September 27, 2018

Forgiveness is Selfish

I have a statement that often confuses my clients: “Forgiveness is one of the most selfish things you can do.”


Because we have the connotation that selfish is bad and forgiveness is good, there’s usually a disconnect as to how these two go together.

I say that forgiveness is selfish because forgiveness effects the self, the one who is actively doing the forgiving the most. When a person makes the conscious choice to relinquish the weight she or he has been carrying around in the form of grudges, resentments and anger, then she or he is the ones who receive the relief - not the person who has actually inflicted the original pain.

And let’s face it, just because we forgive someone doesn’t mean they’re going to get the message. They may very well be stuck in their patterned hell of infliction no matter what we do for them.

So when we forgive, first and foremost, we affect ourselves. Forgiveness is selfish. And, it is an ongoing practice

Here’s a story that illustrates this point from the Dalai Lama. I wrote it down after attending one of his lectures in New York City’s Beacon Theater during the summer of 1998. It went something like this.

In the question and answer session, a member of the audience asked the Dalai Lama to clarify something for him. He asked, “You keep mentioning ‘my friends the Chinese’ throughout your talk, and I want to make sure that it’s not a translation issue. You mean ‘your friends the Chinese’ who had you exiled from your land when you were a child?”

“Yes,” answered the Dalai Lama.

“You mean ‘your friends the Chinese’ who have your picture up as one of the most wanted terrorists in the modern world?” he asked.

“Yes,” answered the Dalai Lama.

“You mean ‘your friends the Chinese’ who have you living in exile from your own country, Tibet, and tell you that if you ever return, you’ll be taken prisoner and put to death?” he continued.

“Yes,” answered the Dalai Lama.

“And you mean ‘your friends the Chinese’ who killed just about everyone you knew when you lived there as a child, forced you out of your own land, and continue to kill monks to this day? You mean those Chinese?” he asked.

“Yes, those friends,” responded the Dalai Lama.

“Please explain to me how you can think of these Chinese as your friends,” he ended, sounding more than a little perplexed.

You see,” the Dalai Lama began, “if the Chinese did not offer me these very difficult lessons, I would not be forced into practicing very hard as a Buddhist to overcome them.”

“If my friends the Chinese did not provide me with this level of pain and disillusion, then I would not have to meet these challenges with even more loving compassion and forgiveness.”

“I cannot view the Chinese as my enemy, because then I enter into a struggle that never ends and no one wins. When they are seen as my friends, then they are an opportunity that is presented in this life to be an even better Buddhist, to forgive them and work towards some kind of reconciliation, no matter what has happened in the past.”

Obviously, the Dalai Lama has had some help with his perspective on forgiveness, as he has had instruction from lamas since he was a child, but his story offers one beautiful example of how a situation of pain, which could easily be used as a present and persistent reason to hate, is transformed into a lifetime of practice.

Do yourself a favor: forgive.

“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.” Maya Angelou

Randal Lyons helps people struggling with addiction who want long term, holistic care. He uses his own experience in recovery combined with his training as a Doctor of Oriental Medicine through his program, Alchemist Recovery.

If you've got questions about this or any other topic in sobriety, please contact me.

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