Introduction: When I was a confrontational eco-writer I used to receive regular attacks from all sides, from anti-environmentalists to government officials and anti-spiritual anarchists. While some it stung, I came to appreciate the degree to which I was stirring and challenging my readers. I have, in fact, worried if my writings have somehow been compromised or lost their pithy bite, now that oppressive federal agenices no longer try to sabotage my venues, anarchists have quit looking for “deep ecologists” to confront, and we can sometimes go years with no negative responses! That said, I may indeed have mellowed, as I no longer find any pleasure in those few cases of disagreement, projection or misunderstanding that arise. The following is a piece I wrote a year or two ago, the fifth or sixth in a series of Animá definitions/redefinitions of crucial terms, a reminder that holding ourselves and each other accountable for our perceptions and actions is best for all concerned… but also a reminder of all the ways that forgiving can be a gift not just to a perceived offender but to us. -JWH
Releasing Anger & Holding Responsible
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
Forgiving can be a very beautiful and healing thing, such as learning to forgive ourselves for some perceived inadequacy, or setting aside rancor as we come to terms with a harm someone has done, while welcoming their remorse or restitution. A review of the dictionary definitions indicates, nonetheless, that it is not something we should either universally or casually hand out. The word “forgive” comes from an early Germanic word meaning “to give whole-heartedly,” but was first derived from the Latin “perdonare,” meaning to pardon. Thus the first of the definitions I found:
1. To grant pardon for an offense.
A pardon is a release from penalty and obligation, something that may be highly inappropriate in the case of repeated spousal abuse or the continued logging and burning of the world’s vital rainforests.
2. To cancel an indebtedness or liability.
If anything, surely those who cause a harm our of self interest or greed should be held liable and accountable, perhaps to the extent of having criminals do acts of service for the people they have robbed, and vainglorious Wall Street managers paying restitution to the public that they have hurt.
It’s important to remember that the opposite of forgiveness is neither hate nor holding a grudge, but holding someone responsible for the results of their words, acts and omissions just as nature itself does. And we need to hold each other as well as ourselves responsible for those things unworthy of being excused or condoned, not by either punishing wrong doers or submitting to punishment ourselves, but by insisting that they – like us – are honest about their effects, doing all possible to make better, rectify, heal and thereby be redeemed.
Redemption through caring and courageous acts is one the most ennobling and compelling of human accomplishments, to the point of being a core theme of a majority of the finest literature and film… not that it can nullify what we’ve thought and said before, all of which likely has consequences for not only us but those around us. Though I might wish otherwise, doing something right or even noble can’t erase either the reality or the results of earlier harmful actions. Redeeming ourselves does not “wipe the slate clean” or allow us to “start over,” but then neither would that necessarily desirable, since we distinguish ourselves through the willful shift and conscious transition. We gain inner power from not only what we do but from how far we have come, the commendable process of learning from our mistakes, and from what we have suffered or confronted in order to become more caring, giving and true. There’s less measurable growth among those who have carefully avoided risk and thus error, while recognition and even admiration attends the great leaps made by some of those who have first done wrong. This alone is enough reason to reject the common expression “forgive and forget.” if we forget the wrongs or mistakes of ourselves and others, we will have forgotten that there was ever a cause for forgiveness, and that there was ever either the need or the room to repair, remedy and improve.
Upon close examination, we can see that forgiveness serves neither others nor us when it leads us to overlook what should be noticed and evaluated. When it functions to condone what should reasonably be unacceptable, from larceny to ecological destruction and the mistreatment of children. When we absolve the guilt of those people or institutions that should be admitting their role and making amends. When we “let bygones be bygones” with inadequate consideration of what our acceptance of wrongful acts might result in in the future. When forgiveness becomes a reason for tolerating what no self respecting being should tolerate, for excusing the inexcusable, the fouling of rivers, clearcut hillsides, racist attacks and date rape. Whenever forgiveness is confused with forbearance of that which threatens diversity, impinges on liberty, maliciously or neglectfully endangers or dishonors life.
If it is “giving throughly” as the early Germanic translation would have it, than it would be a more valuable present if given sparingly, meaningfully, and only when wholly deserved. Rather than automatically dismissing our concerns our issuing a blanket exemption, we might better notice, distinguish, discern, and decide on the appropriateness of what goes on in our homes, communities and watersheds. In this way we would ourselves be taking responsibility… not for the acts of others, but for our small part in the co-creation or our world and our reality.
3. To cease to feel anger or resentment.
This may be what most of us think of first when we tell someone we forgive them, signaling that we ready to stop being angry and willing to let the issue or peeve go even though damage may have been done. The German government asked for forgiveness from the Jewish community in hopes of advancing reconciliation after the Nazi atrocities. Couples forgive themselves after an argument, “clearing the air” for a fresh perspective or sweet mending.
Even the most peace loving and spiritual among us, however, should still take into account the occasional value of natural, temporary, conditional and directed anger. At its healthiest, anger is distress abated or eased through conscious application, a life affirming passion to protect and correct, a kind of medicine when employed to prevent or remedy an injustice. Anger is a capacity that evolved over the course of millions of years to help motivate us to defend life and halt wrongs, not to demonstrate prejudice, wreak vengeance or vent displeasure. For relief and resolution, not for punishment or vengeance.
All too often, of course, our anger is indeed misplaced. And even when it isn’t, it is unhealthy to the degree that we hold onto it instead of utilizing it to foment and fuel to the point of resolution, neither purposefully acting on it nor effectively letting it go. Resentment is even more problematic, having absolutely no value or function, and benefitting neither the person doing the resenting or the person or thing that they resent. Resentment is the frustration, envy, discomfort and distress that we’ve failed to address or act on, and like unresolved anger it can distort, handicap or even poison us and the best of our intentions.
Nature and the Anima teach us to purge ourselves of all such resentment, and to explore, understand, engage and then work to rectify that which we are angry about. It helps neither ourselves nor the world to pardon or ignore those acts and conditions that we know to be harmful. But on the other hand, neither does it serve the community, earth or us to nurse and sustain that anger. Hostility endangers not only the fabric of relationship and tribe, but the attendant stress can severely damage our emotional and physical health, our peace of mind, and therefore our very lives. We’d do well to keep in mind such effects on our own well being – as well as the severity of a wrong or the degree of repentance – whenever deciding what, why and when to forgive.
Whenever prudent and justified, forgiving is a blessing of resolution and relief for all concerned. And at its best, it is not so much what we afford others, as it is a gift to ourselves as the loving and willing forgiver.
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