Friday, 30 November 2012

The gift of forgiveness

Let me share this true story. It's about a typical couple in Singapore. The courtship was smooth. They met in school, fell in love, and walked down the aisle in marriage. Then, they added two bundles of joy to their family. 

All seemed well until careerism as a competitive sport kicks in. The wife soon earned more than the husband. She started to despise him. She then became a director while the husband lagged behind. This gap caused a rift between them and the wife drifted away into the arms of her colleague. 

An office romance blossomed and she discovered that she was pregnant with his child. The innocent husband was devastated when she requested for a divorce. 

However, still waters run deep. The pregnancy was not the only shocker. The wife discovered that she has cancer. Now the shocker was on her.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending; although it is no less heartbreaking. The wife's boyfriend broke off with her when he heard about the cancer. He also abandoned their unborn child. So, who came back to pick up the pieces? 

Well, no prizes for guesses. The long-suffering husband returned and stayed with his sick wife. He and their two children nursed her back to health. They attended to her physical needs. He accompanied her through the difficult time as she carried her pregnancy to full term. She also fought hard against the dreaded cancer. Her husband not only forgave her but also promised to raise the baby as his very own. 

Imagine this, from the perspective of her husband, the wife's three betrayals of choosing to despise him, have an affair, and bear a child thereafter, were not met with an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance from the husband. Instead, the husband did the christian thing and chose the narrow road by forgiving her and saving the marriage. 

This touching story is a good starter for this discussion on forgiveness. A professor of Christian counseling defines it as such, "To forgive another means to cancel a debt in order to open a door of opportunity for both repentance and restoration of the broken relationship." 

For me, the act of forgiving is basically letting go. Every time we forgive, we are conducting a personal cremation service as we put our hatred, our hurt and our ego to the flame. As we let go, we open our heart to a new landscape for personal and social growth. 

I see a person who forgives as one who suffers a little death everyday until he comes alive, experiencing pure freedom for the first time.

Martin Luther King once told of an account of the egregiousness of racial discrimination when he was attending a dinner. A white man came over to his table and, instead of greeting him, spat on his face. Dr King smiled at the man and calmly took out a hanky. 

He then wiped the gooey phlegm off his face, folded the cloth and handed it over to the disgruntled man, saying, "I think this is yours."

Racial hatred is the ugly social face of unforgiveness.  And every act of unforgiveness has its seemingly innocuous start. One author describes the birth of unforgiveness as one that is "ignited by a spark of perceived hurt or offense, fanned by hot emotions of anger and fear, damped to a slow burn by time, and scuffed into stack of dangerous coals by rumination."

I once counseled a man whose gifted son had just died tragically in a road accident. He came to me to seek legal recourse. In the middle of the discussion, I asked him, "Have you ever thought of forgiving the driver?" He snapped, "it's not for me to forgive. It's for my son to forgive. He has died and forgiveness died with him." 

I looked into his eyes and replied, "But isn’t forgiveness for the living, not for the dead? Wouldn’t your son want you to let go and live on?" The man turned around and walked away.

While I understand  it is difficult to forgive someone who has taken your loved one away by a reckless act, I sincerely believe that we never find peace in this life if we bring to our grave the bitterness of unforgiveness. 

Somehow, unforgiveness taints everything in our life. On a spiritual level, our prayer life is compromised. On a personal level, we feel hypocritical and inauthentic. On a relational level, the bitterness staggers our efforts to reach out in compassion to others. 

In fact, the word "forgive" is made up of two-parts: "for" and "give". The act of forgiving is an act of selfless giving. We give the gift of forgiveness to the offender by giving away our hurt, anger and ego. When we forgive, we give up the right to hold on to the wrong done to us. We let go of the right to inflict guilt on the offender. We release him from the guilt and pain. Alas, for some, such release is perceived as too cheap for the offender. 

Some of us do not want to forgive because to do so is to lose the tacit power over another. Some of us finds it strangely empowering to hold a wrong or a grievance in ransom. We somehow secretly relish the "superior-ness"  that comes with withholding forgiveness as we see it as an act of psychologically imprisoning our offender in a mental cage of guilt and isolation. 

