As the new year begins, advice-givers bookmark the season as a time to offer once again well-meaning but often platitudinous articles with lots of holistic advice–how to succeed, how to be happier, how to hit a golf ball farther. Their advice runs the gamut, with pretty much a cure for any infirmity–real or imagined. A lot of this stuff, though tedious, is able nonetheless to raise our anxiety and guilt!
I know the New Year is a commonly accepted juncture for reassessing the state of our lives–and it’s fine to stop and ask ourselves how we are doing, plus ask the biggie: “Am I happy? Happier than last January?” But that blurs the point that happiness is a continuum, not a specific goal like losing fifteen pounds. On a daily basis, no gradients of effort to be happier than we found ourselves at any previous moment–be it December 31st at 11:59 p.m. or January 1st at 12:01 a.m.–are needed to do that the best we can.
Having shared that self-constructed belief, I must admit that shortly after the New Year my wife was reading an article on tips for how to improve our well-being in 2012, and she read to me the ten suggestions. Most were useful but one was really powerful–not the type normally found in these cookie-cutter advice columns: Take the time to forgive someone. Now that is a great idea, one I can really use!
Several years ago I wrote a letter-essay on forgiveness and mailed it to family, friends, and colleagues. Later I excerpted it for my book Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement & Truth to Flourish in the Workplace (Chapel Hill Press, 2008). This essay prompted some of the most searing, emotional responses I have ever received from one of my missives. Here’s a short segment from the letter I sent:
“Consider forgiving someone you can’t imagine forgiving…. I have someone in my life, someone I pray for every morning who I need to forgive, yet have not. I have not found it in my heart to do so. I judge even though I know that judgments are seldom constructive and only build barriers. Moreover, as Saint Paul observes, who am I, ‘a mere man,’ to pass judgment on another?”
I know something about this subject. I come from a large and loving family, but I can remember when family members would get out of sorts with each other. As a child, I would scratch my head over the subjects of their disagreements. Of course, to the adults, rifts between family members always concerned important issues—“He was supposed to call me last Thursday at 8 p.m. but he didn’t! What’s wrong with him?” For that deep transgression, the offending party might be in the penalty box for a month or more!
At some level of consciousness we all know that forgiveness is a personally liberating act. Why is it so?
A being who holds animosity toward another has a cancer feasting on his or her soul. Animosity and especially long-term rancor shackle and enervate our humanity because ill will runs counter to one of our most fundamental instincts for survival, according to Charles Darwin–to help one another. Yet we can all remember times when we have stoked our anger, tending meticulously the fires of revenge or judgment, and then getting a sudden rush of energy when we act against our target-human.
But it is a dark energy, like that contained in a black hole, as it sucks the divine grants of goodness and compassion out of our being. When we inflame a wrath of hate or indignation towards others, the dark exhilaration at taking revenge—or just at zapping our target with a fine-tipped zinger—evaporates fast and then we are weaker than before. Our health is impaired, literally. We’re pretty much miserable and don’t know what to do with ourselves.
The reason forgiveness has such a commanding effect on our well-being is that it is a charitable act. I define charity as giving someone a second chance. Is there anything better in the new year of 2012 we can do for another and thus for ourselves than giving someone a second chance? Biographies are replete with tales of individuals who succeeded beyond all measure when some generous soul provided them with a second chance. My friends, it is but a razor’s edge that often separates success from failure. That is why it sometimes takes the slightest intersection on our part to turn a life around. Forgiveness is an inspired intersection of one soul with another that can produce such an outcome!
Well, after scolding some of the new-year advice-givers, I guess I morphed into doing the same. But here is something I hope you’ll remember—and I need to remember it, too: When Mother Teresa was asked what one should do to lead a meaningful life, she responded, “Pray and forgive.”