Being in relationships – of any form – can hurt us. Because as human beings we’re not perfect and we’re capable of doing really dumb shit.
Some time ago, someone at work tried to make me look bad. In an inter-agency meeting, they suddenly spoke to the lack of support they felt they were getting from my department – or me in particular. I was taken aback, but only slowly did I begin to realise what was going on: it was a hostile attack meant to damage me in front of other parties. I shut down and tried all the techniques to stop myself from bursting into tears. Over the next few days, the strong anger dissipated and I started seeing what I think caused the attack: they were feeling threatened. They were scared that their job was on the line and I was going to take on their job and responsibilities. And to be honest, it could have looked that way to them. Without ever talking to the person about it, I thought a lot about it, and by the end of the process, I held no grudge. I had forgiven them.
It can be so hard to forgive because – so often – we simply are in the right and the scale of the folly, thoughtlessness and meanness of others seems utterly beyond our own measure.
But healthy relationships with our colleagues, friends, family and neighbours all depend on the power of forgiveness. Daily life is full to the brim of moments in which we hurt others, by accident or on purpose. If we want to continue to be social organisms then mutual forgiveness is the only way forward.
One way to increase our chances of cutting others a little slack is to think on how the other person may have got there, to this place of idiocy and cruelty. Every “irritating” fault in another person has a long history behind it. We don’t just become irritating overnight. They have become like this because of flaws in their development, which they did not choose for themselves. They were shaped by troubles which we cannot see but which we can know exist. Perhaps the arrogant person was trapped (at some key point in their personal evolution) in an environment where being modest and reasonable seemed to guarantee they’d be trampled on. Maybe the hyper-critical individual has lived too much, as their personality was growing, around people who couldn’t take a gentle hint – so they came to rely on blunt assertions. It’s possible that the frustratingly timid, mousy person was (at some stage) terrified; the show-off learned their irritating manner around people who were hard to please. Behind every supposed failing – behind everything that we feel is infuriating about those we meet – is a decisive trauma encountered before someone could cope with it properly. They are maddening but they got to be this way without meaning to. To forgive is to understand the origins of evil and cruelty.
Secondly, and very strangely, there are probably some difficult things about ourselves too. Yes, that’s you. Personally, I’m happy to admit that there are things that I do just because of who I am that would be incredibly irritating to certain people and require forgiveness at time. In my own way I have betrayed others. In my own nice way I’ve been a coward. I often forget my own privileges. Unthinkingly, I have added salt to the wounds of others. A lot of this is entirely unintentional, but it happens because I am flawed and human. This is certain. We must forgive because – not right now, not over this, but one day, over something – we need to be forgiven.
I still have a long way to go on the path to forgiveness. For me, the hardest part is being confronted with my own shortcomings. It can be hard to accept the careless things that I have done and said. And I get angry with myself, because with hindsight I feel I should have done a much better job with both myself and others. Like most things, the capacity for forgiveness probably starts with ourselves. Our willingness to be gentle to ourself and learning to forgive our own less positive characteristics before we can be able to fully forgive those of others.
We would – in the past – regularly have looked up to the heavens for this forgiveness. We do that less and less. But that doesn’t attenuate the need for some moments when we limber up to utter that most implausible word ‘sorry’ – or indeed stretch our ethical imagination in order to pronounce those even more arduous and unnatural words, ‘I forgive you.’