How Can Forgiveness Diminish the Pain of Being Attacked?

Question: What can one do when being attacked? Certainly I understand forgiveness for and prayer for the attacker, but that does little if anything to diminish the pain of being attacked. Witness the many suicides that are precipitated by such events. What wisdom does A Course in Miracles have for this?

Answer:  It is difficult for us to believe that a seemingly small gesture like forgiveness can make much of a difference in alleviating our pain. Yet A Course in Miracles makes a radical claim: In its view, not only will genuine and complete forgiveness remove the pain of being attacked, but it is the only thing that can. Hopefully the reason that is true will become clear as we proceed.

First, though, let me briefly address the first line of this question: "What can one do when being attacked?" Of course, as you suggest, the Course's answer is that we must forgive the attacker (prayer for the attacker, if it comes from genuine love, is a form of forgiveness). But while it is certainly possible to do this even while in the midst of the most intense attack (as Jesus did on the cross), there are undoubtedly situations in which the first step is simply to get out of harm's way. For those of us who still have a ways to go on this path, we may need to retreat to a place of relative peace and security before serious forgiveness work can being.

Yet when we do that work and forgive our attacker truly and completely (a long-term goal for most of us), the Course promises us the moon. In one lesson, it tells us that "Forgiveness is the key to happiness" (Lesson 121). The very next lesson, "Forgiveness offers everything I want," practically gushes about the benefits of forgiveness, begging us to forgive our brothers so we can experience these benefits for ourselves. It is worth quoting at length, simply because it so thoroughly overturns the idea that forgiveness "does little if anything":

What could you want forgiveness cannot give? Do you want peace? Forgiveness offers it. Do you want happiness, a quiet mind, a certainty of purpose, and a sense of worth and beauty that transcends the world? Do you want care and safety, and the warmth of sure protection always? Do you want a quietness that cannot be disturbed, a gentleness that never can be hurt, a deep, abiding comfort, and a rest so perfect it can never be upset?

All this forgiveness offers you, and more. It sparkles on your eyes as you awake, and gives you joy with which to meet the day. It soothes your forehead while you sleep, and rests upon your eyelids so you see no dreams of fear and evil, malice and attack. And when you wake again, it offers you another day of happiness and peace. All this forgiveness offers you, and more.

Forgiveness lets the veil be lifted up that hides the face of Christ from those who look with unforgiving eyes upon the world. It lets you recognize the Son of God, and clears your memory of all dead thoughts so that remembrance of your Father can arise across the threshold of your mind. What would you want forgiveness cannot give? What gifts but these are worthy to be sought? What fancied value, trivial effect or transient promise, never to be kept, can hold more hope than what forgiveness brings?

Why would you seek an answer other than the answer that will answer everything? Here is the perfect answer, given to imperfect questions, meaningless requests, halfhearted willingness to hear, and less than halfway diligence and partial trust. Here is the answer! Seek for it no more. You will not find another one instead. (W-pI.122.1:1-4:5)

Wow! These are some amazing promises. But how can forgiveness really offer all of this? Why is it the key to happiness? How can it alleviate all of our pain? The answer lies in the Course's diagnosis of the human condition, which centers on the idea of guilt.

Two points are crucial in understanding why forgiveness of others ends our pain. First, according to the Course, "Guilt is…the sole cause of pain in any form" (T-30.V.2:4). While we may think that many things cause us pain, from the Course's standpoint our guilt is the only cause. This guilt stems originally from our imagined "sin" of separating from God in the beginning, and is constantly reinforced by all the current attacks we make on our brothers, which are essentially repetitions of that seeming "original sin."

The Course tells us that our guilt over our attacks is what brings all of the painful things that happen to us into our experience: In a deep place in our minds, we draw them into our lives as punishment for our guilt. Indeed, even our death is not actually something that comes to us unbidden, but is instead our own infliction of the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for our sins. "No one dies without his consent" (W-pI.152.1:4). Oddly enough, in the Course's view, all death is suicide.

The author of the Course acknowledges that this is difficult for us to believe. At one point, he notes that before reading the Course, we didn't regard our guilt as the source of any of our pain, let alone all of it: "Of one thing you were sure: Of all the many causes you perceived as bringing pain and suffering to you, your guilt was not among them" (T-27.VII.7:4). Later on, the Course acknowledges that "Certain it is that all distress does not appear to be but unforgiveness" (W-pI.193.4:1). It sure doesn't look like all of our pain stems from our unforgiven guilt. It looks like pain comes in many forms from many sources. Yet the Course insists that whatever the appearance, guilt and our unforgiveness of that guilt is behind it all: "Yet that is the content underneath the form" (W-pI.193.4:2).

