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Sep 14
Friday
Opinion Pieces
No Future Without Forgiveness

A few thoughts on how and why we can forgive others — and ourselves

by Shastri Christine Heming

I have been thinking and reading about forgiveness lately. What is it? Where do we find it? How does it come about?

A lot has been said about forgiveness, represented in religious and self-help perspectives, in historical analysis such as that done by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in philosophical reflection as well. There may be more questions than answers, and there is certainly no undisputed consensus.  

Questions of forgiveness raise issues related to the justification of vengeful anger and revenge, the concept of the “unforgivable,” and offender responsibility and punishment. Yet, within all of this, there is general widespread acknowledgement that forgiveness is a commendable, praise-worthy virtue, indispensable to the future of humanity. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book title on the subject attests:  No Future Without Forgiveness.”

As a Buddhist practitioner, I knew I needed to look into my own experience to understand forgiveness. No sooner had I recognized this than a clear memory of forgiveness made itself felt. It was during a yearlong retreat, a time when latent memories and wounds are said to emerge, providing an opportunity for resolution and healing. It was just such a memory that came to me.

I grew up in a Polish Catholic family of immigrants. Respect for elders, especially the clergy, was infused in me. At the age of 4, I entered a Catholic school where all the teachers were nuns. The first two years were uneventful. Then in grade 2 through grade 4 things changed dramatically; the teacher, Sister Hilda, rained down her insidious, abusive power over us.  

In the Midwest of the USA, heavy thunderstorms could change the clear blue sky into near darkness – ominous and threatening. Sister Hilda used these occasions to warn us that the devil, in a fiery chariot, would swoop down and take all the bad girls and boys. Of course that meant all of us, so down on our knees on the hard wood floor, we prayed for our salvation until the storm passed.  

Hilda instilled in us the notion that whatever happened in the classroom was our business only, so we were not going to tell our parents any of this. It was several years later, at the age of 12 and at the invitation of my father to share my opinion of Catholic school, that I told of my experience. You can imagine the shock on my parents’ faces, and the awakening, the explanation for my nervous behaviors – the tics, the bitten fingernails, the eye blinking, and the hysterical paralysis in grade 4 that kept me out of school for two weeks. My parents had been baffled all those years.

Sitting in retreat, these memories flooded my consciousness. Who was that small, helpless child trapped in fear and “badness,” comprehending only that she must have done something very wrong, and that she had to do as she was told. I saw her so clearly in my mind’s eye, and felt her fear and pain deep in every cell. I sobbed and wrapped my arms around her, held her tight, and reassured her she was not to blame, that she was innocent and good. It may seem strange, but I was able to reach back in time and heal the wounds of that small child, to change the course of all that followed in her life, to have my own resurrection.

There is a song written by the poet Leonard Cohen called The Traitor.  Cohen described the meaning of the lyrics this way:  

[The Traitor is about] the feeling we have of betraying some mission we were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it; then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it; and the real courage is to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself.

During most of my adult life I pursued a mission to prove my goodness, to rid myself of some stain, some bad seed within me. Was Sister Hilda responsible for this? It is difficult to say. There are so many influences that shape our life, including those we bring with us from previous lives. But not feeling whole or good enough, we often find ourselves trying to fulfill a mission, a mission that the vicissitudes of life inevitably and continually undermine.  

Reaching back to care for that child, to assure her she was not guilty of some wrong doing, enabled me to stand guiltless in my own predicament. But it did more than that. It enabled me to open my heart to Sister Hilda and allow her to be guiltless as well. Compassion moved in both directions – towards self and other. Standing before me, I saw Hilda’s pain, her miserable life cloaked in hatred, vengeance and fear.  

Having forgiven that small, guiltless child, my mind quite naturally turned toward Sister Hilda. The child was healed, no longer a victim. She was free and there was no need or reason for blame. Hilda was forgiven and freed as well. We could both stand guiltless and forgiven.

It is not easy to revisit hurtful or harmful memories from our past. I had the good fortune to be in a safe and sacred place, feeling the protection of the lineage and the support of my vajra sisters.  I knew upon entering this long retreat that painful circumstances and memories would arise and, in a way, I invited them. I took this time to find freedom from all that kept me bound to the stories of the past.

My heart goes out to persons struggling with their own past trauma because I cannot see any way forward and beyond it except for going through it.  This is not to belittle what harm has been done to us, but without that rebirth by fire, so to speak, we remain imprisoned by our inability to let go of the past and find forgiveness.  This journey is a personal one for each of us to make.


