Why should we forgive our enemies?

Aug 30, 2019

Seen from our own vantage point there are three categories of beings on this earth: friends, enemies, and strangers: those we adore, those we don’t like, and the rest – the vast majority – those we couldn’t care less about.

It’s just the way we are and we never question it. It seems so natural, so spontaneous to label everyone, animals too, this way. But it’s a pretty self-centred way to see the world, actually. A friend is one who fulfills my needs, an enemy is one who doesn’t, and a stranger is one who does neither.

On the basis of these projections we treat everyone accordingly. We can’t stand the fleas, the mosquitoes, and the lice and harm them without a second thought. Whereas we can’t bear the thought of our precious cat suffering for even a moment. We will do anything to make our beloved partner happy but when he leaves me for a younger version we can’t stand the sight of him.

If our friend harms us, we’re prepared to forgive them, but if the harm is too great, it seems impossible. I can’t imagine the pain of being rejected by the person you spent your life loving. It seems so natural to not be able to forgive him.

And, anyway, why should we forgive those who’ve harmed us? If we’re a Christian the logic for doing so is clear: we are all equal in the eyes of the creator. From the materialist point of view, I’m not sure there is any logic.

So what’s the Buddhist reason for opening our hearts to those who’ve harmed us? Seen from the perspective of karma – that whatever any being does necessarily produces its own future results – just as a mother would have such compassion for her junkie kid because she can see that he’s harming himself, we would have compassion for the person who harmed us because he is harming himself.

But there’s an even more simple reason for wanting to forgive: it’s our own anger itself, our resentment, our hurt, our refusal to forgive that is actually what breaks our hearts. But because we’re so caught up in our supposed right to be angry, we simply can’t see the harm we’re doing to ourselves. It takes such courage, such clarity, to see this.

In other words, it’s for our own sake. It’s not a question of releasing the other person from responsibility, getting them off the hook: karma takes care, as one of my teachers puts it.

The more we get in touch with our own thoughts and feelings, the more self-respect we will develop, and the more we will find it unbearable to live with anger and resentment, and the rest of our unhappy emotions. We will only want to heal our broken hearts.

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