Why aren't we aware of this? A big part of the answer is my second point: We project our guilt outward onto others, so now it looks like they are guilty, not us. As a result of this projection, we now believe that our suffering is not caused by our guilt, but by others' attacks on us. The guilt is now theirs for attacking us. This is true in our minds even when we are aware that we have done things that in our eyes merit guilt; we blame others for making us do those things. At one point, the Course tells us that our stance toward others can be summed up in these words: "You are the cause of what I do. Your presence justifies my wrath, and you exist and think apart from me. While you attack I must be innocent. And what I suffer from is your attack."

With these two points in mind — all our pain is caused by our guilt, and we have projected our guilt onto others — we can now see why forgiveness of those who seem to attack us ends all of our pain. This passage from The Song of Prayer, which refers to praying for others as well as forgiving them, explains how it works:

As prayer is always [ultimately] for yourself, so is forgiveness always given you. It is impossible to forgive another, for it is only your sins you see in him. You want to see them there, and not in you. That is why forgiveness of another is an illusion. Yet it is the only happy dream in all the world; the only one that does not lead to death. Only in someone else can you forgive yourself, for you have called him guilty of your sins, and in him must your innocence now be found. (S-2.I.4:1-6)

The sole cause of pain, remember, is our own guilt for our imagined sins. But we have projected that guilt onto others, so we now see our sins in them: "You want to see them there, and not in you." So, when we forgive those who seem to attack us, we are actually forgiving ourselves for our own seeming sins: "For you have called him guilty of your sins, and in him must your innocence now be found." Forgiving the guilt we see in others is thus the way we forgive our own guilt. And since our own guilt is the sole cause of our pain, when our guilt is gone, all our pain is gone too — even our mad desire to punish ourselves with the death penalty. This is why forgiving others "is the only happy dream in all the world; the only one that does not lead to death." It is the golden road out of all suffering, even unto death.

All that being said, I understand the questioner's objection. It really doesn't seem that forgiveness can actually end all of our pain. Oftentimes it does seem to do "little if anything to diminish the pain of being attacked." Frankly, it can seem kind of wimpy. Why is this? In the Course's view, the reason is very simple: our attempts at forgiveness are often not real forgiveness. We're often just going through the motions when we forgive; when this is the case, our attempts at forgiveness aren't rooted in a genuine shift in our perception of our apparent attackers.

More specifically, our attempts at forgiveness are often rooted in a mindset that says, "That person's attack was real and therefore he really is a sinner (even if we never use the word "sinner"). But because I want to be good and I'm trying to do this Course in Miracles thing, I'll overlook what he did." The Course claims that this is not genuine forgiveness at all, but rather a desperate attempt to put our heads in the sand, to deny the ugly truth of what our attackers really did:

The major difficulty that you find in genuine forgiveness on your part is that you still believe you must forgive the truth, and not illusions. You conceive of pardon as a vain attempt to look past what is there; to overlook the truth, in an unfounded effort to deceive yourself by making an illusion true. This twisted viewpoint but reflects the hold that the idea of sin retains as yet upon your mind, as you regard yourself.

Because you think your sins are real, you look on pardon as deception. For it is impossible to think of sin as true and not believe forgiveness is a lie. Thus is forgiveness really but a sin, like all the rest. It says the truth is false, and smiles on the corrupt as if they were as blameless as the grass; as white as snow. It is delusional in what it thinks it can accomplish. It would see as right the plainly wrong; the loathsome as the good. (W-pI.134.3:1-4:6)

Don't we all identify with this scenario? We want to forgive. We know it is a kind and loving and noble thing to do. If we're Course students, it's central to our spiritual path. But when we try to forgive, when we try to see the other person with love and pray for her well being, we keep rubbing up against an objection in our minds. That objection shouts: "But she really did attack me! She inflicted horrible pain on me! How can I really overlook the plain truth of what she did to me? How can I pretend it isn't there?" We struggle to see "the corrupt as if they were…blameless," "the loathsome as the good."

This kind of forgiveness, the Course says, doesn't really forgive at all. It is a lie, and therefore "a sin, like all the rest." It is a further reinforcement of the conviction that their attack was real, which just drives the nail of condemnation in even deeper: "Those who are forgiven from the view their sins are real are pitifully mocked and twice condemned; first, by themselves for what they think they did, and once again by those who pardon them (W-pI.134.5:5). And because it doesn't rest on the firm foundation of truth, it really does end up feeling pretty wimpy. It is nothing more than a "charitable whim" (W-pI.126.4:1), "an eccentricity, in which you sometimes choose to give indulgently an undeserved reprieve" (W-pI.126:5:2). How can something as ridiculous as this relieve anyone's pain?

