A Discussion of Forgiveness

I’ve already mentioned that I believe that gratitude and forgiveness are emotions which I believe we should foster within ourselves. Today I want to explore in a little bit further detail what makes up forgiveness and why it is such a powerful force to bring good to ourselves and the world.

What is Forgiveness

Forgiveness cannot exist by itself. It must always be preceded by anger or disappointment. If there was no anger or disappointment, there would be no need for forgiveness. There is, however, plenty of need for forgiveness and that is because most of us are prone to develop feelings of anger or disappointment easily.

Once anger or disappointment have risen within us, be it directed at ourselves, others or the world in general, forgiveness offers a good and wholesome resolution to these emerging emotions. Alternatively, understanding may also serve as a possible resolution; but generally it is not as emotionally powerful as forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a conscious process which consists of three phases. First, we acknowledge that there is something which is lacking; the something which caused our anger and disappointment in the first place. Second, we decide that, although the something is lacking, we accept it as it is. Third, we find within us love for the something.

This brings us to the crucial insight that without love, forgiveness is impossible. Likewise, without forgiveness, love is very difficult since love is tender and especially so if it is strong. Love can easily be bruised by imperfections in its object; forgiveness cures these and keeps love strong and eternal.

The Path to Forgiveness

But how can you love what you hate? How can you love what angers and disappoints you? You can if you find strong and pure love within you. Unfortunately, there is no path to love, if you do not find the ability to love two things: beauty and goodness.

Beauty is a lyrical quality which you can only perceive as the echoes of your own deep feelings. If you see or experience something which is beautiful, you can feel it in your heart, you can feel with your whole body. You cannot decide to find something beautiful or not; the emergence of beauty is automatic and natural.

Goodness is closely related to beauty since we usually find good what we find beautiful and vice averse. Goodness, however, can cast a wider net and help us shift the focus away from the physical aspects of beauty. As with beauty, we can feel if something is good and right or not. We feel if an action we do is good or evil. We are quick to judge if the actions of others are good or evil. We can easily determine if a situation or arrangement in the world fosters good or evil.  

If we can learn to love the abstract concepts of beauty and goodness, we can proceed to direct this love to three particular things which will aid us in fostering goodness.

First, you need to find love for yourself. Maybe you think that you are a horrible person and not worthy of anybodies love. Maybe you have had mean thoughts or have done evil things. But no matter what you have become or what you have done, you have a pure and wholesome core. There is beauty and goodness within you – that is how you were born -, and when it is currently not expressed, you have the potential for beauty and goodness and are deserving to be loved by yourself and other. As for your shortcomings, that is what forgiveness is for.

The second thing you need to find love for is other sentient beings. If you look at another human being or an animal, you can see within them the same basic emotions and desires you have within you. Just like you, they carry the potential for beauty and goodness and are worthy of your love.

The last thing you need to find love for is the world: creation as a whole, the wheels of fate which shape your life. Looking at the world how it is with open eyes shows it to be cruel and pointless. Why is there so much suffering? Why is our life so short and impermanent – with no indication there will be anything left of us but dust once our heart stops beating? However, the world has created you, and you carry beauty and goodness. The world has created other sentient beings, and they carry beauty and goodness. And the world itself is beautiful if you open your senses.

Forgiveness and love are like two sides of an arch. They each enable each other, since without forgiveness it is so difficult to love, and without love, it is impossible to forgive. Embrace love and embrace forgiveness. There is nothing to lose and your life can only be all the richer for it.

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Eight Virtues Which Seem Not All That Bad

Virtue seems like a dusty old concept which fits in an 18th century – but not in our modern digital age. I disagree! I believe the problem with virtues is not the concept as such but the particular virtues we have long aspired to.

Virtues, however, are a key pillar of leading happy and meaningful lives since they provide a shortcut to meaning; rather than having to ponder the nature of existence in our every waking moment, we can fall back to a handy list of virtues to guide our decisions; assuming the more we follow these, the more meaningful our lives may become.

I have recently written about six virtues which were identified by positive psychologists. Thinking about virtues in a scientific setting is a very laudable exercise and can lead to tremendous insights. However, I personally found the list of virtues lacking in some respects. So based on the original six virtues proposed I have composed my own list of desirable virtues:

Being wise

Being wise to me means having found effective ways to cultivate a calm and peaceful mind within the chaotic and nonsensical world around and within us.

I don’t think that being knowledgeable is a prerequisite for this. Of course, knowledge might be one possible way to achieve wisdom but it might just as well be a path which leads us astray from it; see Dr Faust.

Working hard for the benefit of others

It’s the sad truth of our life; humanity needs to labour in order to survive and working on something with a purpose seems to be one of the things which makes us happy. Therefore I think that working for the benefit of others is a good virtue to aspire to.

Being kind, loving, understanding and cooperative

This is the virtue we need to seek in every moment we are not alone. The moment we share our space with another sentient being, we need to show them kindness and love and make a real effort to understand them deeply. Being cooperative means that we should strive to seek the benefit of a group when we are part of it, such as our family or a team at work.

