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The Meaning and Power of Forgiveness

In light of everything that is going on in our country and the world right now, including the economic crisis that is on center stage, it may be a good time to consider a topic that usually gets ignored when the "blame game" is in full swing.  We’re talking about forgiveness.  Indeed, getting to forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult and challenging thing that we can do to go beyond ourselves when we are so fixated on our problems, our needs, and our

In light
of everything that is going on in our country and the world right now, including
the economic crisis that is on center stage, it may be a good time to
consider a topic that usually gets ignored when the “blame game” is in full
swing.  We’re talking about forgiveness.  Indeed, getting to forgiveness is
perhaps the most difficult and challenging thing that we can do to go beyond
ourselves
when we are so fixated on our problems, our needs,
and our demands.  Let’s face it, when things are spinning out of
control–and especially out of our control–it’s at least comforting
and cathartic, even if it doesn’t really resolve anything, to be able to point
the blame on others for our situation.  Of course, getting to forgiveness
under such circumstances is much easier said than done.  But it can be
done!  And, importantly, our capacity to forgive actually provides us with a
pathway to true freedom and self-empowerment that, at the same time, is a
platform for healing what ails us and for confronting what challenges
us.

Forgiveness means “letting go” of our suffering.  In effect, it has
much more to do with our own well-being than that of the person or
persons we forgive.  When we hold on to our suffering–our resentment, hurt,
anger–we are inside ourselves with self-pity.  It becomes a veil
through which we see ourselves and others; it becomes something we have to feed,
keep alive, and justify.  If we don’t, we think we allow the other person or
people to be “right” in their unjust treatment of us.

But forgiveness can
be one of the most powerful things we do.  Like any muscle, however, it has to
be exercised to work well.  Forgiveness can be very complicated.  Sometimes we
think that it equates to forgetting, diminishing, or condoning the misdeed, but
it really doesn’t.  It has much more to do with freeing ourselves from
its hold.  Our ability to live our lives with love, understanding, and
generosity is impeded when we don’t forgive.  It doesn’t mean that we have to
love and be generous to the woman who was disloyal to us at work or the man who
belittled our ideas at a staff meeting.  Neither does it mean that we have to
love and be generous to those government officials who dropped the ball by not
managing the public’s business with integrity and accountability or to those
corporate executives on Wall Street who dangerously let the will to money
trump the will to meaning at the public’s expense.  No, this is not it. 
But what it does mean is that we forgive them and liberate ourselves from
further captivity.  Love and generosity, as well as understanding, will return
in their own time and on their own terms (the same holds true for things that
happen to us in our personal lives and relationships).

There is another
aspect of forgiveness that we would like to share with you.  It involves what is
referred to as “collective guilt.”  In this regard, Viktor Frankl, who
had survived four Nazi concentration camps, had spoken out all his life against
the theory of the collective guilt of the German people.  Dr. Frankl, in point
of fact, had given a now famous speech in which he urged Jews to go and confirm
that there were both kinds of people under the Nazi regime, decent people and
unprincipled people.  Therefore, he argued that it would be unjust to condemn
them all, lock, stock, and barrel.  By the same token, it would also be unjust
to condemn all future generations of Germans for the deeds of those who
were, to use Frankl’s descriptor, unprincipled.

Fast forward to the
present day and ponder the temptation to use the notion of collective guilt
against all Saudi Arabians or Muslims for what occurred on September 11,
2001, or against all corporate executives, especially those who make a
living on Wall Street, and all government bureaucrats for what is now
happening in our economy.  Can you see how collective guilt only serves to
exacerbate what may be an already bad situation by making it worse?  Can you
also see how our motivation to forgive or not forgive is tied to collective
guilt in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways?

Importantly, when we go
beyond ourselves–whether to forgiveness, unselfishness, thoughtfulness,
generosity, and understanding toward others–we enter into the spiritual realm
of meaning.  By giving beyond ourselves, we make our own lives richer.  This is
a truth long understood at the heart of all meaningful spiritual traditions. 
It’s a mystery that can only be experienced.  And when we do experience it, we
are in the heart of meaning.  We are no longer “prisoners of our thoughts.” 
And, remember, forgiveness, in the final analysis, is also good for your
health!

Blog Co-Authors:

Dr. Alex Pattakos is the author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts (www.prisonersofourthoughts.com) and Elaine Dundon is author of The Seeds of Innovation (www.seedsofinnovation.com).  They are co-authors of Innovating with Meaning (forthcoming).

About the author

A proud Greek-American (of Cretan heritage), Alex Pattakos Ph.D., has been described as a “Modern-Day Greek Philosopher.” Also nicknamed "Dr. Meaning," he is focused on bringing meaning to work, the workplace, and into everyday life.

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