Shastri Christine Heming has been a meditation instructor and teacher in the Shambhala community for many years. She was a student of the founder of Shambhala, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and is now a student of his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. She is a board member of the Centre for Local Prosperity, a nonprofit society based in Nova Scotia promoting new economic models that invite a balance between economic development and the preservation and restoration of natural systems. She lives with her husband Gregory Heming, and their dog Bonnie, on a farm near Granville Ferry, Nova Scotia.

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9 responses to “ No Future Without Forgiveness ”
  1. Hi Christine. So good to hear your voice. If you would please send me your email to [email protected] (now that the Shambhala database is Opt-In I can’t access it), I’d appreciate it.

  2. Diane Whitcomb
    Sep 14, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for this. Forgiveness is a word that has many connotations. For each of us, we must contemplate what it is and what it isn’t. I discovered that I both needed to forgive myself first (as Shastri Heming did) and also, I needed to work with the fear I felt toward my abuser. It was only when I came to recognize that I no longer need to fear the abusers in my past, that I had the confidence to forgive. Finally, the more I was “pushed” to forgive, the more I felt unheard, and unseen. It felt as though my worthiness was brought into question, as though I didn’t have the right to feel the pain that I felt. Unlike Ms. Heming, my parents were more interested in protecting my abuser than me, which added another layer of pain and confusion about my own goodness. I needed to do that part for myself. Healing is possible.

  3. Ellen Berger
    Sep 14, 2018
    Reply

    What a lovely and courageous article! Thank you.

  4. Arthur Ramsay
    Sep 14, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you very much for this post Christine, which shows real compassion and manifests basic goodness. I am in compete empathy with you. I was homosexually raped as an eight to ten year old boy by an adolescent boy about 15, as were many others, and forced to take part in sex games with other local children of both sexes. The boy was caught and treated cruelly by his sadistic father. I never felt any negativity towards him and never felt harmed by my experience, although who knows. What he did was wrong but such actions are unfortunately widespread in our society. Your experience of course contained violence and actions by an adult and was much worse, and I admire your deep forgiveness, but I know where it comes from.
    We could do with more maturity and understanding in the current climate without doubt.

  5. Susan Marie
    Sep 15, 2018
    Reply

    Thanks you for this, Christine. Your words offer a helpful personal perspective.

  6. Jill Sarkady
    Sep 15, 2018
    Reply

    I find much sensibility and grace in your article Christine. However, one thing I would like to share is that in going back it is not only the sobbing child, helpless and immersed in her sense of overwhelming badness, that needs to be soothed and loved but also the negative emotions and perhaps, interpersonal entanglements, that were generated by the trauma.

    I know very few people that have been traumatized be it sexual, psychically, or whatever combination of all of our sensibilities, that do not experience rage and/or deep anxiety. Especially difficult to permit to come to the fore is the rage and sometimes a sheer desire to hurt back – the abuser, ourselves, or someone else. If we can not embrace that wrath, that surging suffering then we can not heal really.

    Having had a great deal of neglect and abuse of different levels in my life, I have had to go straight into those negative feelings, with awareness and sometimes without. Weathering them and feeling their awful power has been a major part of my healing. I am not certain that I can say that those aspects of my emotional life will ever be gone; but, I am rarely the victim of my my own deep confusion and mixed emotions. There is almost always awareness now and along with that the openness that leads to compassion.

    I agree with you that when we find a way to stand guiltless in our own suffering that naturally we begin to see that possibility of the other who caused that abuse to stand in the same guiltless place. It is a very powerful and compelling experience to realize that other people perhaps didn’t mean to really hurt YOU but that you became the target, you were the whipping post for their deep traumas. So liberating as you point out to go through this; it is a fire and the knowledge burns through the obstruction and confusion. Thank you for sharing that wonderful phrase.

  7. Kristine McCutcheon
    Sep 16, 2018
    Reply

    Thanks Christine, I often contemplate the directionlessness of compassion, how it will affect beings (and our past beings and future beings) in ways we can’t imagine. The impacts of this vast generous act. Thanks for articulating forgiveness.

  8. Christine Heming
    Sep 17, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you all for sharing so much of yourselves.
    To Jill, I would very much appreciate continuing our dialogue.

  9. Eric Fisher
    Sep 19, 2018
    Reply

    This article makes me think about the slogan “Four Practices Are the Best of Methods” and Trungpa Rinpoche’s words about “forgiveness” in the section “Laying Down Evil Deeds”:


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