Forgiveness is something I—like many of you—struggle with. In my case, mostly, it’s not because I don’t forgive people. It’s because I forgive people—or what I then think is forgiving—too easily. I have allowed people who have hurt me to hurt me again and again out of some kind of misplaced sense of “compassion.”
My wife reminds me often of the value and power of “fierce compassion.” Fierce compassion is a term I first heard in the book, The Bond Between Women: A Journey to Fierce Compassion, by China Gallard. After reading that book, and meditating on and discussing the concept over the course of years, I am slowly coming to understand that part of fierce compassion includes compassion for oneself. It is the power to say no in order to say yes to those conditions and relationships we value most.
In the practice of Buddhist metta or “lovingkindness” meditation, one begins with blessings and hopes for oneself. One begins, one centers, one originates with the self. How different this is from what so many of us—especially those socialized as girls and women—have learned is the right place to start. So many of us have learned that our lives begin, center around, originate from others: Parents, children, lovers, friends, and employers…anyone we put ahead of our own development consistently and in the long term.
Fierce compassion is not always nice—hardly ever, in fact, as it’s fierce! It may be polite, it may be clear, it may even be gentle. But it also involves a fierce protection of what is most important. I’ve written in earlier posts that compassion is not the same thing as being a doormat. Compassion, the condition of “suffering with,” does not mean that we need or should increase our own suffering in order to make room for someone else’s hurtful behavior. Increasing suffering, or contributing to further suffering—our own or another’s—is NOT the point of compassion. Saying “no, you may go no further,” to someone who is transgressing your boundaries is not doing violence to them. It is care for ourselves, and may be love and care for them!
Needing to have boundaries set for us
I hope never to forget an experience I had once with a woman, so self-aware, who told me that she had gone through periods in her life when she needed to have boundaries set clearly for her. She was unable, at those times, with the skills she had, to intuit where she should be, in relation to other people.
She said, “I have been that person. I have been the person who needed to have boundaries clearly set for her. I often felt hurt in those interactions. Later, often years later, though, I realized that those people [the ones setting the boundaries] were helping me grow to be the person I want to be.”
This is not to say that we should justify our actions by saying, “it’s for your own good.” How much abuse has been perpetrated that way! Yes, self-compassion needs to have pride of place when we set boundaries with others. Then discernment and clarity. Then a compassionate kindness follows closely upon their heels.
And this spot, this is where we come to the behavior I mentioned above: I unilaterally forgive people and allow them to continue hurtful patterns with me. I allow, even encourage, invite, or volunteer for wounding, being taken advantage of, or otherwise disrespected! This pattern is not compassionate. It is not compassion for me, for my family and others with and for whom I have responsibility. It is not compassion for the ones who are wounding me because it tells them hurting people is okay. It leaves their souls untouched by the wounds they cause.
Martha Beck has said that forgiveness is giving up hoping for a different past. It may mean having the self-compassion to turn away from hurtful people, to hold them accountable for their actions, and yet not to hold onto those wishes for something different to have happened.
Is that enough to qualify as forgiveness? Is it enough? I find that something in me pulls against it. Something in me wants more.
Is it reconciliation I want? Perhaps.
Perhaps it is the truth-telling, boundary-setting, and compassion approach to reconciliation that I long for. A condition in which relationships may be mended, and yet hurtful behavior is called out, accepted, and perhaps remediated.
Reconciliation doesn’t forget the hurt. Reconciliation is predicated on both parties acknowledging what has happened and coming to agreement about where things—words, actions, inaction—went wrong. Reconciliation is a process of valuing relationship.
And maybe that’s what I yearn for. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to get at when I prematurely “forgive” people who have hurt me. I long for relationships to stay—ah, impermanence, you come for me again—viable and loving.
So perhaps a post coming soon on reconciliation?
In the meantime, what do forgiveness and compassion mean to you?
As you can see, I struggle with the concepts, and I’d love to hear more from all of you. We are all in this together.
Feel free to comment here, on my Facebook post, or to send me a note via the Contact page.
Blessings on you and on your house.