A: Tell me more about forgiveness. The other day you said, “Divine forgiveness is not settlement of a debt. Debt doesn’t enter into the equation. Education, mentorship, and personal responsibility enter into the equation, but not debt” (The Meaning of “the Son of Man”). You and I have talked a lot about forgiveness, but you’ve never linked it to the Peace Sequence before. Can you explain in more detail what you meant?
J: I’m going to introduce a comparison between forgiveness and catalysts (as catalysts are understood by a chemist). At a quantum level, forgiveness acts as an important “biochemical” catalyst for learning.
A: Okay, you’re gonna have to back up the divine truck on this one.
J: In everyday speech, people use the word “catalyst” to mean a person, thing, or event that prompts sudden change. In Western culture it’s often an unexpected tragedy that serves as a catalyst for change. For instance, if a child is killed because a newly designed toy isn’t safe, the people around the child are shocked into action. Chances are good that an inquiry will be held, and healthy and safety regulations will be amended to remove this particular threat. The catalyst for change was a tragic event that jarred people out of their complacency and forced them to be more honest about a quantifiable, measurable threat to children’s safety.
The factual reality of the toy’s dangerous design existed before the tragic death. The threat itself wasn’t new. What was new was the realization of the threat, the objective recognition of the threat, the memory of the threat. In other words, human beings had to learn about the threat. They had to identify the problem, remember the problem, understand the problem, then fix the problem. These are the stages of learning. As it happens, these are also the stages of emotional healing and spiritual transformation. They’re all hopelessly intertwined with each other.
A: Identify, remember, understand, and fix. That’s a pretty logical sequence. What happens if a person tries to skip one of those steps? I’m thinking in particular of the “remember” stage. I’ve met quite a few people who seem to have really bad memories. Important information goes right in one ear and out the other. And these are fairly young people I’m talking about, not elderly people with dementia!
J: Those who can’t remember their own history are doomed to repeat it.
A: I remember a fellow we were corresponding with a few years ago about the spiritual journey. He was quite incensed because you and I had suggested that an understanding of science was important to spiritual growth and transformation. He wrote somewhat angrily, “Do I have to have a degree in physics?” And your reply was, “No, you have to have a degree in history.” He probably thought you were being facetious.
J: I wasn’t. I was speaking the honest truth. Memory — history — is crucial to the core self. Memory is a huge part of learning. By that I don’t mean simple rote memory, such as your multiplication tables. I mean soul memory, which is a combination of several different forms of memory. It’s emotional memory plus factual memory plus habit memory plus talent memory.
A: That’s a lot to keep track of at one time. Sounds like too much work.
J: Soul memory evolves quite naturally when a child is raised in a mature, responsible, loving home. It becomes a natural way of remembering things. You don’t consciously think about the different aspects of your memory. You just . . . live. You live with empathy and laughter and confidence. It’s your soul memory that helps you do that.
A: So you’re linking empathy with memory.
J: Yes. It’s your memory skills that allow you to remember the names of your neighbour’s children so you can ask how the family is doing.
A: Ooooooh. I suddenly can think of a gajillion different ways that memory can help with empathy and relationships. Things like remembering your friend’s favourite music or your mother’s favourite flower. Or the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Or remembering to pick up a carton of milk on the way home, as promised. Or remembering to say “I love you.” And on and on and on.
J: What’s interesting about people with severe narcissism and psychopathy is the way they use memory. They use memory and history in bizarre, abusive ways. They often have excellent memories when it comes to the mistakes that other people have made (though they rarely admit to their own). They remember all the “crimes” that have been committed against them, and they keep detailed lists of rightful punishments that still need to be meted out.
A: They hold grudges.
J: With a capital “G.” They live for the “high” of revenge. Inside their own heads, they’ll return to the scene of another person’s “crime” and relive the unfairness and unjustness of it all. Then they’ll imagine the scene of their revenge. They’ll gloat about it. They’ll gloat about the glory of their future — and rightful — vengeance. There’s no concern at all about collateral damage — about the people and places that will be damaged when vengeance is pursued. The only thing that’s important to a psychopath is the chance to “even the scales.”
A: Sounds like a Mel Gibson movie.
