Getting to 'I Forgive You'
Something happens when people hurt us. When the violations or disappointments are so profound, when the misdeeds are so gutting, or when trust is so egregiously broken, the offenders transform in our eyes, and we can no longer see them charitably. Who they were is lost to what they’ve become. And, by some strange emotional alchemy, the combination of their trespass and our pain negates the gracious fluidity of friendship and introduces something more rigid. Our perceptions freeze in the new and newly negative, as if time, itself, has stopped.
Then, as we inevitably confront the High Holidays each year, we’re faced with the paradoxical and daunting imperative to grant mechila, forgiveness.
Like the obligation to believe, the obligation to forgive assumes that we can rein in and sway our emotions. That, despite the waves of rage, grief or shame that wash over us, we can somehow tame the tormented and wounded parts of ourselves simply via rationality and choice.
But how? How can we be commanded to forgive? How is there a mandate in a realm in which there is no assured capacity to succeed at the task? How can I face a friend—with the knowledge of her careless engagement with my feelings or the limp apologies she offered—and rewind to a time when, for me, she and our friendship were yet untainted?
What’s more, standing in the way of the erasure of bad feeling is the fact that, from a scientific standpoint, it is much harder to reassign negative thoughts to positive ones than to do the opposite.
In her TED talk, "Getting Stuck in the Negatives," Dr. Alison Ledgerwood addresses the behavioral phenomenon that, even amid a majority of gains, most of us harp on a minority of losses, a phenomenon otherwise known as, “the glass is half empty syndrome.”
Ledgerwood conducted a series of experiments to determine ease of shifting between "loss frames" and "gain frames." In all of her work, she found that people were able to naturally shift from a "gain frame" to a "loss frame," but not the opposite. For example, a group of people who were told that a surgery had a 60% success rate and deemed favorable shifted its opinion of the operation when researchers reframed it as having a 40% rate of failure. The other group—which was first told that the surgery had a 40% rate of failure—was completely unable to shift into thinking that it was a favorable procedure, even when given the 60% success reframing. Thus, Ledgerwood confirms that, while we can shift good thinking to bad, the opposite can be an uphill battle.
What’s more, in another of Ledgerwood’s experiments, when two groups were asked to perform gain and loss conversions, the people converting gains to losses were able to complete the problems in half the time. In this, we see that it takes not only a lot more effort, but also a lot more time to shift from negative to positive thinking.
To concretize her findings, Ledgerwood reveals a graph of the American economy, displaying our tremendous 2008 dive as well as the steep incline to the present, representing the economy's complete recovery. She juxtaposes that image with a second graph depicting consumer confidence. Lo and behold, unlike the economy itself, consumer confidence never recovered. It climbed a bit after 2008, but thereafter plateaued, evidencing, yet again, that—as Ledgerwood puts it—"our view of the world has a fundamental tendency to tilt toward the negative" and that "we literally have to work harder to see the upside of things."
In light of all of this, again, I wonder: How can we muster forgiveness? How do we revive or reimagine a friend’s value and goodness, especially given our natural tendency to retain soured impressions?
Perhaps, when the image of someone we once cherished is distorted or discolored, we have to give it more time to develop and widen our heart’s aperture. Maybe, in order to rescue our perception of the wrongdoer from being forever frozen in the moment of transgression, we cannot immediately and exclusively face the sinner. Maybe, instead, we must begin by very deliberately facing the context of the sin. To temporarily, pull our gaze away from the subject and—at least to start—point it towards the scenery.
Before going to sleep, it is customary to recite Kriyat Shema Al Ha’mita, the Bedtime Shema. The very first paragraph in the prayer’s compilation of texts and blessings states:
Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me, or who did wrong against me, whether against my body or my property, whether against my honor or anything that is mine, whether s/he did so accidentally or willfully, whether carelessly or purposely, whether through speech or deed, whether in deliberation or with fleeting thought, whether in this transmigration or another, all the children of Israel, and may no one receive punishment because of me. May it be Your will before You, Ado-nai my God and God of my ancestors, that I will not transgress again, and whatever transgressions I have done before you, may you erase in Your abundant mercies, but not by means of suffering or terrible illnesses. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, Ado-nai my Rock and Redeemer.
