By Roshan, New Age Islam
13 June, 2015
Several decades ago, during my travels though parts of rural and small-town northern India I came across what seemed to have then been a fairly widespread custom. If a person had stayed in someone’s house for a few days, on departing he would thank his host, and, folding his hands, would humbly say, “If I’ve done anything wrong, please forgive me.” The host, in turn, would say the very same thing to the guest, asking the latter’s forgiveness if he hadn’t served him as he ought to have.
In any relationship between people that is more than just a fleeting acquaintanceship there are bound to be at least occasional hiccups. Each of us thinks differently, and so it is inevitable that we will sometimes behave in a way that irritates or causes hurt to others, even to those whom we feel closest to. Although we may not fully realise this, each time we behave in this way but do not admit it and make amends for it, we weaken our relationships. If we continue in this way, our relationships will become increasingly fragile, till one day they may suddenly snap, so beyond repair that they can never be restored.
Often, when we hurt others through our actions, we seek justification for our behaviour by trying to convince ourselves that they deserve to be treated that way. We are extra clever in seeking rationalisations for our wrongdoings. Sometimes, we may be so insensitive to others and so unaware of our own selves that we may not even realise that we have harmed or hurt someone through our actions. At other times, our conscience may tell us that we’ve been unfair to someone but then our ego may hurriedly intervene to stifle our inner voice, insisting that we cannot be wrong, and that even if we are, it is foolish to admit it before somebody else. To ask for forgiveness, we may desperately try to convince ourselves, is to lose face and lower our dignity. And so, we may try to shut out our misdemeanours from our conscious minds by telling ourselves that our misdeeds are just harmless mistakes and that others have definitely not been seriously offended by them.
In these ways, we seek to avoid confronting our own unskilful behaviour at the same time as we imagine that our relationships with others can continue unimpaired despite the hurts that our actions have caused them. We sometimes take the latter so much for granted that we think that the wrong we have done to them will have no impact on them at all. We expect them to continue to love and care for us just the way we want them to, despite our having hurt them, despite our refusal to admit the wrong we have done to them and despite our not asking them for forgiveness for our despicable behaviour.
Now, that’s asking For Just Too Much, Don’t You Think?
Needless to say, this expectation—that others will not mind our hurting them—simply doesn’t work. No matter how closely related the other person is to us—he could be a father, a husband or a son, or she could be a wife, a mother, a daughter or a best friend—each time we hurt someone and not acknowledge it and ask for forgiveness, we are helping to destroy our relationships with our own hands. This may not strike us, though, for those whom we hurt may not wish to appear offended by our actions. Often, this is out of fear or social compulsion. A child hurt by the cruel taunts of a mother or the brutality of a father may maintain a brave face and not react, for fear of being turned out of the house or being punished further. A spouse pained at the behaviour of her/his partner may pretend as if nothing has happened, fearing that speaking out might jeopardise their marriage.
Outwardly, thus, people whom we have hurt may seem to behave with us as we are used to, but this may be simply a carefully-managed act. Inside, the hurt we have caused them may lead to a volcano of resentment that is just waiting to explode—which it definitely will if we do not do what we need to in order to prevent it from happening.
And What It Is That We Need To Do In Such Cases?
The only way we can make amends for the hurt we cause others through our actions and thereby prevent our relationships from souring and falling apart is by admitting (first of all, to our selves) our misdemeanours and then readily apologising for them, preferably as soon as they occur. If parents and children, husbands and wives, bosses and employees, teachers and students, brothers and sisters—everyone who is in some or the other sort of relationship with someone else—were to readily and regularly apologise for the wrongs they do to each other, we could be spared much avoidable heart-burn and hate, brickbats and break-ups.
It is but human that we resent people who’ve harmed us and have not had the decency to admit their misdeeds and apologise for them, more so if these people are related particularly closely to us by way of blood or marriage. We may pretend to respect or love them—generally, out of fear—but till they acknowledge their bad behaviour and say they are sorry for it it is difficult for us to truly feel as we may make ourselves out to. Their not bothering even to acknowledge the hurt they have caused us continues to torment us. Only very few of us can truly transcend the additional trauma caused by such indifference. Many of us would willingly ‘forgive and forget’ terrible wrongs done to us only if those responsible for these were to admit they were wrong and express regret for their behaviour. Without this, it might be very difficult (though not impossible, if one were spiritually advanced) to completely overcome the resentment we may feel for the way we have been treated and to do what we need to in order to heal a broken relationship.
Forgiveness works like magic. Someone’s pain of years of repressed anger and resentment at being badly treated can vanish in a moment if the person responsible for this pain sincerely apologises for his or her misdemeanour. This is sometimes all it takes for badly-battered relationships to heal.
What works at the level of individuals can work at the level of entire social groups—communities and countries, too. If communities and countries were to readily apologise for the wrongs they have done to each other, imagine the enormous goodness that could be generated at the global level!
Forgiving others for the wrongs they’ve done to us isn’t easy—the ego just hates to do this—and for many of us, asking for forgiveness from others for the wrongs we’ve done to them is still more difficult (and for the same reason). But we have to, if we want to maintain our relationships. We’re bound by our humanness to make mistakes in life, even in our relationships with those whom we consider ourselves closely related to. It is perhaps inevitable that we will, at some time or the other, cause them hurt through some action or the other of ours. We probably cannot avoid this completely. But what we can avoid—and what we definitely must if we want to keep our relationships intact and healthy--is not admitting our misdeeds (to ourselves and to those we have hurt) and refusing to ask for forgiveness for them.
That, I suppose, was the wisdom behind what was probably the centuries’-old custom—of guests and hosts requesting each other for forgiveness—that I had observed in my travels in rural northern India decades ago. A willingness to ask for forgiveness and a readiness to grant it, those folks well knew, is a must for maintaining harmonious relationships.