Forgiveness Is Not What You Think

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
~ Buddha

I was driving toward the basket, ready to pull up for a short jump shot that I was sure would clinch the victory. I stopped, planted my feet, and was about to jump. But the opponent guarding me accidentally stepped hard on my ankle.

My foot rolled over ninety degrees, tearing all the ligaments in my ankle. The pain was excruciating – both at the moment and for several weeks into recovery. But I never lost my love of playing, and couldn’t wait to get back on the court.

While the NBA has strict rules on fouling, streetball has far fewer regulations and is much rougher. The term “no harm, no foul” comes from this game and essentially implies that unless a person is significantly injured, there is no foul.

Now let’s extrapolate that concept to the realm of suffering in general. When we feel we’ve been harmed by another (be it physical, emotional, or psychological), we want that person to atone for their misdeed – by apologizing and ideally somehow “righting” their wrong.

And, by extension, we use the term forgiveness to imply that we are willing to look past the injustice, perhaps by “accepting” the apology or other form of reparation.

But what if there was no harm?

A Life-Altering Book

Many years ago I discovered a book that changed my life. It was called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In the concentration camps, Frankl’s father, mother, brother, and pregnant wife were all killed. Everything was taken away from him. Everything.

Except one thing.

His choice on how he would respond to all the injustice, trauma, degradation, and horrors that were inflicted upon him.

This is what Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Frankl refused to respond with hatred, anger, bitterness, or vengeance. He knew that choosing those emotions would lead only to pain. Instead, he practiced sending love and peace to the Auschwitz guards – and used his experiences there to develop a revolutionary psychotherapeutic method of existential self-analysis.

He survived the Holocaust, developed his practice, published his groundbreaking book, and helped transform many lives. Those people who were fortunate enough to meet Dr. Frankl (he died in 1997 at the age of 92) felt the incredible joy, kindness, and peace that he radiated.

Pain vs. Suffering

There’s an old adage (misattributed to the Buddha) that reads:

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

The idea is that we aren’t responsible for what others do to us, but we are completely accountable for how we respond. And therein lies the true nature of forgiveness. We forgive one another for what has not been done to us, not for what has.

This is such a counterintuitive, ego-challenging concept that it bears repeating. By my not suffering, no foul has been committed. No atonement (apology) is demanded.

A Course in Miracles likewise clarifies the idea that suffering is a choice we make. “Beware the temptation to perceive yourself unfairly treated.” It’s an ego-based perception that says “you did this to me.” But instead of choosing the ego, we can choose the mind of love.

To paraphrase Dr. Frankl, by responding only and always with love, we not only transcend our own fear-based, guilt-projecting limitations but sow the seeds of growth for others.

In Practice

Does this mean we simply allow ourselves to be treated like a doormat – letting others walk all over us?

Absolutely not.

Choosing to respond with love is an action we take in our mind. First we realize our ego’s very strong desire to create a victim / victimizer story. “You did this to me! You’re to blame!” Then as quickly as we can, we recognize that choosing the ego will always result in suffering. By going within and essentially saying “no thank you” to the ego, we can then ask our inner guide for help to see this through the eyes of peace.

Then, what comes through us will be whatever actions are most helpful for the situation. That very well could be words that come out of our mouth or movements our body makes. But those actions will be done from a place of calmness with no vested interest in the outcome. There’s an inner knowing that what we are doing and saying is exactly what is most beneficial for ourselves and any others involved in the experience.

By our choice for peace instead of suffering, we escape the ego’s hidden agenda of projecting guilt onto others. And we understand the radical nature of true forgiveness: nothing happened.