The power of forgiveness Mindfulness Man Martin Stepek
TO err is human, to forgive divine. This quote is from the great English poet Alexander Pope, though he used an ancient Latin phrase for the first part. I think it is one of the great statements in the English language. Lately, both on social media and in everyday life, I have heard a plethora of harsh judgments about people who have said or done something wrong.
Recent examples have concerned two Conservative local councillors who had been found to make racist and sectarian comments online, and still more recently another Scottish Conservative who had implied very negative views about the Travelling communities of Scotland.
People were outraged when the two councillors, having been suspended, were allowed back to their normal roles after pledging not to repeat their offensive views. Meanwhile, people online urged folk to shout abuse at the Conservative who made the remark about the Travelling communities the next time he was in public. As he happens he is a professional football referee, he is probably used to being heckled in public.
Mindfulness has two components to it which are relevant to these scenarios. The first is empathy, the second reason, but they are intrinsically intertwined.
Why does someone say something hurtful about others in the first place? The answer at its most basic is simple, and universal. Genes and life experiences. Nature and nurture. Things do not occur without prior cause. Everything in existence happens as part of a relentless series of chains of causes and effects. So the utterances of these politicians are simply the result of things that happened to them in the past mixed in with the genes they inherited from their parents.
Similarly the resultant outcry about their comments comes from another set of past experiences and the nudging of our genetic influences.
And in turn my genes and past experiences are telling me to write this article in response to the outcry. Here’s why.
One of the things I see in Scotland is the unpleasant result of a huge amount of such causes and effects. Polarised opinions, loss of ability to stay calm and respectful while making points, the use of vindictive words to try to cause maximum hurt. These things, while having causes in themselves, also result in harmful effects, a spiralling of vicious views and statements.
In this atmosphere some precious things get lost. Fellow feeling. Tolerance of difference of opinion. Acceptance that our side might not always be right. And forgiveness. If we never forgave ignorant or harmful words uttered by people and force them out of office, there would be no-one left on the planet to fill any post. I’m not a religious person but Jesus put it brilliantly as he so often did: “Let they who are without sin cast the first stone.” And: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Those are salutary statements. We are all programmed. We are all imperfect. We are all prejudiced in some way. It is useful to remember this when we find our minds rising in a self-righteous way to condemn others’ comments.
This doesn’t mean we should accept hateful or bigoted statements, but the aim should be at the statements, not the people who say them.
Nor in my opinion should we scream, “off with their heads”, every time someone errs in this way. If we are to live peacefully in a society we not only have to learn to be more open, accepting and welcoming of different cultures and ways of thinking and being, we must also give people the opportunity to learn from their past errors and continue to play important roles in society.
So next time you feel the urge to pontificate and shout, “Resign!” just take a deep breath, allow that mental space to remind you that you too, are not exactly perfect, and then consider what response you could create that states a clear opinion but seeks at the same time to unify and allow a chance for redemption.
It is so easy to rabble-rouse. The baying of the mob is not the prettiest part of our species’s history. It’s a lot harder to lower tensions and nurture peace but ultimately that’s what the vast majority of people in any society want.