Being public spirited

In the early 20th century, the idea of the public good was something which was often discussed. Nowadays I feel it is sometimes considered a somewhat dated concept. However, when looking through some immigration forms for Australia I found the following statement which needs to be signed by all applicants for permanent immigration:

Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good;

I think there is very little to disagree with here. A society can only function if protects those with little power, seeks equality and focuses its efforts on increasing public good; rather than being designed to serve the needs of particular individuals or organisations. Sadly the idea of public good often ends at the border of our nation states; since true public good can only be achieved when we consider all of mankind.

Being grateful and forgiving

Gratefulness is a powerful force to enable our happiness. To be grateful to others, for the blessing of existence, the beauty of nature and other things does no one harm and plenty of good to ourselves, so we should do it at every opportunity.

I think that forgiveness is often a prerequisite to gratefulness. If we are hurt by the actions of another, it is difficult to feel gratefulness towards them. Likewise, if we disdain the very fact of our existence: that it seems so meaningless and futile, we cannot be grateful for the beauty of the world and for the very gift that we exist at all. However if we find the strength to find forgiveness, often gratitude comes washing over us naturally.

Being just

Many experiments have shown that we have a natural dislike for injustice. Thankfully justice does plenty of good for the working of a group and a society. Thus this is something we should foster and seek ourselves not just to demand justice of others but also be just in our own actions. (Which is challenging since our love for justice as a general principle is often clouded by our love for our own advantage.)

It must be noted here that being ‘just’ is also much easier said than done. What constitutes justice is often difficult to determine – in fact, it is a question which keeps millions of lawyers occupied. However, that achieving true justice – or at least something close to it – is very difficult should be no detriment to try; we need to keep in mind our own limitations and be very careful not to let our biases guide us in determining what is just.

Being parsimonious

It should be no secret to anyone who has spent any time following the latest trends in the study of happiness that seeking material possessions is no path to happiness. Granted, spending money on experiences seems to be preferable to spending money on things. However, using as little resources as possible for the satisfaction of ones needs and desires has many benefits. First and foremost, it frees up resources for those who are struggling to make ends meet; also, usually spending something enlarges our impact on the environment. Lastly, for most of us, money must first be earned before it is being spent, and working for money is something many do not enjoy.

Seeking deeper meaning

I started this article with the promise that virtues might free us from the toil of having to ponder the deeper meaning of life. However, I think that thinking deeply about life and its meaning is an essential virtue which can lead to great happiness – following predefined virtues can only get us that far.

Some approaches of how to do this and some fundamental deliberations will be discussed here in future articles. However, I believe that each one of us has the capacity to explore the question of the meaning of life without any help; as long as we set our mind to it and not ignore this potentially challenging question in the calming buzz of our everyday lives.

Are these eight virtues listed here the best virtues to adopt for a happy and purposeful life? I would not know and I doubt they are. However, I think they provide a good starting point to consider the role we would like virtues to play in our lives and provide some context to the idea of being virtuous – it is not simply something which we are or aren’t but is dependent on the particular things we value; and how successful we are in living our values in our everyday lives.

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Six Virtues according to Positive Psychology

I have long been an avid follower of the positive psychology movement. Be it justified or not, I am a bit skeptical about psychology as a discipline in general since I got the impression that a lot of established facts and practices in psychology are based on poorly executed studies.

It seems likely that positive psychology is plagued by the same fundamental problems as the general discipline; notwithstanding, the core ideas of positive psychology seem far more appealing to me than those of general psychology: to focus on our strength and what makes us happy instead of what is wrong with our minds.

I am writing this particular post since today I rediscovered an interesting article I found a while ago: Positive Psychology Progress. What particularly struck me in this article was a table which lists six virtues which are generally recognised in many cultures across the globe and character strengths which enable these virtues.

The six virtues identified in the article along with the strength which support them are more or less the following:

  1. Being wise and knowledgeable
    • enabled by Creativity, Curiosity, Open-mindedness, Love of learning, Finding new perspectives
  2. Being courageous
    • enabled by Authenticity, Bravery, Persistence, Zest
  3. Being kind, loving and understanding
    • enabled by Kindness, Love, Social intelligence
  4. Being just
    • enabled by Fairness, Leadership, Teamwork
  5. Being temperate
    • enabled by Forgiveness, Modesty, Prudence, Self-regulation
  6. Seeking deeper meaning
    • enabled by Appreciation of beauty and excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, Religiousness

Maybe it is my Prussian upbringing but I cannot fail to notice that the virtue of working hard for the benefit of others is not included in this list. To be fair, this is somewhat included under the virtue of courage as the character strength ‘Zest’ and ‘Persistence’ but to me personally this is not emphasised enough. Also I think there is a lot of good to be found in being courageous, and from reading some of Seligman’s books I gathered that he did a lot of work for the US military, so an emphasis on this virtue might have been derived from this. However, I find that courage is often closely associated with foolishness; and I have a feeling we would have far fewer armed conflicts if people happened to be less courageous.

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