When I was in my early teens at school there was a group of ‘toughs’ who hung around together. I found myself wondering whether I wanted to be one of them. I watched them from a distance a few times and soon realized that they seemed sort of unhappy somehow. When they were not giving someone outside of their group a hard time they seemed to be focused on giving each other a hard time. I decided that I would rather be happy than be like them and that being a ‘tough guy’ was not for me.

Of course such ‘tough guy’ posturing can be an attempt to hide a lot of insecurity. As movies and TV programs often highlight (whether intentionally or not), people whose lives are based on violence or aggression live in constant fear of violence and aggression themselves. Such extreme cases demonstrate most clearly how the way we think about others is the way we assume others think about us. A genuine, open, easy and happy smile does not sit well on the face of a ‘tough guy’ – at least not for very long. While we are not as extreme as that (hopefully) this does help to illustrate that we live on the same level of experience that we want to create for others.

The Unforgiving Mind

While we are in an unforgiving state of mind, and holding a variety of angry, bitter and spiteful thoughts, we are the ones who are suffering. Such thoughts and feeling are an intense form of unhappiness. Can we feel hate and feel happy? Can we feel bitter and feel happy? Can we feel vengeful and feel truly happy? There is a sick sense of satisfaction from vengeance, but that is not genuine happiness. Unforgiveness and happiness just do not go together.  Forgiveness is partly a process of letting go of our own suffering.

The level at which we live our life is dependent on the level of our thoughts and feelings. No matter how justified we feel in harbouring vengeful, bitter and angry thoughts such thoughts simply add to our own misery. It can be shocking to realize the extent to which such thinking is a form of self-made hell. It can be shocking to discover how much pain we have caused ourselves by not being willing to forgive. However, it is a healthy and perhaps much needed shock. The problem is not that we have unforgiving thoughts; the problem is when we hold on to them rather than letting them go. Forgiveness is as much about us choosing to be happy as it is about letting go of the desire to punish. Ultimately forgiveness is simply a choice to be happy, and making this a priority.

Challenge the willingness to harm

If we feel that we have been harmed we may be tempted to feel justified in doing harm in return. Why? Where does that come from? Does it feel like a response that is healthy and life enhancing for us? If we feel into that state as it arises in our body we will notice all the warning signs of something bad happening inside us. Granted that part of our reaction will be around what we feel the other person did to us, but much of it is what we want to do to them. Our body will exhibit fairly obvious increased levels of stress and anxiety when we want to harm someone.

Forgiveness on one way is the willingness to let go of any form of counter-attack when we feel we have been harmed. What is to one person a defensive action, intended as a counter attack in response to harm they feel has bee done to them, is usually experienced by the recipient simply as an attack. What we do in defence usually seems like an attack to the other person.  This simply escalates the situation. Unless their is some kind of truce, it either goes into a continuous loop till nobody can remember who really started it, or eventually someone ‘wins’ and someone ‘loses’.

Do you still play Goodies and Baddies?

Most movies use a particular formula for handling the baddie and getting us to want them to be hurt. Early in the movie they often show the baddie doing something mean, wicked or horrible. This sets us against the baddie so that whenever the goodie does something hurtful to the baddie we feel that they deserved it. This formula is used in movies of just about every kind from old-fashioned ones to modern high-tech movies filled with computer-generated special effects. Movies make a point of getting us to dislike the baddie so we do not object to them being hurt. The way the plots of movies focus on the wrongdoing of the baddies first builds up our feelings against them so that we are gladdened with the goodie counter attacks and beats up, kills, or destroys that nasty baddie. You may notice that in some movies the difference between the goodie and the baddie is not in the extremity of their behaviour, but the justification which they have for their actions. The goodie may do as many harmful things as the baddie, but as they are the good guy the movie somehow makes it all right.

Tricking ourselves into believing we are the goodie

Is this trick done in the movies not also a trick we do to ourselves? When we desire vengeance it becomes easier to focus of what we think is bad about the other person than to think anything good about them. We do the same trick with each other too. If we want our friends to take our side against someone we tell them all we can think of that is bad about the other person. We maybe even exaggerate their faults a little bit here and there to make the point. We may tell ourselves that they are the baddie after all, so we can do that to them as we are the goodie (or at least the innocent victim).

