Forgiveness is an internal process of letting go. The one who forgives refuses to allow destructive emotions to live rent-free in his or her head and stops wishing for a better past. True forgiveness is about reclaiming control of one’s own emotions.
When someone forgives, he or she is neither condoning behavior nor reconnecting automatically with the perpetrator. I emphasize this, because many people erroneously think that when they forgive they are saying that what happened was okay and now they have to be best friends with the person and/or organization that they are forgiving.
People can internally forgive by letting go of destructive emotions that are eating them up from the inside, they can free themselves from the hate and anger that are consuming them, but, at the same time, they can be strongly opposed to the behavior that hurt them, seek justice or reparations, and refuse to reconnect with the persons or organizations at fault, all while being emotionally free and tempered.
When I was in my early twenties I quit smoking. It was a filthy habit that I’d picked up when I was twelve years old and in my teens I had been responsible for introducing cigarettes to a number of people.
After I quit, I felt badly about that. I knew that I couldn’t go back in time and fix what I had done, so I decided to do something for the future.
My approach to quitting had been successful, so I started sharing the technique with others. That led to ten years of smoking cessation seminars and books in both Icelandic and English. I also teamed up with a public health organization and started giving smoking prevention lectures in schools.
That Feeling When You Are Not Welcome
Have you ever walked into a room and felt that you were not welcome? That’s how I felt just about every time I walked into a room full of students and was introduced as the smoking prevention guy.
Instead of being discouraged, I took it as a challenge and spiced up my approach.
I got better and better at captivating attention and engaging young adults in dialogue about the importance of living life fully (one of the things I emphasized). I swung between being adversarial (“I don’t care if you die because we’ll all die”) and inspirational (“you only get one life and it’s the quality that counts.”).
I gained attention and got along well with the adults who liked my approach, which meant that I got booked in dozens of schools every year. However, even as I got better at presenting the material, I never captured everyone’s attention.
In pagan times, people gave thanks to different gods for varying aspects of their lives, for example by giving thanks to the sun god for sustaining life and the rain god for watering their crops. Being at the mercy of natural forces, people saw gods at play in every aspect of their lives.
All that changed with the advent of the one God of Judaism. One formidable God replaced an assembly of characters, making it so that all thanks and petitions were aimed in one direction.
In modern times, can we do both and be grateful to the web of life while also thanking the creator and sustainer of life?
Here is a little thought experiment to test that theory. I am sitting at my desk and noticing the things around me. I wonder, should I go straight to the source in gratitude for my chair, my computer, my table, my pens, my whiteboard, and so on? Wouldn’t I be cutting out individual parts of creation, the people who made all these things I am enjoying and the elements from which they are made? If I truly appreciate creation, shouldn’t I be thankful for all of it?
Shouldn’t I be thankful for the natural elements from which these things on my desk were made, most of which I cannot name?
Shouldn’t I be thankful to the miners who dug up these materials, the people who transported and processed them, the designers and engineers who created my computer, and the software programmers who wrote the code that allows me to type at lightning speed while listening to my favorite classical music at the same time?
How far back should I go? The creation of the Earth? The Big Bang? Further?
When I take time to appreciate the role that all of creation plays in this moment—from the origins of the universe to the creation of the elements to all the people who have done mental and physical work to create my surroundings—it becomes crystal clear to me that everything is connected to everything else. It is impossible to ever be alone in this world.
Based on my little thought experiment, it’s clear to me that it’s both possible and feasible to combine methods of gratitude. I can be thankful for individual parts of creation while also appreciating the creative and sustaining force behind all of it.
I am a big proponent of the Golden Rule. “Treat others as you want to be treated” is a sentiment that is found in some form in all religions. Jesus went further that most when he usurped all other commandments and told his followers to love God and love their neighbors as they would themselves—a tall order indeed.
The difficulty becomes apparent when we take a step back and ask what needs to happen before we can follow the Golden Rule. The dilemma can be boiled down to a single question: Do we love ourselves enough to want to be treated well and are we willing to extend that care to others?
Not Always Loving
I have not always been a model citizen. In all honesty, I have gone through periods in my life where I earned the pun on my name (Hi, I’m Gudjon, used to be Bad-John). But in hindsight, I can safely say that when I hurt other people, it usually went hand in hand with low self-esteem.
For example, I went through several years as a young adult when I was being bullied. During that time, I went out of my way to make sure others felt as miserable as I did. Later in life, I was in a relationship where I was loved but felt that I wasn’t worthy of love and sabotaged the relationship. And currently, even on my best days, I have moments where I look in the mirror and feel ‘less than’ and that affects my interactions with others.
From what I have seen and heard during my years on this Earth, I am not alone. It seems that most (if not all) of us go through periods where we do not love ourselves and feel that we should not be treated well. That gives some of us (not all) internal permission to treat others badly. When my daughter was nine, she wisely said that she tries to keep it to herself when she is feeling bad and not lash out at others to make them feel bad.
Words are the means by which we communicate. They point to things, emotions, and ideas. They help us understand each other. Words only come into being when two or more people have the same or similar experience and need to be able to talk about it. But through use, the meaning of words changes, and sometimes it is important to revisit the original intent to better understand.
Socrates reportedly said that he never wrote anything down because then he couldn’t be the steward of his words; he wanted to be present to guide people towards the real meaning of what he was saying. Although his premise still holds true, writing nevertheless one of the best means of communications we have, and in writing, as in religion, words matter.
In this article, I want to explore four examples from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
In the wake of the midterm elections in the USA, we asked Dr. Willerton, who was a participant in one of our courses last summer, to send us an outline for his course called The Politics of Happiness. From what we gather, this is the only political science course in the USA that focuses intently on the relationship between politics and happiness. It is offered through the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Here is what he sent us:
The Pursuit of Happiness
Our one-semester course focuses on human well-being through an inter-disciplinary, comparative cross-national examination of more than nine countries. Beginning with the United States, the first country to set as a goal the pursuit of happiness, and continuing to Sweden, with its emphasis on community and social justice, we consider numerous political, social, economic, and cultural factors that affect human happiness and well-being.
During our fifteen weeks together, among other topics, we examine gender issues in France, issues of tolerance and the rights of sexual orientation minorities in the Netherlands, and the dilemmas of nationalism in the historically complex relations between the German-speaking and Central-East European Jewish civilizations. After considering the politics of sectarianism in religiously diverse Lebanon, we analyze the “Russian soul” and an evolving post-Soviet Russia, and we evaluate the challenges of modernization in fast-changing China. Our course ends in the remote Himalayan country of Bhutan which, since 1972, has promoted Gross National Happiness, an initiative grounded in good governance, economic development, preservation of the environment, and the safeguarding of the family and the country’s unique culture.
I am old enough to remember when the Internet was new. The spiritual community had high hopes. “The Internet is going to be like a big city, where diversity will become the new normal and usher in an age of understanding and compassion,” my friends said. “Yes, the Internet will be like the coastal town where Gandhi grew up, where the temple priests read equally from the Bible, Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita,” I responded.
But that’s not how it has turned out, is it? In fact, some suggest that hate has won the Internet. Extremist groups, many of which had almost become extinct, now thrive. Anyone who expresses his or her opinion online is likely to get trolled by haters. And many react viscerally to other people’s ideas, otherizing each other in the process.
While I don’t think that hate has won (yet), the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. In this article, I want to examine two ideas that partially explain why the Internet has become so divisive.
Ideas that promote social harmony and bridge-building across divides.
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