The Art Of Forgiveness
I came to love Shakespeare years ago when I studied his plays in England for a summer. I still haven’t read them all, but my favorite of those I’ve read is The Tempest. This play—which happens to be Shakespeare’s last—is ultimately a story of unwarranted forgiveness and the difficulties we have being merciful to those who have wronged us.
In the play, Prospero, a sorcerer, duke, and father to a young girl, is betrayed by his brother, Antonio, who steals his high-powered job and sends him and his daughter out to sea on a rickety boat, basically sentencing them both to death. Somehow, though, Prospero and his daughter survive, and they wash up on the shore of a desert island.
They live together on this island for years until a series of fateful (or magical) circumstances lead to a ship carrying Antonio—the traitor himself—being devastated by an intense storm (a “tempest”), and all the people on the ship, including Antonio, washing ashore the same island as Prospero.
As we all feel when we’ve been wronged, Prospero badly wants to exact revenge on Antonio and all those who conspired with him. And he plans to do so. But at the very end of the play, when he finally has the opportunity, he doesn’t do it. Instead, he says:
Not only does Prospero completely forgive his brother without any indication of why, but also he makes it quite clear that he hasn’t forgotten how horrible (“rank”) Antonio had been to him. This is the epitome of “forgive, but don’t forget.”
An important takeaway here is that we don’t need a reason to forgive. We can just do it. And forgiveness can be granted to someone as an unreasonable, unjustified, undue gift. As a person raised in the Christian tradition, I call this kind of forgiveness an act of grace.
Therapists will say that forgiveness is more about you and less about the person you forgive, because when you forgive someone you rid yourself of the weight of all that negativity inside you. This is undoubtedly true. However, forgiving someone is also a way of adding more love into the world and perhaps acknowledging that at some point you, too, were given an unreasonable, unjustified, undue gift.
It’s giving back to this world that has given you life—the Greatest Gift—and all the other gifts that accompany it.
Love is the answer. If we can do the extremely difficult inner work of bringing ourselves to love those who have hurt or harmed us, we not only lighten our emotional load, but also we create love where once there was anger, resentment, or even hate. It sounds trite but it’s true: by changing ourselves we change the world.
As with all the most important aspects of life, there’s no how-to guide for how to forgive. It’s an art, not a science. But there are plenty of hints and suggestions out there. It takes time—way more time than we’d like it to. It takes sitting in silence with our feelings, whether through meditation or contemplative prayer. It also takes recognizing when these feelings are consuming us and allowing ourselves to regain control.
This is why parents need to do everything possible to forgive others. When we carry around the weight of anger and resentment—even after we’ve stuffed these feelings into the remote corners of our minds—that weight eventually becomes unbearable. It manifests in ways that are probably unknown to us but quite palpable to our children. And we don’t want to make them more vulnerable than they already are.
Instead, we can let go of our negative feelings, and, in their place, will ourselves to feel love for those who have hurt us. In his book Healing Anger, the Dalai Lama puts it this way: “Genuine peace of mind is rooted in affection and compassion.”
We need peace of mind in order to be the kind of parents our kids need. With a peaceful mind, we can give and teach our children patience, and from this patience, kindness is much more likely to spring up from ourselves and them.
In Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who has been called “the happiest man alive,” gives us the motivation we need to get started with this work of forgiveness: “If we try resolutely over the course of years to master our thoughts as they come to us, to apply appropriate antidotes to negative emotions and to nourish positive ones, our efforts will undoubtedly yield results that would have seemed unattainable at first.”
Our own work on forgiveness will model for our children how to do it as well, and this is probably the best way to teach them. But we can also give them more explicit guidance on how to forgive, starting when they’re very young. In an article in Parents, Roberta Israeloff shares a helpful 4-step process from Robert Enright, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison:
In this contentious cultural and political climate, we know we all need to extend others a little more grace. By working toward forgiveness and teaching our children to do the same, the universe becomes much more hospitable to everyone.
And like Prospero, we can forgive completely. For no good reason. We may never find a good reason anyway. We strengthen our own spirituality with forgiveness. We allow ourselves to actually become the radical love that the world needs—thereby moving ever closer to God. After all, as John says in his first epistle, “God is love.”