“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” –Gandhi

It takes a very strong heart, strong mind, and strong spirit to truly forgive.  In a society that sees retribution as ‘justice’, it becomes easy to misunderstand payback as being courageous.  Forgiveness, however, is what takes the utmost strength –to not only be able to show compassion and forgiveness for those who have harmed you, but to also wish them well. Forgiveness is first and foremost something to do for yourself, not the other party.  It isn’t a question of whether someone ‘deserves’ or doesn’t ‘deserve’ your forgiveness, but rather that hate, resentment and revenge are never going to relieve your suffering.  Hate binds you to another person even more intimately than love does.  Anger, resentment, and grudges take energy, time, and commitment –they deprive you of happiness, and they deprive whoever you are angry with of happiness as well, since anger will drive you to act in negative and hurtful ways.  The only way that this cycle can ever be broken is through letting anger go, consciously choosing compassion and forgiveness, and showing your enemies that you can not be hurt or broken; showing them that no matter what, you will only wish them –and everyone else– happiness, peace, and the same inner strength that you have grown to possess.


Leaders who have used non-violent resistance to violent oppression demonstrate this best.  Gandhi, in his 1920-1922 non-violent resistance against the tyrannical and extremely violent British colonizers, was able to show his oppressors their own madness by not reacting in the typical angry, revenge-seeking fashion.  The British legitimized their colonial activities by painting the Indians as backwards, uncivilized mobs who were in need of European civilization.  By having the inconceivable courage to forgive the actions of the colonists, Gandhi and his followers turned the idea of the ‘savage Indian’ on its head.  The British became the ones who appeared savage and uncivilized, as they attacked, exploited and dehumanized groups of people who were nothing but calm, forgiving and non-violent.

Buddhist teachings focus a great deal on the importance of forgiveness and compassion, and the need to seriously re-evaluate ideas of ‘justice’ and ‘revenge’.  This is based on ideas of how to achieve happiness, how to bring happiness to others, how to understand that there is no ‘self’ that should selfishly deserve retribution (for retribution is only for serving one’s own ego, and is therefore selfish), and also the very important idea of impermanence.  Buddha explains that everything in life is impermanent –every second of every minute, everything is new.  It is very important to stay present, or things that upset you in the past can cause you to want to hold grudges, resentment and hate in your heart.  But if everything is impermanent and always changing, then there is no need for forgiveness.  You are not the same person that you were when you were ‘wronged’ by another, and they are no longer that same person who wronged you.  Every minute you are learning and changing, and so are those around you.  There are therefore no grudges that need to be held, and no regrets to hold either.

If someone sincerely apologizes for what they have done, forgiveness is all there is.  Even if someone does not apologize, you must still consciously try to forgive them and wish them happiness.  People who make mistakes or act badly towards others don’t necessarily have bad intentions.  If they do have bad intentions, then quite likely they are suffering and struggling with more in their own lives than you are aware of.  Everyone suffers; it is part of the human existence.  We can choose to selfishly turn our suffering into anger towards others, or blame others for turning their suffering towards us, or we can rise above it.  We can accept it, and have empathy for others who –whether they frustrate and hurt us or not– are all facing their own demons, and have all been socialized in very different ways.  This becomes even more pertinent when people have hate for those who have done nothing wrong, for example with racism, sexism, or homophobia.  Empathy for fellow humans emphasizes our sameness, not our imagined differences.  Besides, in just another moment this impermanent world will have changed again, and only new feelings are possible.  You may choose to feel resentment, or you may choose happiness, strength and forgiveness.


These ideas need not only be applied at the level of the individual, but in society as a whole.  Our ideas of ‘collateral damage’ in war, of racist, sexist, or homophobic discrimination, of imprisoning and denying immigrants access to the necessities of life, of capital punishment, and our hostility towards groups who go on strike or protest oppression; all of these areas of life should be re-thought with the idea that the strong and wise move would be compassion, understanding, grace, and forgiveness –instead of our typical hostile, needy, suspicious, and ‘quick-draw’ attitudes.


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