Forgive. We’re often told to forgive, not for the sake of the person who hurt us, but for our own peace. Forgiveness is a concept I’ve been trying to understand.
In the last few years, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot on the subject of forgiveness. How does one move forward when you’ve been hurt badly by the ones you’ve loved the most? I know that I am pretty forgiving, but I also know that I make choices not to engage with some people who have hurt me very badly. In the past, I thought forgiveness meant forgetting, but now I don’t think it is.
I came across Antony D’Mello‘s story on the Tao of Forgiveness. Now, as much as I like his writings and quote them often, this is one I’m yet not ready to embrace.
Forgiveness, Tao and Potatoes!
One day, the sage gave the disciple an empty sack and a basket of potatoes.. “Think of all the people who have done or said something against you in the recent past, especially those you cannot forgive.
For each of them, inscribe the name on a potato and put it in the sack.”
The disciple came up quite a few names, and soon his sack was heavy with potatoes.
“Carry the sack with you wherever you go for a week,” said the sage. “We’ll talk after that.”
At first, the disciple thought nothing of it. Carrying the sack was not particularly difficult. But after a while, it became more of a burden. It sometimes got in the way, and it seemed to require more effort to carry as time went on, even though its weight remained the same.
After a few days, the sack began to smell. The carved potatoes gave off a ripe odor. Not only were they increasingly inconvenient to carry around, they were also becoming rather unpleasant.
Finally, the week was over. The sage summoned the disciple. “Any thoughts about all this?”
“Yes, Master,” the disciple replied. “When we are unable to forgive others, we carry negative feelings with us everywhere, much like these potatoes. That negativity becomes a burden to us and, after a while, it festers.”
“Yes, that is exactly what happens when one holds a grudge. So, how can we lighten the load?”
“We must strive to forgive.”
“Forgiving someone is the equivalent of removing the corresponding potato from the sack. How many of your transgressors are you able to forgive?”
“I’ve thought about it quite a bit, Master,” the disciple said. “It required much effort, but I have decided to forgive all of them.”
“Very well, we can remove all the potatoes. Were there any more people who transgressed against you this last week?”
The disciple thought for a while and admitted there were. Then he felt panic when he realized his empty sack was about to get filled up again.
“Master,” he asked, “if we continue like this, wouldn’t there always be potatoes in the sack week after week?”
“Yes, as long as people speak or act against you in some way, you will always have potatoes.”
“But Master, we can never control what others do. So what good is the Tao in this case?”
“We’re not at the realm of the Tao yet. Everything we have talked about so far is the conventional approach to forgiveness. It is the same thing that many philosophies and most religions preach – we must constantly strive to forgive, for it is an important virtue. This is not the Tao because there is no striving in the Tao.”
“Then what is the Tao, Master?”
“You can figure it out. If the potatoes are negative feelings, then what is the sack?”
“The sack is… That which allows me to hold on to the negativity. It is something within us that makes us dwell on feeling offended…. Ah, it is my inflated sense of self-importance. “
“And what will happen if you let go of it?”
“Then… The things that people do or say against me no longer seem like such a major issue.”
“In that case, you won’t have any names to inscribe on potatoes. That means no more weight to carry around, and no more bad smells.
The Tao of forgiveness is the conscious decision to not just to remove some potatoes… But to relinquish the entire sack!
An invitation to forgive is not an invitation to forget?
Since D’mello’s story didn’t resonate with me, I began to look the views of other people I admire. One person I’ve always admired is Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. His has been the sane voice of peace in many situations. This excerpt from his book The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World seems to make a lot more sense to me.
The invitation to forgive is not an invitation to forget. Nor is it an invitation to claim that an injury is less hurtful than it really is. Nor is it a request to paper over the fissure in a relationship, to say it’s okay when it’s not. It’s not okay to be injured. It’s not okay to be abused. It’s not okay to be violated. It’s not okay to be betrayed.
The invitation to forgive is an invitation to find healing and peace. In my native language, Xhosa, one asks forgiveness by saying, Ndicel’ uxolo—“I ask for peace.” Forgiveness opens the door to peace between people and opens the space for peace within each person. The victim cannot have peace without forgiving. The perpetrator will not have genuine peace while unforgiven. There cannot be peace between victim and perpetrator while the injury lies between them. The invitation to forgive is an invitation to search out the perpetrator’s humanity. When we forgive, we recognize the reality that there, but for the grace of God, go I.
So while I really don’t want to carry around a sack of smelly potatoes, I do believe that in order to protect myself and be authentic, I must forgive, but not necessarily engage with those who have hurt me badly.
I’d love to hear your views on this.
I’m Writing Bravely for the Write Tribe Festival of Words – March 2019