Forgiveness and Compassion

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Forgiveness and Compassion“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” – Not Buddha

Despite my imperative to discover forgiveness and compassion by any means possible, I was reluctant to use this quote — simply because it is so abused by spiritual novitiates and pseudoscientists. It is most frequently attributed to Gautama Buddha, but I suspected the ascription might be incorrect, so I did a little digging. And I’m glad I did.

It turns out that the most likely original source (or the quote that spawned this variation) came from Emmet Fox, in the context of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The discovery gave me pause — being that I owe so much to AA — and I turned my gaze inward to consider why I would have so quickly dismissed such a beautiful phrase based merely on the fact it is so often misquoted by people who cannot — for whatever reason — be inspired to research its origins. But I suppose that is the nature of pseudoscience and its relationship to pop-spirituality fads.

Most applicably, it brings to the forefront of my mind the very reason why I was interested in the quote to begin with: forgiveness and compassion. The fact that I was so ready to dismiss the passage as a tool of weaker souls really made me question my intentions.

I believe pseudoscience and fad spirituality are dangerous mechanisms in our society. I have been vocal and unapologetic about the fact that these practices rely heavily on the rejection of falsification and rational investigation in order to deceive and manipulate vulnerable minds. But in keeping with my own condemnation of dogmatism, I have no choice but to fully acknowledge my prejudice, and to do everything in my power to recognize any ancillary benefits and assets deriving from these sources — no matter how deplorable they are in the aggregate. This brings to mind another appropriate quote — this time (really) from William Shakespeare: “Ill blows the wind that profits nobody.”

And to quote from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Be quick to see where religious people are right…”

When I’m discussing forgiveness and compassion, I rely heavily on a 20th century atrocity that best exemplifies the difficulty I have with the concept of forgiveness — the Holocaust. Six million Jews — along with innumerable homosexuals, Christians, intellectuals, and other so-called “dissidents” were brutally and unforgivably murdered for no other reason than to satisfy the madness of a relatively well-organized, misguided few. It is by no means the only atrocity I could point to, but it is the most viscerally accessible to us, I believe, so it is the one I typically choose. The question I ask is hypothetical and general — although I’m certain there are numerous actual cases fitting the description.

It’s this: how does a Jew who suffered the extermination of his family and friends at the hands of the Nazis actually forgive those who committed such despicable acts?

And quickly following the initial question are several others: what is forgiveness? Who is the forgiveness for? By forgiving Nazis, are we perhaps exonerating them from their crimes — even if their complicity was only casual (I so often hear about people who “had no choice but to comply”)?

I have come close to answering these questions, and I have found peace in the forgiveness I’ve extended to the people who have hurt me the most. And the place I start is by confessing the inaccuracy of the previous statement: short-term pain is often justifiable. But its subsistence requires my approval, care, and nurturing.

So who is forgiveness for? Or is forgiveness even the correct word? Might it be easier and more appropriate just to let it go? I cannot change the past, nor can I effectively take any action that might make up for it; no matter what I do, history is immutable. Once I have accepted this concrete axiom, the next thought becomes blindingly clear:

What disposition will I choose as I live the rest of my life? Because it most certainly is a choice.

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