Why is forgiveness essential?
Welcome to stren #61. Today’s wisdom explains the distinction between punishment and limit setting. The distinction is subtle but so significant that our survival may depend in it. Understanding the difference explains why forgiveness is essential if we are to survive and thrive in this new age. Human selection is rapidly overtaking natural selection as we master the knowledge of cause-and-effect to acquire the godlike power of creation and destruction.
Punishment is inflicting harm, often with a sense of justification – “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Instinct and tradition have favored inflicting harm as a means to show dominance and insure compliance with their preferred rules. It assumes that future compliance will be attained by the threat of force and loss of freedom. Punishment is primarily self-serving with little regard for the well-being of those who deviate from our tribe’s rules. We dehumanize those not of our persuasion and justify our lack of respect. Our present prison system hasn’t worked for most individuals and tends to breed more potent crime. Punishment escalates resentment and hate towards the punisher. The growing tension commonly leads to harmful confrontation as the separation of the establishment and the deviant grows. Getting hurt means getting even.
Limit-setting recognizes the need for firm and swift restriction of harmful behavior to protect ourselves while providing education and rehabilitation (re-habiting) to the source of harmful behavior. Limit-setting assumes that most anti-social behavior is primarily due to lack of appropriate education and/or the presence of inappropriate education. Harmful behavior, whether genetically programmed or learned, will continue until forgiveness and appropriate education and support provide incentives to function within the limits of civility. My experience with the prison system is that both punishment and rehabilitation are represented but there is a far greater emphasis on punishment.
Punishment is nature’s tried and proven survival of the fittest action pathway. Limit-setting is the self-initiated product of common sense wisdom that intentions benefits all parties involved.
At first glance, forgiving those whose behavior offends tradition appears illogical and dangerous, but this reaction is based on a misperception of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not free others or ourselves from responsibility; it does not ignore harmful action. It sets swift and firm limits in a manner that allows us to address harmful behavior in a way that has the most productive outcome for all parties. In addition to freeing our self from wasteful energy-draining preoccupations such as resentment, revenge, and punishment, forgiveness redirects our innate energy towards education, rehabilitation, and problem-solving.
Filial love, the concern of a parent for a child, or concern from a member of a family or tribe for one of their own, usually emphasizes limit-setting. The intent of “tough love” is to benefit all parties. The emphasis of limit-setting is redirecting behavior from harmful to constructive actions. Punishment is more common when the parent experiences rage and acts more on the pathways prewired by instinct than those determined by common sense. Filial love is more tolerant of unacceptable behavior than resentment and hate. Filial love can be turned on or turned off by hormones; in humankind, it is also learned. As a generality, women are more practiced and competent in filial love. The estrogenic hormones prevalent in women favor nurturance whereas the androgenic male hormones urge competition to establish dominance and reproductive rights. This is why I believe nature better prepares women to play a more important role in creating world peace than men. However, men are equally capable of education in the skills of forgiveness and love that are suddenly required to survive and thrive.
Our society favors limit-setting when children are deviant and when adults who are labeled mentally ill, retarded, or brain impaired engage in anti-social behavior; not so with “normal” adults. We “forgive” those we assume lack intentionality and offer them our concern. Yet, adults who deviate from society’s norms are perceived as bad, evil, and deserving of punishment. However, on closer inspection, we find that the unacceptable behavior is the outcome of what has been taught and the appropriate skills that were never taught. Education in the missed skills would seem more appropriate than punishment. Yet individuals and classes of people identified as “not our kind” by religion, ethnicity, skin color, sex, finances, geography, and so on are often dehumanized and judged to be deserving of whatever wrath is dispensed.
For millions of years, the animal brain has been the indisputable master dictator on earth. It is pre-programmed to advocate survival of the fittest through fight or flight. Our human brain distinguishes us from all other life on earth by the degree we use symbols to manipulate ideas, concepts, and imagination to initiate phenomena new to what nature provides. With the introduction of scientific method we have increased our gradual growth of knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships to quantum speed. Virtually anything that yesterday we believed was impossible is being accomplished today. Suddenly a few individuals and soon most tribes will have the power of destruction that most persons cannot even imagine. While other species passively churn through the life cycle according to a predetermined script that advocates punishment, we have received a gift of opportunity to decide what we make of ourselves. Our constructive and destructive power is accelerating so rapidly that we suddenly have assumed responsibility for the fate of humanity and the state of the world that is our home.
Knowledge of the universal cause-and-effect rules of the creative force that got us this far provides us power but does not provide the wisdom we require to consistently direct power for our benefit. However, it does provide the opportunity to acquire wisdom. Recognizing the wisdom of limit-setting instead of punishment, of forgiveness and love instead of domination by intimidation and punishment, has become one of our most urgent lessons.
Nature’s established, relatively automatic action pathways are a wonder to behold, as anyone who is familiar with the mechanics of the human body will conclude. Our creative tampering with nature’s ways also initiate troublesome issues such as pollution, global warming, depletion of the seas, and now the most urgent threat to our well-being – proliferation of weapons with ultimate destructive power. We must now ask, are nature’s ways, proven to work in the past, still effective with humankind’s newly created modifications?
Our most informed citizens answer “no.” E=mc2 has suddenly changed the rules for survival which were effective in a primitive society. When all sides in a conflict acquire weapons of ultimate destruction, the survival of the physically fittest rule is suddenly changed to destruction of the fittest. As the weak become as powerful as the strong, we can anticipate mutual destruction. The country recognized as the strongest is the preferred target of destructive aggression because it poses the biggest threat to the cultures of the weakest. Guess who that might be? Nature prepares us to have allegiance to our local tribe. As our technology shrinks the world into a global community, we must teach ourselves to act for our mutual benefit.
The animal portion of human brain and the two-category thinking we all first learn divide the world into those who are good and deserving, i.e., our side, and the other side who are evil and need punishment. Punishment to hurt rather than help, “an eye for an eye,” remains the preference of the populace because they have worked, at least until now. Forgiving and helping instead of hating and punishing your enemy is quite a radical idea. What a rebellious act - to suggest that we love our enemies! Tradition resists change and makes life difficult for “deviants.” What might the initial defectors from instinct and tradition expect? Moses, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Galileo, Darwin, and many others found out it will be tough going. Graciously accepting contradictions to one’s assumed values is a very mature skill popular only among our most insightful minority.
How are we to teach ourselves that the long established rules of survival have suddenly changed? Common sense leads us to the conclusion that forgiveness and love must characterize the newer way of thinking most certain to create world peace. Forgiveness is the mental magic that transforms the energy of hate and resentment into the energy of love. Forgiveness allows us to move beyond the resentment and hate that prevent us from applying the powerful symbols that turn on cooperation, sharing, philanthropy, happiness, peace of mind, and yes, even peace in the world. We began experimenting with civilization a mere 50,000 thousand years past when our ancestors introduced sophisticated language. Now, we have much to learn and very little time to succeed. We are up to the task if we first teach ourselves to forgive and collaborate for our mutual benefit rather than demonize and punish those we label as “evil.” The outcome of sustained resentment is predictably escalation of negative feelings leading to destructive confrontation. Is there any more powerful newer way of thinking than teaching forgiveness and love? The practical application of forgiveness is expressed when we recognize the distinction between punishment and limit-setting.