by Eugene Halliday
What does it mean “to forgive”? It means to erase a right to retaliate, to pardon, to cease to resent an action, to place oneself in a position of understanding why an action was committed and to excuse it, not to bear ill-will to the doer of an act.
To be beyond the possibility of making a mistake, we would have to be all-knowing, all powerful, like the omniscient, omnipotent God. But no creature can be thus. To be a creature is to be limited, circumscribed, encapsulated, and so reduced in power and knowledge.
Because we know that we are not all-knowing and all-powerful, we know at some time, in some place, we shall make a mistake, shall misread something, misunderstand what is involved in a situation, and therefore shall react in a manner less than fully efficiently. And we know that not only we ourselves shall commit mistakes or fall into error, but that every other limited creature shall at some time also fall.
If, as a result of our errors, we find ourselves in an unpleasant or painful situation, we tend to look for a way out. We tend to make excuses for our errors. We do not usually say, “I am a finite creature, lacking total knowledge and power, and therefore made a mistake, and require you, as another creature of limited power and understanding, to pardon my error and carry on relating to me without feeling any antagonism towards me”.
It is not easy to accept with equanimity the unpleasant consequences of error, either our own or of someone else. The spirit may be strong, but our flesh is weak and tends to shrink from pain. If we could see how quick we are to guard ourselves against possible unpleasant results of actions, we would be surprised at the subtlety and speed of our responses when under threat of painful stimuli.
The Serpent in the garden of Eden was credited with being “the subtlest of all the beasts of the field”. The serpent symbolises our sensitivity to pleasure and pain, our aesthetic, sensuous capacity for becoming aware of possibilities of pleasant or painful experiences. This serpent capacity in us is so sensitive that it can feel even the slightest preparation within a situation for a change that is to come. Animals may feel the electro-magnetic changes which occur in the earth before an earthquake actually occurs, and so may flee to safety before the actual event. In our own souls we often feel disquiet when some other person is, as we say, “in a bad mood”. We can sense it and move away to a less unpleasant situation. Ordinarily we do not confess consciously, even to ourselves, the reason for our withdrawal, but underneath our conscious level of being, we know why we do what we do.
This super-sensitivity of our serpent level of being is, of course, very valuable for our self-preservation. But in its subtle, swift actions of avoidance of possible painful situations, it tends to do what many real, physical snakes do. As these seek safety from harm by sliding away into crevices in rocks, or holes in the earth, so the serpent level of our being tends to slide down into the so-called “unconscious” parts of the mind. Our pleasure-pain response-capacity can act just as defensively as any actual, physical snake, and with equal speed.
If it were not for the super-sensitivity of our serpent level of being there would be no “unconscious” mind. The unconscious mind is simply the storehouse of all the records of pleasures and pain we have experienced and do not wish at the moment to expose. The painful records we repress, precisely because they are painful, and we do not want to replay them, for they make us tense and inhibit the free flow of our life-force, and diminish our capacity for sensuous enjoyment.
The pleasant records also may be kept in the unconscious, but not for exactly the same reason. If we advertise the things in which we find pleasure, we might suffer some sort of condemnation from society. We have a history of the outlawing of certain kinds of pleasure. In primitive city-states, for the sake of group security, it was needful to forbid activities that might weaken the city’s defences and expose its inhabitants to attack from other peoples.
If a man of one walled city were to fall in love with a woman from another group, his carefulness about the safety of his own city might become lax. Many stories are told about cities falling as a result of emotional entanglements between members of different groups.
In consequence of such misfortunes it became needful to formulate rules of behaviour of social groups. Men and women were taught by the group leaders the means of survival for their group, and were required to obey rules devised for this purpose. The totality of such rules were called the “morality” of the particular group. “Morality” meant the collection of rules deemed needful of observance for the protection of the group. A “universal” morality would be the totality of all rules needing observation by every group for the survival of all.
But each group lives under special conditions, in a definite place, and, in consequence, its survival rules must be relevant to its particular position. The survival needs in one environment differ from those in another. Here is where great relational difficulties may arise for different groups who may for various reasons have come into contact with each other.
Some early societies created within themselves sub-groups, each group specialising in some particular activity. One group may make furniture, another pottery, another may grow food, another build houses and walls. Each group would contribute to the welfare of the whole community, yet each would have its own particular materials, tools, skills and terminology to denote these.
