The Holocaust museum in Skokie, Illinois carries the motto "Remember the past, transform the future." It does not talk about forgiveness. It talks about using the past to transfer the future into a more constructive and positive experience that uses the lessons of the past to do so.
This essay discusses the concept of 'forgiveness' and goes into when it should and should not be applied.
Nietzsche made a salient point that forgiveness is like nirvana. In fact, the whole concept of forgiveness reminds me of the Buddhist philosophy. Buddhists believe that life is inevitably one of frustration, disappointment, pain, and suffering. We have our disappointments and hankerings that turn out to be bloated and misplaced. Even desires, when met, turn out to be temporary. Life is one of unceasing travail and loss and many of us are sensitive to the hurt that life throws at us. Part of this hurt consists, to, in hurtful things done to us by others.
How can one let go of this pain?
The first step is to realize that our perception of life is such to our adhesion to desires. Were we to surrender our attachment to perceived needs and material possessions, life may appear to hold less suffering and disappointment than it does.
These desires (tanh?) come in three forms and the Buddha described them as the Three Roots of Evil. They are:
Hatred and intolerance
Ignorance and delusion
Greed and desire
It is these three categories that cause us to react in the negative way that we do to misfortune and actually cause us to interpret phenomena as unfortunate when another person, liberated of these toxins may have a more content perspective to the world.
Bearing hatred to the other comes under the form refusing to forgive since withholding forgiveness, ipso facto, implies dislike of the other. (We may also extend it to the other two categories in that (a) ignorance and delusion -- were we aware of the whole story behind the action, we may find it easier to forgive and (b) greed and desire -- it is our implication of our self that makes it harder to eliminate the pain).
The way to liberate one from these desires is to diffuse them, to see them as naught. To reach the state of Nirvana -- a blessed, content state -- is achieved by moving beyond events and remaining unaffected by them. Nirvana is a state of profound spiritual contentment and bliss -- the state of 'emptiness' -- where one is benevolent both to humans and all living creatures, realizing that we are all united in a holistic and interdependent hub of life.
Says the Buddha:
When a noble disciple has thus understood suffering, the origin of suffering; the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering; & #8230; he here and now makes an end of suffering. In that way, too, a noble disciple is one of right view & #8230; and has arrived at this true Dharma [teaching]. (#3; 19). (Buddhanet.com)
Forgiveness, in short, is a reaction that can only be passed by someone who has managed to defuse the hurt and remains oblivious to it. This represents the situation where the person is so oblivious to worldly phenomena and occurrences that he manages to transcend worldly hurt and circumstances and is genuinely able to forgive.
This aspect, or attitude to forgiveness, stands out in sharp polar contrast to thinkers who perceive forgiveness to be unrealistic and a 'ninny' concept. Jesus, famously, prescribed 'turning the other cheek': "But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.); Matt. 5.39).
Critics of Christianity (e.g. Hitchens 2007) believe that not only is this unrealistic but it is also destructive. It is unrealistic as, for instance in the Holocaust scenario when millions of individuals were destroyed and their religion humiliated whilst their pasts and futures were overturned. The ramifications of the Holocaust continued in both covert and overt ways to wreak an adverse influence on the Jewish nation. Israel, to a great extent, is shaped by the Holocaust still today: its nightmares, its complexes, its fundamentalisms, and the in-fighting of one group to another. It would be, at best, insensitive for an outsider to tell the Jews to forgive the Nazis. Forgiveness, even if attempted, would be preposterous and unreal. How do some forgive when the pain is so entrenched, permanent, and so deeply destructive that the consequences can never be reversed?
There is a difference, it seems to me, between forgiveness and defusing the pain and this distinction should be made.
Forgiveness and transformation
The Holocaust museum in Skokie, Illinois carries the motto "Remember the past, transform the future." It does not talk about forgiveness. It talks about using the past to transfer the future into a more constructive and positive experiences that uses the lessons of the past to do so.
There are certain groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), that insists on remembering the Holocaust and say "Never Again!" To them, the Holocaust was barbarous; the Nazis can never be forgiven. Their focus is on rooting out and annihilating every last Nazi. Their objective is that whilst the world was silent during the war, it must not and cannot afford to remain silent any longer. To teach a lesson, one must focus on revenge and, yes, the activities of the Nazis were so barbarous that, no, the Jews cannot and must not afford to forgive. Aside from which, forgiveness is unreal.
Certain Holocaust museums, such as the Skokie institution, on the other hand, transfer the emphasis to a different perspective. To them, the past happened, but they use the past to construct a better future. These museums promote the Holocaust in order to teach tolerance to all races and to diffuse prejudice. They accept that this is not so easy, if in fact, impossible to forgive, but that one can, with passage of time, step back, reflect and extract valuable lessons that can help one construct a more optimistic future. The emphasis, in other words is not on revenge and hate. The emphasis rather has turned to scouring the past for nuggets of illumination that can create a more inspirational and happier future. The emphasis is on growth.
Here is the difference: it is recognized that in certain situations, the ability of forgiveness eludes our ability. But dwelling on the hurt is ultimately unhealthy and unhelpful for us. Recognition of the karma and ways to void the impact of the karma seems to be a more facilitative path. We void - but do not forgive -- the past in order to move on with the future. At the same time, the words of "do not forgive the past' does not refer to an obsessive dwelling on the pain but rather acknowledgement that hurt has been so grievous and has impacted so many others that it is impossible to forgive. Accepting the pain, we move on to make sense of the experience and use its lessons for growth.
Other conditions of forgiveness.
The author, James Jacob Liszka quotes the incident of John Plummer who ordered the napalm attack on Trang Rang in June 1972. The pain to the villagers, as documented by the unforgettable picture of a running nine-year-old naked girl screaming from her napalm-inflicted burns was inextinguishable. The scars remain still today. Yet, the perpetrator became a devout Christian who felt intense remorse for his actions. Liszka recounts that when he saw the picture of the victims, "it just knocked me to my knees" (p.195). The images and consequences of his actions troubled him. He began to drink heavily, went through three marriages and two divorces, and became a minister unable to forget his actions. Whenever he saw the picture, John Plummer berated himself: "Look what I did... I did that to her. I'm responsible" (195).
Let us compare this to the example of the Holocaust. In both instances, huge and long-lasting monstrosities were perpetrated against a certain sector of the civilization. The actions of the particular individuals (in the one case, Plummer, in the other reducible to Hitler) had resounding effects with ramifications that will never disappear form the psyche of that particular nation and from affected others and will continue to haunt mankind until the end of time. These are its similarities.
On the other hand, we have a huge difference between Hitler and between Plummer. Hitler went down to his death (suicide in the bunker) in affirmation of his crimes. To him, he was still justified in all that he had done and would, if he were given the chance, have continued conquering the world and perpetrating his mischief still further. John Plummer, on the other hand, regretted his actions and would, if he were only given half a chance, gladly have reversed his life to undo…