A few nights ago, my son came rushing into our bedroom in the middle of the night, announcing that he had experienced a nightmare. Sleepily, we tucked him between us, and I decided to enquire about the episode the next morning.
When morning came, my son relegated the details of his nightmare. He had apparently, been defeated by his grandfather in an arm-wrestling match. In the anger that ensued, he had trampled upon a basket of apples, crushing and spoiling them. The nightmare began when he saw me moving towards him with a craziness in my eyes, announcing my intention to punish him severely. And that was when he woke up and bolted towards our room.
When he told me this, I announced that yes, I would have punished him for that incident, had it really happened.
Later that day, I read a news piece about an actor who had been arrested for sending his goons to molest a woman, but was very soon released through bail for the crime he had committed. He was welcomed with cheers, both by his fans and by the movie makers. I was appalled. But then, I had been even more appalled the week earlier when a child molester and murderer was let out on bail. And I continue to be appalled by forgiveness of sin.
What is Forgiveness?
Simply put, forgiveness is the opposite of punishment.
Forgiveness begins when the parents forgive the child for his mistakes. And that is when we begin to fail at parenting. There is this story about Napoleon Bonaparte, who, when he was a child, mistakenly banged against another child and this made her spill the basket of fruits that she was carrying. Napoleon, in the ruckus that followed, accidentally trampled over the fruits that were spilt, crushing and spoiling them. And yes! This part sounds eerily like my son’s dream.
When Napoleon came home to his mother and narrated the incident to her, she was pleased. She was pleased with his honesty. But she punished him for causing a loss to the other child by repaying her with Napoleon’s own pocket money. Napoleon, later recalled this incident as the one that shaped him into who he grew up to become.
Let us now imagine a situation where Napoleon’s mother had been pleased with his honesty, but had not punished him. Napoleon, the child would have observed his mother paying for his mistake. And what children see, they understand and imitate.
When my husband and I began to intervene every time our son fought with his friends, the good son began to look at this as accepted behavior. Very soon, I found myself playing judge superior in his battles. My house would be filled with complaining, arguing and fist-fighting boys. All of this stopped when I informed them very firmly to sort out their fights themselves. But it took a long time for my son to realize that his parents would not be solving his problems for him anymore.
Forgiveness does that.
Forgiveness teaches a child that it is all right to behave in a certain way – that it is OK to spill water because mommy is there to clean it up. That it is OK to push another child because, even though his own mommy shouts at him, the other child’s mommy rushes to pacify her. That it is OK to do things because someone is always there to clean up after us, someone is always there to bail us out.
It is forgiveness that does that.
The Brain, on Forgiveness
When we spill water, and mop it up, our brain accepts this as a solution for a problem. When our child spills water and we mop it up, our child’s brain accepts “us” as the solution to the problem. And when we keep repeating this pattern through our words, actions and experiences, our brain begins to accept this pattern as the solution.
The actor who committed the crime and the child molester are out on bail because their brains are used to the experience of being “bailed” out. They are also used to concept of “money” bailing them out. That is why celebs who commit wrongs rarely ever bat an eyelid over it. Because there is always “money” to bail them out.
When Should Forgiveness be Factored In
The brain that connects forgiveness to mistakes, is also the same one that connects forgiveness to wrong deeds. It is forgiveness that gave birth to mistakes. Before that, there were only right things and wrong things.
And that is the point when forgiveness must make its entry – after. Take for instance the spouse who has cheated on his marriage. Reconciliation, in this case, is a forgiveness. If this reconciliation happens before the cheating spouse has felt or been made to feel adequately guilty about the misdeed, then the “reconciliation” will never work beyond a temporary phase, either physically, mentally or both.
When we take another look at the opposites, the opposite of punishment is reward, not forgiveness. Forgiveness can work only after a punishment.
The Degree of Punishment
To reward a good, and punish a bad is the way of life. Every wrong deserves a punishment of the same degree. It could be a harsh look for a wrong word, a mop handed over for water spilt, an outing cancelled over wrong behaviour, or the electric chair for serial killing.
Responsibility begins with punishment. And when that happens, every single wrong can be righted.
- What is your understanding of forgiveness?
- What is your strongest memory of forgiveness?
- Was this memory of forgiveness before a punishment or after a punishment?
- Have you sought forgiveness for a wrong, and been given that without being punished?
- How do you feel when you are forgiven after a punishment?
- How you feel when you are forgiven before a punishment?