THE BLOG
05/04/2011 11:32 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Osama Bin Laden and the Question of Forgiveness

The death of Osama bin Laden has brought a range of emotional responses, from Jon Stewart's "We're back, baby!" to the proliferation of Facebook status updates expressing horror at the idea of "celebrating" any person's death.

My Facebook page is filled with those who posted the following quote, attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

These words struck the right note for me, but I must admit -- full disclosure here -- that my own unenlightened and spiritually immature self allowed for a brief moment of glee upon first hearing the news. My glee quickly transformed, however, as I watched the throngs of young people chanting "U.S.A.!" in the streets of D.C. and New York. Even though I could understand this spontaneous catharsis -- 10 years of of pent-up emotions, anxiety and fear -- my wiser self advised that this was not the direction to go.

I don't think I was alone in feeling this clash of conflicting emotions. I believe it's entirely possible to be a spiritually aware human being and still harbor the darker, denser, emotional content. Given our human nature, it all lives in us at the same time. To pretend otherwise is naïve. The question is not whether we'll occasionally have "unenlightened" emotional content, but rather what to do with it when we do. How do we ensure that we're with it and ourselves in those moments?

Those who celebrated bin Laden's death have expressed feelings that:

  1. They weren't celebrating a death as much as what the death symbolized: the end of a long, dark chapter in American history. (Whether or not this is true remains to be seen. These were their perceptions in the moment.)

  • They were celebrating the perception of justice having been served for those who lost their lives on 9/11 and the two wars following, as well as for their families.
  • They were celebrating a perception that by finally finding and killing bin Laden, the U.S. has regained respect in the world. Or, as Jon Stewart said, "We're back, baby!"
  • They genuinely rejoiced in the death of the man who personified the "enemy," the face of evil in the world.
  • The words of Dr. King -- "Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" -- invite us to a higher calling than seeking "an eye for an eye," for, as he reminded us, if that's what we're about, everyone ends up being blinded. Perhaps we already are.

    What Constitutes Justice?

    For many, the idea of justice being served requires that retribution be delivered to the one who caused harm. Exodus 21:23-25 defined justice thus: "And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

    For post-Egypt Jews who had only known anarchy and oppression and were without a formal system of laws to guide them, this decree was put in place in order to create a balanced, institutionalized form of justice. The courts would govern punishment for a crime, not the emotional need for revenge or retaliation by the injured party or their family. If someone did physical harm to another person and was found guilty by the courts, they would receive from the court system the same amount of harm they had caused another.

    Later, in the New Testament, the master teacher Yeshua, today known as Jesus, came along and changed the standard completely. He taught that instead of seeking retaliation and retribution, we're to "turn the other cheek" and forgive those who harm us:

    You have heard that it was said: "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" [Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21]. But I say to you, do not resist the evil; but whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. And to him desiring to sue you, and to take your tunic, allow him also to have the coat. And whoever shall compel you to go one mile, go two with him. He, asking you to give, and he, wishing to borrow from you, do not turn away. (Matthew 5:38-42).

    It is far easier to seek retaliation than it is to search one's heart and find forgiveness. Returning to Dr. King yet again, we're advised, "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars."

    No wonder the world seems so dark these days. Look at how much hatred exists among the many tribes of human being. How do we deal with this hatred in the world? And at the personal level, how do you deal with those who've harmed you? Can you turn the other cheek as Jesus taught and forgive your enemies? Could you forgive Osama bin Laden?

    Forgiveness As A Path To Healing

    Looking at the comments from last week's post, "Healing the Wounds of Your Ancestors," it is clear that the path to healing takes us through the territory of forgiveness. We simply cannot skirt this territory. The only way out is through.

    Perhaps the death of Osama Bin Laden can help us address the larger questions concerning ultimate forgiveness and healing. From the collective to the personal, where does forgiveness begin?

    The Price Of Unforgiving

    Forgiveness begins with the understanding that for all the hurt, pain and suffering we feel has happened at the hands of another, nothing compares to the pain we've inflicted on ourselves living inside the state of non-forgiveness. The hatred, anger and resentments we harbor do not take a toll on the "other" but exact a very high price on those who harbor them.

    Forgiveness begins by looking in the mirror and recognizing the prices you've already paid for closing your heart to love. You'll see the physical prices: the hardened look in your eyes, the set in your jaws, the stiffness in your body, the added weight you carry physically and emotionally. And the emotional ones: the heaviness around your heart, the sleepless nights, the chronic stress, the dysfunctional relationships, the missed opportunities, the lack of joy and aliveness.

    People fail to forgive for fear that if they do, it will imply that they've condoned the actions that were harmful. It feels like capitulation or signing off on what was done. This is one of those faulty perceptions that require a do-over, for forgiveness does not put the stamp of approval on the behavior.

    Rather, forgiveness distinguishes the behavior from the person. We can forgive the person for their ignorance or blindness, for not knowing themselves, from being separated from their own true nature, for not seeing or knowing who we are, etc., without condoning the behavior itself.

    To live in a state of non-forgiveness, like resentment, is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. We might feel completely justified in holding on to these emotions and will find those who will render sympathy and emotional support for our position. Misery really does love company!

    But hatred and anger change nothing. Misery and suffering change nothing. The person looking back in the mirror is still the one paying the price. No one can free you from your pain except you.

    Liberation from suffering begins when you decide to forgive yourself for having forgotten who you are. Yes, please hear this. This is where it all begins. The very first inkling of pain we feel someone else caused grows out of our own disconnection and separation from knowing the truth of who we are. In our ignorance and blindness, we render ourselves vulnerable to being hurt from without, thinking that someone else holds the key to our power or can define our worth. This is a mistake in our thinking. It is this error in perception that we need to address first and foremost, for this is where the most harm is done, and we do it to ourselves.

    Instead of more self-inflicted pain, start by giving up the blame game and forgiving yourself for mistakenly believing you were anything other than complete and whole. Given how the world works, given how humanity has been conditioned to look not within but without for definition and meaning, it's easy to see why and how we all fall into the trap of forgetting. But our task is to "re-member" ourselves, to reassemble our perceptions to reflect not our conditioning, or what the world or society says is so, but what we know in our souls to be true.

    Your soul knows who you are. It has always known. Become still and listen with the inner ear that is attuned to its stirrings. The master teacher came to teach us that who we are is love and that to love and to forgive those who trespass against us is a higher calling than revenge.

    Forgiveness Softens The Heart

    In our state of unforgiveness, our heart becomes closed and hardened, and we've not only shut out the ones we blame for our pain, but we've also shut out ourselves. Forgiveness softens the heart and allows love to enter. With love comes peace, compassion and ultimately joy. This is the true joy we seek. It comes not from revenge or being right, but from allowing ourselves to know the truth beyond the ego's perception of wrongdoing.

    In the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden, may we not be blinded by false perceptions of right/wrong, but use this moment to open our eyes, ears and hearts and explore the possibility of healing for our national psyche and our personal process going forward. There are no "right" answers to the questions that arise in this process, only the ones your heart and soul deliver.

    How has the death of bin Laden affected you? What personal issues of forgiveness and healing does it trigger for you? Please leave your comments in the space below. We're listening.

    Blessings on the path.

    * * * * *

    Click "Fan" at the top of this page to be notified when I post a new blog on The Huffington Post. Come visit my personal blog and website, Rx for the Soul, and/or drop me a personal note at judith@judithrich.com. I love hearing from you!

    Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
    Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.