Does forgiveness encourage the repetition of mistakes?

In a recent post about the power of discouragement to stop our practice, I said I planned to use the approach from Lesson 95 to defuse my discouragement. I summarized that approach in this way:

  1. Forgive yourself for missing; be tolerant of your weakness.
  2. This deprives that weakness of power, so it has no power to delay you.
  3. Now that your resistance is disempowered, get back to practicing immediately.

I’ve been using this, usually by just saying the line from that lesson to myself—“be willing to forgive ourselves for our lapses in diligence”—and it has had really good results. The immediate response in my mind is usually, “Yeah, why not?” And then I can go forward (get back to practicing) unburdened.

But in using it, something else has occurred to me. It is really obvious, a major part of the Course’s teaching, but it has struck me in a fresh way. It feels new, therefore, even though it’s one of those things I really should have internalized by now.

What has struck me is that second part: forgiving myself for my lapses deprives my weakness of its power, so it has no power to delay me. This makes perfect sense, all of a sudden: to forgive something, to overlook it, implies that it lacks significance, that in the big picture it’s not a big deal. And if it lacks significance, then it is not significant enough to delay you. You can get right back on track and focus on moving toward your goal, rather than dwelling on what you’ve done wrong.

However logical this is, it is quite different, of course, than the usual approach. Indeed, it occurs to me that there are two usual approaches:

1. “Overlook” the mistake. In this first instance, I overlook my mistake. I don’t even fully admit it was a mistake. I just look the other way. I do this for two reasons. First, I feel really guilty about it, and I don’t want to feel the pain of that guilt, so I sweep the whole thing under the rug. Second, I am attached to the mistake and want to perpetuate it, and if I look the other way, there is nothing to keep me from repeating it, which is exactly what I want.

2. Face the seriousness of the mistake. This is the apparent solution to the first one. I face the mistake head-on and feel the guilt. They say the burnt hand teaches best, so I let my hand burn in the flame, so that I will never make that mistake again.

This, of course, is the old tried-and-true way to get past mistakes, but it has a huge downside: By making the mistake a really big deal, a source of genuine guilt, it unites our attention with the mistake and unites our identity with the mistake. Our attention, in short, is focused on how soiled our identity has become because of that mistake. And by uniting our awareness and identity with the mistake, it then becomes hard to get away from. It’s like we have glued our hand to the stove.

That brings us to the third option:

3. Forgive it. Admit it was a mistake, and then forgive it, as an expression of its ultimate insignificance and powerlessness. Being powerless, it lacks the power to nail your shoes to the spot (or glue your hand to the stove). Now you can immediately refocus yourself on your goal and start moving toward it again, unburdened by heavy sins.

I think we are afraid of option #3, in part because it looks suspiciously like option #1. But of course, it’s worlds apart:

  • In #1 we don’t really admit to a mistake. In #3 we do.
  • In #1 we look away, because the mistake is too real and ugly to look at. In #3 we look straight at it, and affirm its lack of substance.
  • In #1 we ignore it so we can perpetuate it. In #3 we forgive it so we can move past it more easily.

If we are afraid of applying option #3 on ourselves because it looks like option #1, I think we are vastly more afraid of applying it to others for the same reason. If we forgive, we will condone (we tell ourselves), we will give them full permission to repeat the mistake. As a result, we take refuge in option #2, hoping that if we stick their hand on the stove, that will teach them best.

So what I’m trying to let in is that option #3 is the most effective solution with both myself and others. It’s not an encouragement to repeat the mistake. Rather, it’s the best way to allow all of us to get past it.