FORGIVENESS

It is once again time for all Muslims, as well as those of us who have close ties to Muslims and are so inclined, to beg for forgiveness from those around for all misdeeds of body and mind. The Indonesian phrase “Maaf Lahir Bathin” is the formula of the day during Idul Fitri, which marks the end of the month of fasting and restraint. Presumably, during Ramadan Muslims have reflected deeply on their faults and sins.

Muslim readers permitting, if we broaden the context a bit to include most of humankind, the psychology of apologizing is often merely associated with a desire to rid oneself of ‘guilt’ rather than really accepting responsibility for one’s mistakes and being determined to repair one’s ways.

Take a couple of examples which have somehow appeared on my radar. In Thailand there is a chronic trend of politicians (and military men) to pull off the most reprehensible of actions, then to kneel in what seems to be faux abjection before the King to ask to be forgiven and absolved. This is a recurring phenomena – be it a coup or whatever. One gets the impression that this has somehow become institutionalized as a parallel political system. Little of substance changes.

More recently, I was sitting in one of the few outdoor cafés in the Mayfair area of London watching a steady flow of shiny Rolls Royces and gleaming Bentleys purr by. What came to mind was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent rebuke of bankers who are now going back to the business of greed as usual, condemning the “failure to name what was wrong”. In the case of most bankers and financial speculators involved, apologies were rare even after their practices bankrupted so many people around the globe. What is also interesting in Dr Rowan Williamson’s statement is his interpretation of ‘idolatry’ as that of “projecting of reality and substance onto things that don’t have them”.

To jump off the Abramic wagon for a moment, in Buddhism that definition certainly rings a bell. According to Buddhism, being taken in by something which has no intrinsic value certainly is the perennial road to disaster. In fact in those branches of Buddhism which advocate confession (or more precisely admission and repentance) it is important to recognize the falsity of this aura of permanence and reality which things acquire in our minds, laying the groundwork for greed, hate, and so forth. For ‘confession’ to be effective it is first necessary to recognise our faults – which in turn have their root in our “idolatry” of the impermanent etc.

It is also necessary to be determined to try not repeat the mistake. In the end our self serving ways don’t serve us well. That is the crux of seeking forgiveness. If we just do an annual “brush off” it doesn’t contribute much to a better world.

And apologizing effectively requires a good sense of timing. We need to know not only what our faults are and regret them, but we need to be sure that those of whom we beg forgiveness are also ready to accept. Hopefully this Lebaran/Hari Raya/Idul Fitri we will be truly aware of why we are apologizing, and truly ready to accept each other’s apologies. Maaf Lahir Bathin.

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