We are sometimes The Baddie

It may not occur to us that for some people we are the baddie. Someone else’s ‘attack’ on us may have been a counter attack as far as they are concerned. It may or may not a counter attack be for anything specific we have done (or did not do). It may be their counter attack was a blind attack against the pain and rage the feel in their life. However, they probably convinced themselves – at least for a moment – that we deserved to be attacked. It could also be that what we experienced as an attack was an innocent action that the other person did not even know would cause us to feel hurt of offended.

Just as we like to believe that we are in the right; people who hurt us usually believe they in the right. The human mind can go to great lengths to prove that it is ‘right’. This is both one of the sad things and one of the hopeful signs for human nature. It is very rare for someone to take pride in an evil act without having to dress it up as something good. Even the most wicked acts of history are often ‘justified’ by their perpetrators as somehow being right. Usually a part of even the worst of us does not want to believe it is behaving evilly. This means that who we think of as the definite clear cut baddie in situation has probably convinced themselves that they are the goodie.

Perhaps we are not always the goodie; perhaps we are sometimes the baddie too. The more unforgiving we are the more likely we are to step into being the baddie. We may dress up our attacks as counter-attacks and say that we are only defending ourselves, but that does not make them any the less of an attack to the recipient. This perpetrates the cycle of attack and counter attack and very likely means that we are in the role of the baddie. Sometimes there is more than one baddie, so the other person may be being the baddie too. It is quite possible for there to be two baddies with each of them protesting that they are the goodie. One of those baddies may be us.

Righteous anger is  mostly likely self-righteous anger

If we want to know whether we are being a goodie or a baddie in a situation we just need to look at our underlying feelings and motives. Are we motivated by kindness and compassion or fear and anger? Is our intention to help or to hurt? If we are motivated by fear or anger we can easily drift into baddie behaviour. Sometimes anger may be useful, such as when if it helps us take a stance against some form of injustice, but we have to be careful if we think that gives us the right to inflict pain on others. Anger as a motive needs something to ennoble it (such as compassion for those we think are the cause of a situation) if we are to be less likely to drift into baddie behaviour. Otherwise our attempt to redress one injustice may cause us to create other injustices. In such cases our righteous anger is  mostly likely self-righteous anger

Forgiveness can include us seeking justice, as justice is not the same thing as vengeance. Justice is also not necessarily the same thing as the desire to punish. Justice usually includes methods to stop or restrict the ways in which someone can cause harm to others. If we are harmed by someone who is a hardened criminal, or if they show no sign of remorse, then it is probably better for wider society to be protected from that person for a while. We can forgive someone and might still chose to support the process whereby they go to prison. If we have access to Restorative Justice then that could be a highly effective way of achieving both forgiveness and justice.

Forgiveness and Justice

In forgiveness we can include justice, but we seek justice without an intention to cause harm. In forgiveness we commit ourselves to stepping out of the cycle of attacking others and thinking of it as defense. We stop justifying our harmful actions by thinking of them as defensive counter attacks and refuse to cause pain to others by attacking them. We know that our counter attack will be experienced by the recipient as an attack and may push them more into the cycle of harmful behavior- unless they can forgive us.

Forgiving ‘Bad’ People: No more Baddies

In forgiveness we let go of needing to cast someone else as the baddie in order to cast ourselves as the goodie. There are no more bad people for us, or at least a lot less. In forgiveness we begin to let go of playing these kind of tricks on ourselves and let go of playing them on others. If we look more closely we begin to see that our defensiveness is often what harms us the most. Our ways of defending ourselves often causes us more pain than the original hurt.  The original hurt may have lasted only a short time, but by hanging on to the pain, and not forgiving, we extend it to last a long time. Our fear that the hurt may happen again, or just plain inability to let go, makes us hang on to old pain. If we hold onto wanting to punish we pay the price in terms of immediate loss of well-being and lost opportunity. If we hold onto wanting to punish we end up punishing ourselves with all the bad feelings which we experience. Forgiveness helps us to let go and gain wisdom from experiences so that we are both free from the pain and have sufficient insight to be able to make better choices in the future.

Try this:

1. Next time you are watching a movie notice how you feel about the baddie. Notice how the plot will awaken a dislike for the baddie and how you feel when the baddie ‘gets what he deserves’. Do you ever cast someone as the baddie in a story by describing only their bad points (possibly exaggerated) to another person?

2. Is there someone in your life who has hurt you and you want to retaliate against them. Is it possible that they would see your counter-attack as an unjustified attack?

3. When you think of a painful experience you had in the past ask yourself if you are willing find ways to let it go and be happier instead.