While revenge weakens society, forgiveness gives it strength. – Dalai Lama
What does that mean?
The quote starts by saying that revenge weakens society. Think about all those angry people, all looking to take revenge on those they feel have done wrong to them. How cohesive would that society be? Will people be looking to lend a hand, or will they be looking over their shoulder?
On the other hand, forgiveness gives a society strength. That is because forgiveness strengthens the individual people the way revenge weakens them. A person who can forgive another is a stronger person than the one who cannot, or who seeks, instead, revenge. While all societies have a mix of both types of people, if a society can have a majority granting forgiveness, it will be stronger than those who have a majority seeking revenge.
Why is forgiveness as a society important?
Well, let’s consider the opposite, as we did in the opening section of this blog post. If everyone (or at least the majority of the people) wanted revenge, we would devolve into an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ society. A quick search of the history books shows that humanity has tried that approach any number of times, and most were abject failures.
While forgiveness of behavior isn’t always appropriate, forgiveness within our hearts always is. If you cannot forgive, the anger and hatred will burn inside you and eat away at your goodness, leaving the seeds of revenge fertile ground to take root. As a society, we need to move past revenge.
Note that this does not free criminals from their obligation to serve time, or otherwise be kept separate from the society they have proven themselves unfit to live among. But it does require society to not continue to hate them for all eternity.
Where can I apply this in my life?
A recent discussion I had drove the point of forgiveness home. It was about a program that brought prisoners and victims together to discuss what had happened. The point was not for the victim to grant their personal pardon to the criminal, but to forgive them.
The point was not for the victim to say “Ok, we’ll act like nothing happened” but to allow the victim to drop the desire for revenge and release their inner anger. In this manner, they could forgive the criminal and put themselves at ease. It existed simply to allow the victim to help heal themselves.
One at a time, society heals itself a little at a time. The ability to heal from the wounds of crime helps society become stronger. The same can be said of yesterday’s holiday (at least here in the US), Saint Patrick’s Day. In Ireland, there is still some strife from centuries of hatred and revenge. So much of it, in fact, that the country remains deeply divided.
The same could be said of any number of countries, or former countries, or cluster of newly separated countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Whether it’s religion, ethnicity, race or country of origin, there are many places where revenge against one group or another continues, and nurtures another wave of counter-revenge.
In some parts of the world, the eye-for-an-eye syndrome has blinded whole generations against their fellow man, often by dehumanizing their ‘enemy’ and exacting their revenge on sight. Only forgiveness can break this vicious cycle. Only forgiveness can soften these hardened hearts.
While we as individuals don’t have control over what happens in other parts of the world, we do have control over our own hearts. We can help our little part of the world, and forgive those who have done wrong to us (at least what they did was wrong in our minds).
The neat trick is you don’t even have to tell them. Just forgive their transgressions and go on with your life. You don’t have to love them (that’s a different post), but you can forgive them and soften your heart, and strengthen yourself.
If you ever wonder if you can ever forgive someone, I ask that you ponder this statement and see if you could speak it in their presence. “I forgive you not because of who you are, but because of who I am.”
I hope that gives you something to think about.