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The Healing Power of Forgiveness[i]


















At the beginning of this year, I started a new job working with agencies that serve eight ethno-linguistic groups in the Greater Toronto Area. My primary responsibility is to co-ordinate public awareness messages about family violence (spousal, elder and child abuse) in the ethnic broadcast and print media. Although family violence cuts across all socio-economic, racial and cultural barriers, the immigrant communities have some unique vulnerabilities. In many cases, there is an ingrained cultural perspective which believes that the man is entitled to dominate and physically ‘discipline’ his dependants. Changes in family dynamics when men are unemployed and have to rely on money women bring in or when children take on the role of translators, as well as isolation in an unfamiliar environment add to the stress leading to domestic abuse. Being unfamiliar with how law enforcement and the court systems work, and being uninformed of their rights in Canada act against both the victimizer and the victim.

I am not a frontline worker so I am spared the heartache of directly hearing stories of assault and abuse, but reports trickle down to me. I found relief in talking to the counsellors at my centre during lunch breaks in an effort to understand the wounds human beings inflict on one another, often while professing to love them. One of the counsellors showed me a poem that she shares with her clients:

Do you want peace?
Forgiveness offers it. 

Do you want happiness,
a quiet mind,
a certainty of purpose,
a sense of worth and beauty
that transcends the world?

Do you want a quietness that cannot be disturbed,
a gentleness that can never be hurt,
a deep abiding comfort,
and a rest so perfect it can never be upset?

All this forgiveness offers you.

Helen Schucman in A Course in Miracles

My instinctive reaction was to be awed by the beauty of the thought, but then my rational mind took over and I started questioning it. My colleague is a Catholic and I saw the obvious link between what the poem reflected and the Christian principle of “turn the other cheek.” I couldn't reconcile my very Zoroastrian mind filled with concepts of order, fairness and accountability with the thought of unconditional pardoning. So, I went back to talk to her, and I am glad I did because I learned a few things about the healing powers of forgiveness.

The first thing I learned was that forgiveness is not “turning the other cheek” or acting as if no wrong had been committed.  Forgiveness doesn’t relieve the people who hurt others from accountability for their actions.  Nor does their repentance. One of the immutable laws of Asha is “as you show, so shall you reap.” However, forgiveness is helping the victims take control of their own behaviour. Many times in a therapy process, a client’s ability to move forward hinges on their ability to let go of a painful experience of the past. Each moment that you cling to past trauma, you generate an
entirely new sequence of thoughts, emotions, and actions. This constant re-living of painful experiences may contribute to substance abuse, unnatural weight gain, suicidal tendencies or other kinds of difficulties. This kind of self-destructiveness, distrust and pessimism spills into relationships within the circle of friends and associates, and the negativity multiplies causing more grief. Studies have shown that victims of abuse often grow up to become abusers themselves, thus continuing the cycle of anger, betrayal and destruction.

The cycle-breaker is for the victim to answer the question, “What next?” The choice lies between re-living the memory over and over again, and releasing the incident from having any further effect. Forgiveness is completely letting go of the past, its pain, anger, and grief. Forgiveness is operating in the present where the hurt and anger no longer hold power. It ties in with the Zoroastrian principle of
Fravarane or free choice. The words of one of the most profound prayers I know say it all — Astuye humatem mano, Astuye huktem vacho, Astuye hvarshtem shyaothnem, or “I choose to think good thoughts, I choose to speak good words, I choose to do good deeds”.

Gary Zukav is one of Oprah Winfrey’s frequent guests and the author of The Seat of the Soul.  His words echo this principle. “The decisions that you make and the actions that you take upon the Earth are the means by which you evolve. At each moment you choose the intentions that will shape your experiences and those things upon which you will focus your attention. These choices affect your evolutionary process. This is for each person. If you choose unconsciously, you evolve unconsciously. If you choose consciously, you evolve consciously.”

Of course, this all easier said than done. It is a long, difficult journey to let go of hurt the magnitude of sexual abuse, physical assault or a continuous betrayal of trust. My colleague asks her clients to “fake it until you make it”.  According to her, if you consciously make an effort to turn away from negativity the minute it creeps into your awareness, and if this step is repeated often enough, it can lead to a transformational experience. The more you focus your attention on the healing properties of “letting go”, the faster the pain and the chaos leaves.

One of the things I learned in our discussions was that forgiveness is a learned process; we are not born with this ability. It is also a process that wrong-doers can learn. Self-forgiveness, too, is the first step
towards healing, but this kind of forgiveness comes with additional tasks: taking responsibility for one’s action and making amends. As mentioned above, contrition does not excuse one from paying for the hurt caused. Unlike many other spiritual beliefs, where doing penance, performing pilgrimage to holy places or sacrificing animals can absolve one of any number of sins according to Zarathushtra's religion the abuser is accountable for his actions, sometimes according to the laws of the state, always according to the laws of Asha. But Asha is impartial, and once dues are paid, the slate is wiped clean. According to Zarathushtra, the purpose of life is to reach the state of perfection embodied by Ahura Mazda, as well as help the world in its progress towards perfection. One mistake, or even numerous breakdowns on this journey, does not entitle you to eternal damnation. All you have to do is learn from your mistakes, put them in your past, and move on. That is the healing power of forgiveness.

[i] Appeared in the Summer issue of HAMAZOR, publication of World Zoroastrian Organization, Mrs. Toxy Cowasjee,  editor