True forgiveness, on the other hand, is rooted in what the Course claims is the truth — in the conviction that the other's attack is, in the ultimate sense, unreal. Yes, that attack may well have occurred on a worldly level, but the world is an illusion, and therefore the attack didn't really occur at all. This understanding, we are told, is the only basis for true forgiveness. Only with this understanding does forgiveness make sense, for with this understanding we are no longer trying to overlook what is really there, but simply overlooking what isn't there. This is the forgiveness that will truly set both us and our apparent attacker free from pain:

It is sin's unreality that makes forgiveness natural and wholly sane, a deep relief to those who offer it; a quiet blessing where it is received. It does not countenance illusions, but collects them lightly, with a little laugh, and gently lays them at the feet of truth. And there they disappear entirely. (W-pI.134.6:1-3)

Of course, this naturally leads to the question: How can we bring ourselves to the point where we can actually gain this understanding, where we can true see that others' apparent attacks on us are illusions that aren't really there? It sounds like a tall order. But that is why we have been given a course. A Course in Miracles itself is an instruction manual for how to truly forgive in a way that delivers all the promises that long passage from Lesson 122 talked about.

"What wisdom does A Course in Miracles have for this?" The entire Course is full of such wisdom, and practices to help us apply that wisdom. But just to give a sampling: we at the Circle are especially fond of the six lessons in the Workbook that provide specific instructions for how to forgive a particular person. These are Lessons 46, 68, 78, 121, 134, and 161. All of these lessons give us practical exercises that follow roughly the same basic pattern:

First, we get in touch with our current perception of this person as a "sinner." We do this by briefly visualizing this person's appearance and cataloguing his apparent "sins" against us (without dwelling on them). Then, we invite into our minds a new perception of this person as an innocent Son of God who is our savior. We do this by asking the Holy Spirit to show us this new perception (this is crucial — we simply cannot see this without Help), by seeing this person as a holy being shining his holiness onto us and thus revealing our holiness, and by cultivating a sense of joining with this person.

Of course, all of this won't necessarily happen with only one application of these exercises, though it could. Most of the time, it is a gradual process in which we repeat exercises like this over and over again with the same person in mind, peeling the layers of our unforgiveness off one by one. These exercises may appear to be rather lightweight at first glance, but I can vouch from personal experience that they really do work. I have had truly miraculous shifts happen as a result of these exercises and others like them from the Course. And in my experience, these shifts have undone the pain of others' apparent attacks on me like nothing else.

But can forgiveness truly diminish and even completely heal the pain of any apparent attack on us, even the most extreme? Yes, I believe it can, and this belief is not simply a matter of blind faith. We have real earthly examples of people who have forgiven even the most horrendous attacks and have felt immense relief as a result. I have read of people who forgave the murderers of their children. I have discovered many amazing forgiveness stories, some of which I have recounted in my "Course Meets World" commentaries. For instance, there is Eva Kor, who forgave the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele for performing heinous experiments on her in a concentration camp. There is Immaculée Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwanda genocide who forgave the perpetrators of that horrible atrocity.

In all these cases, forgiveness did indeed relieve the forgivers' pain, just as the Course promises. For instance, Kor signed a document granting amnesty to all Nazis who participated in the Holocaust (a symbol of the amnesty she had given them in her heart); she says, "As I did that I felt a burden of pain was lifted from me. I was no longer in the grip of pain and hate; I was finally free." Indeed, forgiveness was often essential to the very survival of those who forgave; Ilibagiza says that she never would have survived her ordeal (in which she hid from her attackers in a tiny bathroom with seven other women for three months) if she hadn't let go of her anger and learned to forgive. Who knows? Without forgiving, perhaps some of these people would have committed suicide, given the immense pain they suffered. But instead, forgiveness healed their wounds and enabled them to live again.

Given these inspiring examples and many others like them, perhaps we can gently set aside the idea that forgiveness "does little if anything to diminish the pain of being attacked." Perhaps we can let into our minds the possibility that forgiveness can relieve the pain of apparent attacks on us as nothing else can. Yes, true forgiveness may take time and effort to achieve. But what have we got to lose? Why not respond to attack with forgiveness, and see if this will indeed diminish the pain of being attacked? Let us take the Course's words to heart, try them out, and see for ourselves if they are true:

Here is the answer! Would you stand outside while all of Heaven waits for you within? Forgive and be forgiven. As you give you will receive. There is no plan but this for the salvation of the Son of God. Let us today rejoice that this is so. (W-pI.122.6:1-5)

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