astronautics – that civilization is still possible. It is thanks to this man, and many others like him, that we have not plunged totally into barbarism.
Though maybe we have. Read the newspaper any day, and you will be struck by the amount of unresolved resentment on earth. To fully understand what this darkness entails for us all, I ask you to imagine a possibility, a paradox. Tomorrow morning we wake up and find that everyone has forgiven everything there was to forgive, and has found the courage to say sorry for the any wrongs. Just think: What would happen if population X forgave population Y the terrible slaughter of many years ago? And what if ethnic group Z forgave ethnic group W, which in the past centuries had oppressed it, violated its women, exploited its men, mistreated its children, and plundered its possessions? What if nations A and B acknowledged each other’s right to exist freely, without fear of oppression, forgetting the wrongs both done and received? And what would happen if we woke up and discovered that even individuals had forgiven one another every injustice, and instead of recycling the past, could at last live fully in the present?
We would all breathe a sigh of relief. The atmosphere would be immeasurably happier and lighter. And many people would discover of the first time the wonder of living in the present moment instead of constantly investing huge parts of themselves in recriminations and accusations, reliving events that are long past. Relations between people would be open. And all the energy poured into blame, hatred, prejudice, and revenge would instead circulate freely and feed thousands of new projects.
Utopia, maybe. Forgiveness, however, is a definite possibility on a smaller scale. But let us at once clear up any misunderstandings; because it is so precious and important, we must not mistake forgiveness for caricatures. First of all, it is not the same as condoning. If I have been a victim of an injustice in the past, I might be afraid that it will be repeated or its gravity underestimated. I might fear that the one who committed the injustice will get away with it, perhaps even laugh behind my back. Therefore I might remain silent.
That is not it. Forgiveness means only that I do not want to continue feeding anger for an age-old wrong, hence ruin my life. I forgive, yes, but I keep well in mind the harm done tom e, and I will be mindful that it does not happen again. Someone who has forgiven can still live in a world where injustice is not tolerated. He just does not keep his alarm systems forever switched on, his guns always aimed at the enemy.
Nor is forgiveness an act of self-righteousness, in which I affirm my moral superiority and pat myself on the back for how noble and generous I am, meanwhile thinking of the miserable old fool who wronged me, who is burning in hell for the mischief he has done. No. Forgiveness is the inner act of making peace with the past and of finally closing accounts.
This discussion is not easy. On the contrary, it is first of all, irrational, because accounts do not balance. How can you possibly forgive abuse that has gone on for years, such as a slander that has ruined your life, or a betrayal that has disintegrated your family? How can such damage be repaired? No words, no sum of money can compensate, say, the loss of a loved one killed by a drunken driver? Forgiveness is contrary to all logic and mathematics. And forgiveness is also – or feels – dangerous. It exposes us not so much to repetition of the original harm as to feeling vulnerable and open. We feel vulnerable because our identity, like ivy that grows over an old column and clings to it, is attached to the wrong we have received. We feel that if we forgive, the sense of outrage and indignation may offer some spurious strength, and support our whole personality. But do we really want that kind of support?
We do not even need to see forgiveness as the absence of resentment – an emotionally neutral void. Nor as the release of tension, like relaxing a muscle after tensing it for some time. Rather, forgiveness is a positive quality. It contains joy and faith in others, generosity of spirit. Illogical and surprising, sometimes sublime, it frees us from the ancient chains of resentment. Whoever forgives, feels uplifted.”