While, the most likely explanation for this pre-slumber proclamation is our taking precautions in the event of dying before waking, nonetheless, there is something astonishing about the fact that we direct our thoughts towards forgiveness as we drift into our unconscious lives. It is as if, with this prayer, we acknowledge that the work of altering our hearts takes place gradually, in and through bodies and minds that are affected by the ideas and events that they encounter over time. Some of the softening of spirit may be intentional, and some may happen through some vague, osmotic process that occurs as we move, clumsily and curiously, through the world.
But there’s still more to this prayer.
Aside from nodding to the progressive nature of forgiveness, as well as its mysterious contributors, this text humbles the offended and grants the offender a wide berth. The repeated use of the word “whether” injects the prayer with ambiguity, as if to say that one can never assign the motives and characteristics of sin with certainty. With these capacious considerations, we begin to do the work of forgiving the sinner by first forgiving the context of the sin. Was the wrongdoer acting out of malice or carelessness? Did he slowly plot his action or was it sudden? Was it directed at me or was I merely in the line of fire? We can’t know. And, so, we must forgive. Forgive for all possibilities that come to consideration.
Perhaps most instructive with respect to the exercise of context-forgiveness is the juxtaposition of the verses about forgiving others with those beseeching God to stop us from sinning ourselves (“that I will not transgress again”). The latter set inextricably ties forgiveness to an inward gaze.
To broaden the context of the sin even more, we can begin —without any expectation of confident arrival at answers— to explore ourselves and the image of us in the portrait of the sin’s moment in time:
Who was I at the time of my friend’s wrongdoing, and who am I now? Was I then—and am I now—in a position of strength or weakness? What were the emotional strains in my life? What or who constituted my support system? Which things were irking me? Which things were nourishing me? What made me experience the rupture of this event in the way that I did? Can I now, where and how I am currently, feel less anguish about the offense and more equanimity about the incalculable contributing factors and millions of micro-decisions that gave rise to it? Do I need more time? Do I need to gather more context?
There is endorsement for context-forgiveness, as well, in the world of medicine.
To treat a broken or bruised part of the body, physical therapists often begin their work by teaching patients to strengthen the surrounding muscles. The affected area may be too sore or fragile, at first, to treat directly, and, in the long-run, the healing would be less robust if the exercises were too localized and if they ignored the stabilizing scaffolding that neighboring muscles provide.
Like broken bones, our broken hearts are housed within a system of perpetually dialoguing organs. Somewhere, amid the cacophony of coursing blood and the mind’s chatter, we got hurt. Somewhere in the space between me and my friend, there was a misdeed. And so, we give ground. We treat the periphery. We treat the context. And, by so doing, spread strength and healing towards the center, reinvigorating what was or reimagining what could be.
In Masechet Yoma, the Talmud, quoting Rabbi Meir, makes an astounding declaration:
“Great is repentance because the entire world is forgiven on account of one individual who repents” (Yoma 86b).
There are undoubtedly dozens of explanations for the seeming imbalance or miscalculation implied by this statement. My preoccupation, however, is with just the words, “the entire world is forgiven.”
Perhaps, the implication is that all people are forgiven because of a single person’s repentance. And, perhaps, that is true. But, perhaps, there is a far vaster idea being expressed.
Maybe the words “the entire world” are meant to include all things—all air, all light, all actions, all inactions. Whether a person was tired or sick. Whether he made his train on time, forgot his mother’s birthday or had an allergic reaction. Accounting for his age and epigenetic profile. Maybe “the entire world” comes to encompass the innumerable factors that butterfly-effect our lives into being.
Maybe, when we cannot find it in our hearts to forgive someone immediately and unreservedly, we can forgive the entire world, instead. We can train our minds to examine the beating, buzzing universe around a single misdeed with curiosity and uncertainty. We can understand that, despite the frozen image of a wrongdoer in our mind’s eye, every image stands before us as an accumulation of moments in time. And time never stops. And our lives never stop unfolding.
We were made in the image of God, and it is in His image that we live in this world. Let us imagine and reimagine each other on the magnificent scale on which God intuits and sees. Let us allow for as much possibility as God finds when He scans all of time and space for what is unsaid and unseen.
Let us forgive by acknowledging that pain becomes a memory and that memories are told and retold.
Let us allow ourselves the telling.
And may we merit to pray together—and to forgive together—this time next year in Jerusalem.
Malka Fleischmann is Director of Knowledge and Ideas for The Jewish Education Project.