Forgiveness is the wrong concept.
I have been dealing with a living situation since May with a terrible housemate who has treated me shabbily from day one. I’ve had to tolerate a lot of crap from him, a lot of it passive-aggressive.
As in tonight, when he went into the bathroom and shouted something about me having spit into the sink after brushing my teeth. I didn’t catch his words cleanly; he wanted to vent, not communicate. But seriously: This is a guy who has never cleaned the bathroom at all, who lets trash fall to the floor, and leaves his beard trimmings all over the sink and counter.
Consistency is not his core value.
But his yelling was like getting hit, and my emotional response was to fall towards a depressed state of mind. After a time, I paused to look through what I was feeling, trying to use what I’ve been learning in my mindfulness practice. I came up with a few things.
One, my negative emotions were not because of whatever he might have found in the sink (and I do know how to use all the implements in a bathroom properly). It was because I’ve been trying to be perfect in leaving no mess, no cause for this kind of thing. My negative emotions were a reaction (non-mindful response) to “omg I screwed up again!”
But I did not screw up. I might have been careless, but people are careless. Hell, two week ago I was careless and almost rode my bicycle in front of an oncoming car. Neither act was malicious nor a failure to be a decent human being. At worst (well, apart from being maimed or killed), I was less mindful than I intend to be.
No one deserves to be made to feel bad because of that. It’s just part of being a human being.
So as I sat there thinking about this stuff, it became obvious this guy has his own issues. Whether or not he’s trying to deal with them effectively, I don’t know. But as I sat there, I quickly went through the words of the Lovingkindness sutra:
may he be healthy and happy
may he be safe and free from harm
may he live at ease
These words are said, not as a prayer but as a sincere hope for his future and, more importantly, for me to shift my mindset from anger and sadness to compassion – for him and for myself.
After reciting these words, for a moment I thought something like “I forgive him” but almost immediately – No. There is nothing to forgive, and, besides, who am I to forgive another human unless they do something to me and ask me directly to forgive them? To forgive is also to judge: You did wrong, but I grant thee absolution. To forgive another in your own mind is to adopt an attitude of moral superiority, and that has nothing to do with compassion.
I’ve longed believed that forgiving people is a thing you do for yourself, but I saw in that moment that forgiveness is a pretty useless action. Did he fail as a human being? No, he acted just like a human being – and that means, sad to say, not so great in this instance (and many others).
Rather than forgiveness, the useful response is compassion. A young man who refuses to clean up after himself and then gets angry at others for perceived messiness? That’s a person who has mental health issues to deal with, even if he doesn’t recognize it. I do not need to forgive him; I need to have compassion for him. There is nothing I can do for him other than hope he finds a path to healing. That’s about all compassion can do at times.
More importantly, I needed compassion for myself. I have never deserved to be treated the way this person has treated me. It’s not right that I’ve had to live these months with this stress, hostility, and a few to simply live my life freely. Self-compassion, I have learned, is critical at times like this. There is no one else to care for me here, no one else to say “You’ve done nothing wrong, and it will get better” other than me.
Forgiveness is useless. It doesn’t do a goddamn thing about the past, present, or future.
What is really needed in all these different circumstances is compassion, for ourselves and those we are having difficulties with. Compassion is about wanting life to be better for all involved, for each of us to find a way towards peace, happiness, health, and a life lived with ease.