Given a chance to free ourselves from bitterness, we choose instead to perpetuate the role of a victim rather than the liberator of two consciences: both ourselves and the offender. Here I am reminded of what Indra Gandhi once said, "You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist." 

But little did we know that over the years, this self-serving attitude, or as i call it "clenched-fist heart", only goes to punish us even more. As we hold on to the pain, we also hold on to the bitterness. And a life of bitterness is a joyless one.

I once had a conversation with one of my colleagues. She is a mother of two. And she has a creative way to impart the lesson of charity to her children. The relevance of this story will come at the end, so bear with me. 

Like every loving parent, my friend buys Christmas presents for her kids. But there is a budget, usually it is fifty dollars. The other catch is that for whatever the child buys, he must buy another identical gift. So, he will have two gifts in the end.  

With two of the same toys, my friend would arrange for a trip down to an orphanage. As you'd have guessed it, my friend expects her children to give away the gift he had just purchased to an orphan. I think this is a good way to teach your child the value of sharing.

Now comes a similar story told by Jacob Needleman in a book entitled Beyond Forgiveness. This is how he recounted it, "A few years ago, I was teaching a class at a business school in Mexico. During one class, we were talking about what it means to be a good man, and a student, thirty five, who had a little boy of five, told the class this story. "You know," he began, "I was decorating the Christmas tree with my son in the living room when there was a knock at the front door. We went to answer it, and there was a beggar boy. 

In Mexico, beggars are perfectly acceptable, not like in American. The boy was about the same age as my son, and so my son and I went back to the living room and I said to him, "Give him one of your toys." My son picked up one of his old, beat up toys. "No," I said. "Give him your favorite toy." My little boy balked. 

"No," I said, and I was gentle but firm. "Give him your favorite toy." Finally, my son picked up a toy he just gotten for Christmas, and while I waited in the living room, he went down to the front door. A few seconds later, he came running back, radiant, shouting, "Daddy, can I do that again?"

What's the message here? It's the joy of selflessness. The little boy felt it more than he understood it, but that's ok. The boy was happy to give till it hurts because the joy that lights up the orphan's face is contagious. 

This same principle is applicable to forgiveness. 

Forgiveness  is the joy of selfless giving. When we forgive someone, we are letting go of our hurt and pain and offering the gift of pardon to the offender. It is always a difficult act because letting go means losing power over another. It also requires us to quit from playing the role of a victim.  But the trade off is worth it because we exchange a life of bitterness for the gift of selfless joy.

Now comes the second part of this letter: How to forgive?

Let's be realistic. Everyday life is far different from those scripted drama we see on tv. It is usually more dull, less glamorous, and more raw. To this raw-ness of life, we must consider this reality, that is, some people are difficult to forgive. 

Think about it. It is easy to forgive your child for minor, though repeated transgressions. But how do you do the same for an adult who has hurt or betrayed you, even repeatedly? Add to this combustible mix is an adult who is not repentant.

Take the above example of the spouse who had decided to stray, commit adultery and bear a child with another man. How about the driver who through his own reckless act killed a child? I can think of far more obscene and cruel acts done to an innocent party that makes it extremely difficult to forgive. Truly, it is easy to preach about forgiveness but to live by it is a whole new dimention altogether.

But first, let me set the record straight. Forgiveness is not excusing the offending act. It is not approving it. When a wrong is done, it is a wrong no matter how you embellish it, mask it, disguise it or shape-shift it. The truism "when you do the crime, you have to do the time" still applies. So, it is still genuine forgiveness if you expect justice to be done.

Another thing forgiveness is not is forgetting the offense. Especially for an offense that is so grave and deep cutting, it is difficult to forget what was done. This is understandable and therefore offering the hand of forgiveness is not discarding, erasing or suppressing the memory of it.

So, after taking the "sting" out of forgiveness, let's deal with how to forgive. And a good place to start is with this African proverb, "My enemy is one whose story I have not yet heard."

