The gestalt of forgiveness is all serenity, gentleness, and peace.


Don’t get me wrong – those images and stages of being surely are the end result, but few people talk about the actual process. Why? Because it’s not easy. It’s not sexy. It is not a matter of burning more incense, playing more new age music or lighting more candles.

Here’s how it goes for me: I can forgive X. I can forgive Y. I could even forgive Z, although that’s a bit harder. But W? W doesn’t deserve it. W was just plain wrong. W did the unforgivable. Well, what if you’re committed to the notion of forgiveness? What does it mean to explore the concept? Is everything forgivable?

See what I mean? Messy.

Warning: The very moment you choose to explore forgiveness, the Universe smacks you right in the face with challenge after challenge.

What nobody tells you is that the process feels like trying to squeeze your head through the eye of a needle. The result can sometimes be that when your ability to forgive doesn’t flow with ease or abundance, you conclude that you’re a horrible person. The process of forgiveness can be a bit messy – internally anyway. It feels like turning yourself inside out; and in many ways, it is. It causes you to contemplate who is “worthy” of forgiveness, what is/is not forgivable, and how your behavior may not always reflect what you believe.

Maybe there should be some sort of waiver form like when you are about to go skydiving or bungee jumping – – neither of which I have any desire to do.
It’s not so much exploring the concept of forgiveness itself that’s so challenging. What’s confronting is where you draw the (arbitrary) line of what is and what is not forgivable.

I have a friend whose father abused her sexually for a long time. As a teenager, she spoke out. He was arrested. He was convicted. He’s in jail. Good. Over time, she visited him in jail and forgave him. It doesn’t mean she thinks what he did is OK. It doesn’t mean she wishes he hadn’t been punished.

I was molested by a family member from the time I was 10 until I was almost 16. Let me tell you, MESS is what hit my family when my Mom finally dragged the truth out of me. Yet, many years later when my mother told me that my molester was dying of brain cancer and was in horrible pain, suffering terribly, all I could do was feel sorry for him. I wouldn’t wish that suffering on anyone – not even him. But pity isn’t forgiveness and to this day I find it difficult to say “I forgive him” without hesitation. It’s that last piece of gristle that sticks in my craw that has me think maybe I’ve not quite gotten “there” yet on this one.

Before that, in second grade, I had a babysitter who molested me and my best friend after school. I stopped wanting to stay with him and eventually told my mother why. The babysitter denied it. We all continued to live in the same apartment building, passing each other in awkward silence for many years thereafter. More than 20 years later, in the building’s outdoor parking lot, I noticed that the snow was cleaned off my car. This seemed to happen every time it snowed that winter. The snow remained piled upon the many other cars in the lot. That former babysitter, now an old man, had been shoveling out my car. Once I realized it, my heart melted and I wept. Just like the 20 years before, we never spoke. He just knew I knew and I was able to look at him instead of exchanging loaded, furtive glances.

My friend’s story and my two experiences make me wonder if it’s easier to forgive someone who’s been punished? Is it easier to forgive someone who’s acknowledged what they did, acknowledged its effect on you, and asked for forgiveness?

What I’ve found for me is that compassion is the very first, essential step in the process of forgiveness. I know I can’t even sail up anywhere near forgiveness without compassion.

I can get all righteous sometimes, thinking, “oh, I would never do something unforgivable.” The minute we say something isn’t forgivable, we are judging. Who am I to say what is and isn’t forgivable? What if I do something that crosses someone else’s forgiveness baseline? I don’t have to agree with that baseline. What if I’ve crossed it nonetheless? What if someone besides me is doing the “judging”? Does that mean I can never be forgiven? When I turn the microscope on myself, the answer sure is different!

Have I ever crossed my own baseline of what is forgivable? Violated my own “code”? Can I forgive myself for that? It’s horrifying to think that I might have done something to someone somewhere that exceeded their — and maybe my own — permissibility baseline.

See what I mean? Messy. It’s like an internal game of Twister: “right hand blue, left hand red,” all tangled up and toppling over.

True forgiveness requires thought. It requires challenging yourself. It also requires acknowledging your own upset (hurt, anger, feelings of being wronged). It requires acknowledging your own frailty, your own imperfection, your darkest side and having compassion for it in yourself.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge is acknowledging your darkest side and forgiving that in yourself.

Right now, I have no idea how to forgive what I have deemed unforgivable. I know compassion will get me closer. I know it’ll take releasing a certain degree of judgment – maybe all of it. I don’t know yet. I do know forgiveness has no smugness in it.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t have all the answers. What I do have are lots of messy questions, a lot less judgment (and lots more I’d like to shed), and more acceptance of what it is to be human. Just asking the questions has made a huge difference in how I see myself and others.

Doesn’t it always?

“Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use.”
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Mahatma Gandhi