J: Forgiveness, on the other hand, is not about buying back one’s status or paying a debt or “balancing the scales of time” so the past can be forgotten. Forgiveness absolutely requires a memory of the harm that’s being forgiven.
A: You said above that forgiveness is a catalyst. How does this idea relate to what we’ve been discussing about memory and learning and empathy?
J: In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that’s an essential ingredient in a chemical reaction without itself being changed and without itself being part of the final product or products.
A: Inorganic chemists use elements such as palladium and rhodium as catalysts so they can synthesize complex molecules out of simpler ones.
J: In chemistry, a catalyst works the way a crane works on a large building site. The crane is essential for transporting loads of basic materials to their proper location on the much larger building that’s being constructed. But once the building is completed, the crane is removed from the site. It’s no longer needed. It can be “recycled” — used on another building site because it isn’t part of the final product. Its role is essential but temporary. This is what forgiveness is like.
A: Still not following you. Especially because you’ve said in the past that forgiveness is a permanent choice — a permanent choice to wrap harmful choices within a layer of love.
J: Forgiveness, like the construction crane, is a permanent “substance,” if you will. But like a crane, it moves around. It isn’t glued to one site or one event or one person. It goes in, does its transformative thing, then lets go. Forgiveness allows you to identify, remember, understand, and fix the past without actually having to live in the past. It frees you from the tyranny of rumination on the past. It doesn’t ask you to forget. It asks you to transform. It asks you to take the pain and turn it into something new. Forgiveness isn’t the final product of the transformative process, despite what some theologians have claimed. Forgiveness is the tool — the catalyst — that’s needed so you can take painful experiences and painful choices and turn them into something brand new.
A: The way orthodox Western Christian theologians often describe forgiveness makes it sound like the end goal, the final result of being saved by God.
J: God the Mother and God the Father are always moving the crane of forgiveness. They’re always actively and consciously choosing to forgive their human children for the suffering people create. Forgiveness is a present act — always a present act, not a future one. Just as the Kingdom of the Heavens is supposed to be a present condition, not a future one.
A: I’ve read so many books where teachers of spirituality insist that we “live in the moment.” Is this what you’re getting at? Letting go of the past and the future and focussing only on the present moment?
J: No. Most definitely not. The phrase “living in the moment” all too often means “living in a state of dissociation.” Living in a state of psychological dissociation from one’s emotions, memories, and personal responsibilities. Obviously this doesn’t help individuals or families or communities create peace. To create peace, you have to be willing to learn from the past. You have to be willing to identify the problems of the past, and then marshal all your courage and will power and love to get to the point where you can remember the pain without being overwhelmed and numbed by the pain. In other words, you have to learn from your mistakes.
A: Learning from your own mistakes is very hard. Self forgiveness is very hard.
J: In the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, the man Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to spend all eternity rolling a large stone to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll back down again each day. This aptly describes what it feels like to live without forgiveness. Each day feels like an eternity of repetitive struggle, an endless cycle of guilt and pain you can’t seem to escape from. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the crane you bring in to build a series of small level shelves or steps on the side of the hill so you can gradually get the stone to the top of the hill and keep it there, where it will no longer torture you. With the boulder of the past safely stowed at the top of the hill, you can get on with the business of planting a nice garden at the base of the hill and inviting all your friends over to share in the beauty. The stone at the top is there to remind you of the mistakes you once made so you ‘re less likely to make them again. The stone isn’t gone. But it’s in a safer place.
A: So in the Kingdom of the Heavens, the past isn’t gone, but it’s in a safer place. This allows you to bring more of your daily energy to the task of living as fully as possible today.
J: You’d be amazed how much energy many people use each day by dwelling in the past, ruminating on past injuries, focussing on revenge, and not paying attention (literally) to the tasks and relationships of today. When I say “energy,” I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean that people quite literally expend precious biological resources every day when they choose to focus on the past. They use up proteins and fats and carbs in their bodies. They force their brain cells to hang on to cell-to-cell connections that aren’t productive. They refuse to let their brains empty the “recycle bin,” and as a result, dangerous levels of old proteins and other biological materials can build up inside the brain. Causing medical syndromes such as various forms of dementia.
A: So forgiveness isn’t just a metaphysical aspiration: it’s also a biological reality.
J: As you’d expect it to be in the good Creation of a loving God.