I’ve been exploring the themes of harm and forgiveness for several months. I’ve especially been working through personal issues around betrayal. One of my friends pointed out that people don’t intend to hurt each other. I believe this is true. But lack of intention alone does not erase the harm done.

In basketball, for example, fouls are called when a player does something that is against the rules or endangers other players. The foul is based on the action, not on the intention. Intention is something that may vary depending on who is describing it, making it hard to nail down. An action is visible. The ref calls a foul, a penalty is given which benefits the team that was fouled, and everyone moves on. Players who commit enough fouls are removed from the game. If there was no consequence for the action, no one would care if they committed a foul. The game would be brutal and people would be injured. The player committing the foul has to take responsibility for the wrong.

In her book The Storyteller (Pocket Books, 2013), Jodi Picoult explores harm and forgiveness through the much more serious context of holocaust survivors. From page 202: “To be forgiven, the person has to be sorry. In Judaism, it’s called teshuvah. It means ‘turning away from evil’. It’s not a one-time deal, either. It’s a course of action. A single act of repentance is something that makes the person who committed the evil feel better, but not the person against whom the evil was committed….You don’t make peace only with God. You make it with people. Sin isn’t global. It’s personal. If you do wrong to someone, the only way to fix that is to go to that same person and do right by them.”

And do right by them. Which means acknowledging the harm committed and not turning away from it. In our culture, the word apology is used as a substitute for the word atonement, but they do not have the same meaning. The dictionary makes this clear.

The definition of apology is: a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure (we owe you an apology), used to express formally one’s regret at being unable to attend a meeting or social function (my apologies for the delay), a very poor or inadequate example of (we were shown into an apology for a bedroom). It comes through the Greek apologia ‘a speech in one’s own defense’. The definition of atonement is: reparation for a wrong or injury (he wanted to make atonement for his behavior). Its definition is influenced by the medieval Latin adunamentum ‘unity’.

In other words, an apology is a speech in one’s own defense, while atonement is an action that repairs a broken connection. Apologizing, even apologizing profusely, has a limited effect if its main purpose is to address or relieve the perpetrator’s guilt. True atonement reaches out to the other person’s heart and offers healing on their terms.

Bringing this back to the context of personal relationships, I have to start asking myself why I even care about this. We’re all flawed, we all make mistakes. Am I just letting my ego get jacked around in reactivity? It’s interesting to note that I tolerate a fair amount of unskilled behavior in situations with clients, or casual relationships where I don’t know someone very well. But dishonesty gets under my skin when it comes from the people I trust in my intimate life. I am more vulnerable in these relationships, and I expect more emotional integrity from them. Being harmed in these relationships hurts. Having that hurt disregarded or ignored erodes the relationship.

In Grandmother Dreams, The Teachers discuss this broken connection and its healing:
Universal Wisdom: It is possible to fully heal without the input of the other doing the harm. It is a longer path. The one who has harmed another will always have the responsibility to heal that which they have created, but healing in the one hurt is not dependent on that. The harm itself creates a disruption to the Movement of Spirit. That is what is so distressing to the one harmed. What is most important to healing is the re-creation of the environment that allows Movement of Spirit.  (P. 61-62)

I would like to think that I can create spiritual space with anyone. That I can forgive any level of behavior. In a Universal context, this is true. I can easily see how we are all influenced by our family, our culture, our experiences. We are all learning. On a personal level, I am on the longer path. I am still learning how to choose relationships that nurture me, that are mutual and honest and caring. I am learning to disengage from those that are not. I am learning to honor my spiritual space.