A couple of days ago I listened to a podcast of a man who, as a young lad, had lived on the streets of Ireland with a pack of stray dogs. He had been the youngest and smallest of triplets, only a couple of pounds at birth, born into the large family of an Irish father and a German mother, who were often at odds. The dog boy, Martin McKenna, was scholastically challenged, to say the least and hyperactive, what would now be called ADHD. I believe he still doesn’t write although was persuaded to “write” his book with a voice recorder. His father having treated him dreadfully, thinking he was good for nothing, and that the devil was in him. The other children didn’t get the same bad treatment. Whenever his father was drunk, a regular occurrence, Martin would hide or be beaten. When he was as young as seven his father began locking him in the cellar for days at a time, with nothing to eat but coal dust.
Eventually Martin ran away, initially digging a hole in the ground to hide in, and eventually developing a life on the streets as top dog of a pack of stray mongrels. It was a raw existence, eating maybe every second day, living on pilfered bread and milk from the home deliveries of those times. After three years, with his brothers saying, come back, come back, Ma is sick, he returned to live at home and stayed until she died, at which time the whole family dispersed. Martin has gone on to make a success of his life, based on his in-depth understanding of the psychology of dogs.
But the thing that struck me most in his telling of his story was his genuine forgiveness of his father. He says with obvious sincerity, I love my father. He also feels that as his father was never able to give up drinking, his, Martin’s, having done so was also for his father sake. It was a gift to both of them, not passing that unhappiness and pain down the generations.
True Forgive-ness is important from both sides. Jesus emphasized this in teaching his disciples to pray “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others.” We must learn to forgive for our own sake. Many people today have come across this idea, that holding on to anger and grudges harms us, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, even physically. Anger eats us up. And if we are easily offended, thinking others owe us respect and good treatment, we are more likely to end up angry. There are still many aspects to this for peace & collective happiness.
I was once struck by a precept from a 12th step program, from a list of things I can do, “just for today”: “Just for today I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt, they may be hurt but I will not show it.” I was intrigued by this but could not really see the point. But since then I have realized that often our being unkind and hurtful and offensive to others is based on defense mechanisms. We feel we have been hurt somehow, or not shown the respect we “deserve” and we strike out. So if we are not going to show our feelings are hurt, we will not be immediately striking out in defense, hurting others. Often there was no intention to offend or hurt us anyhow, so by showing we are hurt we may stir things up, or hurt someone else as well, with no cause other than our over sensitivity. And just as important as not showing we are feeling hurt, is not holding onto a grudge that later causes us to strike out. Not holding onto a grudge means forgiving.
That is one side of the equation of offenses and forgiveness: If others offend us, we should forgive. But just as importantly we must also beg to be forgiven from those we offend.
Myself, I am often needing to be forgiven. Sometimes I have had to go to great lengths, dressing up as a witch to apologize to a work colleague who was justifiably angry at me, or carrying a white flag to a friend’s house so I could go in and beg forgiveness. I hope my outbursts have lessened and diminished, but again just yesterday I lost patience and showed it. It worried me, and during my time for meditation I could not settle, knowing that that Supreme Being on whom I wished to meditate was not happy that I should be unkind to another soul. So I sent a text to this person apologizing for my impatience and unkind tone. After writing the text (although I didn’t send it as it was early and I feared waking her family with the beeps of the text going through), I was able to concentrate better and dive into my meditation.
But why is offending others so damaging? To someone who is sensitive it is naturally painful to see others hurt. But it affects even the dull hearted. This is because we will only really be happy when we have an intense personal loving relationship with the Perfect Person, and that Perfect Person doesn’t like seeing His children hurt each other, it makes Him unhappy with us, therefore the development of that relationship is hindered, even cut off, if we are offensive to others. This is recognized in the 12th step precept that states one must make amends where-ever possible, to anyone we have harmed. The 12th step program understands that addiction is due to lack of relationship with a Higher Power, and that if you are harming others you are damaging your contact with that Higher Power, so you will not be serene and happy and thus may be prey to addictions again.
We should not be so shallow as to think that this only pertains to hurting someone physically, or stealing from them and so on. Even saying bad things about someone is offensive. And the more spiritually developed the person you harm or offend is, the more damaging such comments and offenses will be. So the best thing is to never unnecessarily hurt or offend anyone. (Yes, there is necessary pain… think of a surgeon for instance.)
I recall hearing of a friend, who on being acclaimed for never losing her temper or even sounding cross at anyone said,”Ah but in my mind I do.” How much better than most of us that is. How many of us can keep our ire inside, not express unnecessary anger and hurt others in the process? If we cannot keep from saying and doing hurtful things to other, even to the level of cold shouldering, or rolling your eyes, or otherwise using body language and tone of voice to hurt or intimate bad things of someone, then we have two choices. We can suffer the diminishment of love and happiness that follows such behavior, the hardening of the heart and the gradual coarsening of character, or we can seek forgiveness of the person we offended. No use asking Peter to forgive you if you have beaten up Paul right? And similarly no use asking God to forgive you for hurting someone else. The Vedic texts make this very clear. The good news is that once having sincerely apologized, the spiritual block is removed, and we can develop further, hopefully having learnt a lesson.
Of course most of us will lose our temper from time to time, especially with those we spend a lot of time with, often our family members, but just because they are family doesn’t mean it is OK to be mean. We should learn to control that tongue, and if we fail in that, to humble ourselves and apologize to make things right again. It may be as simple as a quick hug and “Sorry I was such a grouch,” or it may be something that requires more formality and explanation. Every situation is different.
But, unless we are blessed with such equanimity and sweetness of temper that we never offend anyone, learning to humble ourselves to apologize is something we all must undertake sooner or later, if not in this life, then in another.