The Calculus of Forgiveness

To forgive others is to be kind to ourselves--Dharma Master Cheng Yen

I'm not big on bumper stickers, but then again, this wasn't actually on the bumper of the minivan I saw this morning during my run. It was painted on the tailgate, along with a string of Chinese characters I assume stated the same aphorism in Mandarin. At any rate, this little motto stuck in my head more stridently than anything I've seen on a car in many years.

The author of the proverb is a Buddhist nun who, since 1966, has headed up Tzu Chi, a Taiwan-based relief society with global outreach, including hurrican and tornado relief in the United States. I found this out with a Google search this afternoon when I finally had a chance to seek out the source of these words.

Tzu Chi sounds like a worthy cause, and Cheng Yen (sometimes called the Asian Mother Teresa) seems a wonderful saintly woman; but all of that is a sidebar, a diversion from a teaching that cut me to the quick. You see, I have a hard time with forgiveness, and it has cost me a good deal of an.

An is the pronunciation of the Chinese character I put at the top of this post. My grandparents, Elam and Colena Anderson, were missionaries in Shanghai in the 1920s. That's where my father and his two siblings were born. They ran a mission school, initially under the auspices of the American Baptist mission society, but eventually (when their American bosses vetoed their desire to employ indigenous teachers, rather than Americans) they broke away and founded their own school. They were there during the beginnings of the Sino-Japanese conflict that was the beginning of the war in the Pacific. Concern for their children, coupled with an opportunity for my grandfather to become president of Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, led them to return to the United States in 1932. My father was 6.

An has been the family monogram ever since. There was no real equivalent of "Anderson" in Mandarin, so my grandparents settled on "An-di-fan," which they translated as "House of Peace." Whatever house they lived in after that was called "An-di-fan," and that is still the name of the house my parents live in, the house in McMinnville my grandmother bought after grandfather died. Come to my house in Bethany and you'll see a windchime of the character. Pull up my right sleeve and you'll find an an tattooed on my shoulder:

So you could say I'm attached to it. (Groan loudly, then move on.)

Several years ago, I was doing some research into this symbol and learned that my parents had actually been slightly misrepresenting its literal meaning, probably because of my father's pacifist beliefs. The meaning is closer to "tranquility" than "peace." At first I was disappointed by this. Fortunately I learned it before I got the tattoo, as I would've been quite upset to have put something permanent on my body and then find out I didn't really know what it meant--probably a far too common experience for Americans who think Chinese characters make cool body art. In any case, "tranquility" has become my life's goal, the quality I most covet for myself.

I've achieved it at times through experiencing art and music. Visiting the classical Chinese Garden in Portland's Chinatown gives me a sense of balance and serenity, something I have also experienced in Portland's Japanese Garden. Exercising outdoors--running, bicycling, hiking, skiing--can also put me in a tranquil state. Free improvisation at the piano works, too.

But thanks to the words I saw this morning, I finally understand why tranquility has also been a transitory experience for me: I just can't seem to forgive some people for what they've done.

This is an old problem for me. When I've experienced an injustice, when I or someone I love has been harmed in some way, I lose sleep over the incident, fretting over what I can do to right the situation, how I can confront the perpetrator and bring about some kind of resolution. I don't like being angry with others; I'm generally disposed to seek reconciliation whenever a relationship is damaged. But here's the problem: it's very hard for me to just let go when there's been no attempt at restitution, no apology, no effort to repair what's been broken. When I do, finally, have a conversation with whomever wronged me, I have sometimes experienced the wonderful relief of a full, empathetic encounter, of hearing and being heard at a profound level, and of amends being made; and there is nothing like the relief I feel when this happens. But it doesn't happen often, and as a result, there are people I have been angry with for decades, with whom I am unlikely ever to reconcile to any meaningful extent.

Writing this blog has stirred up some of those old wounds, still raw after so many years. I've been watching myself as I write, taking care not to slip into the fury that motivated my descent into trolling in 2008, keeping things as detached from the hurt as I can while still tapping into it to fuel the words that spill from my fingers onto the screen. I am aware, though, that some experiences still haunt me, and that they come up frequently in conversations with Amy or with my brother Ocean. "But this happened, and this was said, and I can't erase those events or those words from my memory!"

Yes, it's really been on my mind.

Then a minivan speaks to me, and I come unhinged from all of that: "To forgive others is to be kind to ourselves."

Why have I been doing this to myself? How much precious, creative energy has been wasted on emails I never send unless I have wasted even more time purging them of everything I really wanted to say, only to have them still be interpreted as attacks? How much sleep has been lost to obsessing over things I should have said, but just couldn't think of at the time because I was so paralyzed by fear and anger? How many potential friends have tuned me out when they realized I was stuck in this track? How much more could I have accomplished, how much better could my life have been, if I could simply have let go of my hurt and sincerely forgiven that supervisor, that co-worker, that student, that principal, that ex?

"To forgive others is to be kind to ourselves." That looks to me like the true tao for me, the way that will lead me to the balance, the tranquility, I most crave for myself and for my interactions with others. All I have to give up is the requirement I erected so long ago that I have a sincere apology from the one who hurt me. And really, that's how it should be. There's nothing in the teachings of Jesus about having to have an apology prior to forgiving others. There's nothing in this aphorism, either, which is far more pragmatic than Jesus' teachings about forgiveness, for it understands that nursing anger is self-abuse, and giving it up is healing.

Knowing how Chaos functions in the lives of others, understanding that Karma is a crock, that divine justice, if it exists, may very well consist of never punishing the guilty, I can also admit to myself that the apology may never come, and that, in fact, having to have it empowers the other, rather than myself. The only way to really take control of my life, to take back my dignity, to empower myself more greatly than I was humiliated, is to forgive that debt, that sin, that abuse, that affront, and carry on with my life, making of it the tranquil paradise it was meant to be from the beginning.

You who are reading this may be someone who, at some point in my life, I perceived to have wronged me. You may have done so more than once, perhaps multiple times spanning years of interactions. If that's you, and you know it, you are forgiven. If it's you, and you don't have the slightest idea that it is, you're still forgiven. And if you know I perceived you to have acted in the wrong, but you were convinced what you did was right and necessary for your own reasons, so that you don't feel like you need forgiveness, tough. I still forgive you.

Now I hope you can find the an in yourself to forgive me, as well, and thus do yourself the greatest kindness a human being can to herself or himself.

May the peace that passes understanding be with you all.


  1. I heard once that resentment is like taking poison every day, while expecting your enemy to die. Of course when we hurt ourselves, we also hurt others. And to forgive is to be kind to ourselves. Beautiful blog, Mark.


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