The first step to forgiveness is to open our heart to listen to the story of our offender. Every life tells a story. Even murderers are not born hell bent to kill. There is always a hidden angle to our enemy’s life that, although does not excuse the act, at least makes him more understandable. And the more we understand, the less we hate. The less we hate, the more we forgive. 

Here is another way of looking at it. We are all flawed individual. We all make mistakes. For every finger we point at our enemy, we can count with the same number of fingers the wrong that we have done to others. So, it is said that the power to forgive is in the recognition of the flaws in all of us. Let me show you what I mean with this personal encounter.

One saturday night, my family and I were having dinner at Plaza Singapura. We took about three hours traveling, dining and shopping. When we returned home, it was already eleven at night. But what greeted us at the doorstep was a choking stench very much like something was burning. I panicked and rushed into the house and realized that my wife had forgotten to turn off the stove when we left. She was actually boiling chicken soup and the pot was charred dry when I turned it off.

Her forgetfulness came with a price. With all the windows shut tight, the whole house was blanketed by a thick smothering fog. No room in the house was spared. In anger, I scampered to ventilate the house by opening all the windows and switching on all the fans. Still, the fog was unbearable and it took about one day to get rid of it. 

As predicted, I confronted my wife and blamed her for the careless act. She tried to apologize but I was too angry to listen. Then, all of a sudden, I retreated. I disassociate myself from my anger and sat by myself, alone, thinking about her apology and my own life. It was a sudden epiphany moment.

My own self-examination has brought me to the realization that I was no better. I recalled I once forgot to turn off the electric iron. At times, I would lose my cool and rant off at her like a mad man. There are just too many missteps, misjudgments and mistakes in my life which would automatically disqualify me from putting on a self-righteous robe and start blaming her. In the end, I realized that we are all in the same boat - the boat of human failings. I then did the next natural thing: I went to reconcile with her.

That day I learnt one important lesson: We can't fix relationships in the same way we change a light bulb or tie a shoelace. Relationships are issues of the heart and they cannot be fixed mechanically. They are not things, plugs or lego. It is more complicated than that. Like forgiveness, we need to listen and understand the opposite party. We need to suspend all judgment and criticisms. We need to really empathize.

Most of all, we need to open our heart to them and choose to sensitize ourselves to their pain. Because they are all created different, we need to understand how such differences make them say and act the way they do. Only by doing so, can we experience a genuine change of heart. 

It is said that the beginning of wisdom is listening and listening specifically with the goal to understand. I guess the goal of wisdom is reached when we have fully step into the shoes of our enemy and completely share in his pain and suffering. When we become one with our enemy, that's where the ability to forgive is birthed. 

Martin Luther puts it this way, "We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power of love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."

My last point about forgiveness is that it is an ongoing process. Don't expect it to start and end with this pronouncement, "I forgive you". Some hurt cuts so deep that it may take a long time to heal.

But the aim here is to open our heart to the opportunity to restore the relationship. Whether the offender repents or not, forgiveness is an unilateral and independent act from the forgiver to the offender. It expects nothing in return and it is a form of spiritual healing for the forgiver.

I sincerely believe that once we resolve within ourselves to forgive, and not pay lip service to it, doors will open up for us to not only witness the restoration of the relationship but also the eventual repentance of the one who has hurt us. 

I sincerely urge each and everyone of us to take the time to prepare this priceless and precious gift of forgiveness and offer it unconditionally to the one who has hurt us deeply. I trust with all my heart that the true miracle of this gift is that it will not leave the giver and the receiver unchanged. 

Unlike physical gifts, the gift of forgiveness cuts deep into the soul of the recipient, breaking down all walls of resistance, bridging the redemptive gap, and forcing him or her to respond positively. 

A world where the gift of forgiveness is selflessly offered is not hard to imagine. It is a world of lasting peace, where conflicts are dissolved even before they foment into wars, where hatred dies stillborn, and where once stale relationships are brought back to vibrant life. 

This is the true power of forgiveness; the power of second chances. This is how life should be lived; it is how life should be celebrated. Cheers out.