Within a given sub-group every member would understand the meanings of the words used for its working procedures, but might not understand the terms used by other sub-groups for their special work. Without special, clearly defined terms it would not be possible to work efficiently in any sub-group. Today a carpenter may not understand thoroughly all the terms used by an electronic engineer, or those of a biophysicist. The troubles of many sub-groups in our modern world arise often from a misunderstanding of the special needs of each sub-group. Coal-miners may not thoroughly understand all the conditions of the men in steel works, nor these the relation of their output to general conditions of world trade. Obviously there is need for some persons to study the basis of all the activities needed for the creation and maintenance of modern social groups and their inter-relational activities demanded for the survival of the totality of humanity dwelling on earth, and possibly in the not far future in outer space.
We can see the tremendous difficulties facing human groups in our own day. We can see that no single creature’s mind can contain all the information demanded for total human survival. And we can see that mistakes are inevitable.
Faced with the unavoidability of errors in man’s calculations, we can see that we must learn to forgive the mistakes that will be made. If we do not forgive inevitable mistakes, we shall fall into the lowest level of mechanical reactivity. An error may produce unpleasantness, suffering and pain. If this pain dictates our reactions we may attack and damage or destroy the committer of the error. Many a mistake in the interpretation of Marxist philosophy has sent a man off to Siberia, a man who before his error had held high rank in Russian society.
A great difficulty lies in the fact that not every error has been unprofitable. Many mistakes have given rise to new discoveries, new useful inventions. “Who has never made a mistake has never made anything”, is a proverb very well worth remembering.
Forgiveness does not mean a careless disregard for the results of human actions. We are not to forgive and forget. We are to forgive and remember, so that we shall be less likely to commit the same error again. In remembering, we are not to bear grudges or harbour resentments, for these inhibit the free flow of the energies which make our lives possible.
A grudge is an inner tension state which imposes on our cells and diminishes their possibility of free function. A resentment is a re-feeling of an experience. Originally “resentment” had none of the negatively restricted meaning it now generally bears, but today it is usually taken to mean re-feeling of a merely negative state, unpleasant or painful, when we remember some unfortunate action of a person which resulted in an undesirable effect on our being.
Resentment finds its worst and most unprofitable manifestation in that pathetic, negative state we call “self-pity”. Self-pity is the great self-poisoner, the auto-intoxicator. It arises when a person believes himself unjustly suffering as a result of some faulty action of his own, or of another person, or as a product of the action of an uncompassionate god, or of a fundamentally badly designed world.
Of all the errors most in need of forgiveness, perhaps self-pity is the worst and hardest to forgive. When we see a person in a state of deep self-pity we find it hard to maintain our patience. We tend to think that he is responsible for his own state, perhaps more than other people are who commit more ordinary errors, and with assumed “responsibility” we tend to wish to impose a verdict of “guilty” on the sufferer.
Some errors we believe are unavoidable; some we think might be avoided if we took more care. The first we usually do not resent too much. The second we tend to have greater difficulty with. What we believe is a deliberate evil act we find impossible to forgive.
The question is raised: is a fully deliberate evil act possible? To commit such an act one would have to be absolutely free from all restraints upon one’s will and intelligence. Only an absolutely free being can be response-able for all aspects of its actions. But no created being can be absolutely free. The created being is embodied, enclosed in a skin, conditioned by the activities of his various internal organs, his brains, nervous system, heart and circulatory system, liver, kidneys, glands etc. To be able effectively to control all these, a man would have to know them all thoroughly, their various structures, functions and interrelations. But this is not within the power of any created being. Not all the scientific knowledge of all the medical men and physiologists and psychologists can suffice to confer upon mankind the total control needed for his attainment of perfect freedom.
But precisely because of this we are all in need of forgiveness. We have all somewhere, at some time, committed errors, made mistakes, and shall do so in the future, let us make no mistake about this.
Yet we have the statement; “His worship is perfect freedom”. What does this mean? It tells us that in spite of all our deficiencies of power and knowledge, which as creatures we must bear, there is yet a way for us to attain perfection. We can establish in ourselves, of course with much hard work, perfect motivation, perfect will to become able to do God’s will for us.
Inside ourselves, at the very centre of our being, we have a God-given capacity to exercise our will; we can make an act of choice, and we can be truthful with ourselves. We can decide to state to ourselves what we prefer for our ultimate goal. We can choose to agree with God’s will for all beings. God is love, and love is the will to act for the development of all beings. This divine love is real power. It is not mere sentimental attachment to the things we find pleasant. It is power, spiritual power, the power that has created and sustains and develops all beings; and this power is intelligent, knows what it is doing and why it is doing it.
And this divine spiritual intelligent power dwells within us in the innermost centre of our being waiting for us to make our free–willed decision to co-operate with it. When we do, this will be our perfect freedom.