Contrary to everything I've read and everything that I have been taught, I have begun to question whether forgiveness is ever the acceptable response. Some may be aghast to hear this, since this statement goes against a long and treasured tradition. However, the entire concept of forgiveness is based on the belief that when people are unloving they can indeed do something different than they are doing at the time. Today's brain research shows that strong emotions override the conscious and rational part of our brain, often making us unable to respond differently, at least in that instant.
Are we emotionally handicapped at times?
It is easy for us to watch infants learning to crawl and not expect them to ride a bike. It is easy to observe a crippled child with compassion and not expect them to run the 100-yard dash. It is easy to understand that a blind person cannot navigate in the same way as a person who has sight. But when we see someone expressing emotions such as anger or self-pity, we often harshly criticize these emotions. When someone acts out during very emotional times and perhaps even says or does something hurtful, we deem that action totally unacceptable. But are they emotionally handicapped at these times? And are some people more emotionally handicapped than others? I think so.
When a person lashes out at another because of their emotional pain or lack of skills, we quickly judge their behavior as wrong. And then we "forgive" them. But we would never need to forgive anyone if we hadn't judged them first. And I would venture to say that when we judge, punish, or estrange people who act out emotionally, we do them and ourselves a great disservice.
Our brains are the hard drive of the soul.
But what if behavior is only a code for a person's unmet needs, lack of skills, or emotional pain? What if when a person lashes out at another, it's an SOS for love, a cry for help? Just as a drowning person will drown anyone in arm's reach to get a gulp of air, a person in emotional pain also experiences an eclipse of the heart. It turns out that a brain can be gasping for air, too. The brain's air is safety.
When threatened, we as humans react to survive. In fact, our brains are programmed for survival. The tricky part is that we perceive danger differently due to past experiences. A young boy who has been beaten cannot be expected to respond to life with the same trust and vitality as a child who has been raised with love and security.
We have made behavior a measuring rod of goodness—but people are all innately good and loving. Some people have had experiences, though, that have taught them that life is unsafe. We all have a right to dignity and respect, independent of how we act. When we accept our humanity and the humanity of others—recognizing that by definition, being human is to make mistakes—our tolerance and compassion expand. When we truly understand a person (and the experiences that have created their behavior), we no longer need to forgive their behavior.
Throughout my life and in my many years of working with children and adults alike in their conflicts, their pain, and their longing for peace, I have discovered a reoccurring theme. No matter how unloving they may seem, everyone is seeking to be loved and to love. All unloving behavior is unconscious behavior that blinds us temporarily and prevents us from acting with love, just as a broken arm would keep us from swimming.
We must experience love to be loving.
We don't judge or fault our computers because Excel or Word doesn't launch when we haven't loaded the program. If a person hasn't learned how to communicate in a respectful way, they need us to model respect, not punish them. If a person isn't able to respond patiently, they need to be shown patience. Our collective experiences download what we know. We must experience love to be loving. When we view behavior from this perspective, we no longer need to forgive anyone. We do not need to absolve them of their "sins"; we simply need to understand, accept, and love them unconditionally.
Does that mean we just let everyone off the hook no matter how bad their behavior is, because they had a rough childhood? Absolutely not. When anyone acts unloving, they are reaching out for help but have not yet learned how to ask for help without hurting others. They don't need forgiveness; they need others to care enough to hold them accountable to be better. When our boundaries for others' behavior are loving and firm, we give them a standard and an opportunity to heal and self-correct. We are all naturally loving when our basic needs are met and we receive the love that is our heritage. Loving behavior is a natural out-picturing of being loved.
As the late Stephen R. Covey, author of "The 7 Habits for Highly Effective People," taught: "Seek first to understand." When we focus on understanding people, we will stop judging their behavior. And when we stop judging their behavior (and ours!) and accept our common humanity, we will no longer need to forgive anyone.