The Ancient Heart Of Forgiveness

Jack Kornfield shares extraordinary stories of forgiveness–and explains how the next story could be yours

In this excerpt from his talk, Dr. Kornfield explains how we can tap into the great human capacity for forgiveness.

On the train from Washington to Philadelphia, while on my way to my father’s memorial funeral service, I sat down next to an interesting fellow who worked with young boys, particularly those in jail and prison, as part of an inner-city project in Washington, DC. He told me this story.

A young kid, 14 years old, wanted to get into a gang. The way that he proved himself to enter the gang was to shoot somebody—it was an initiation rite. He shot this kid he didn’t know. He was apprehended, brought to trial, and at the end of the trial, convicted.

Just before he is taken away in handcuffs, the mother of the boy who was shot stands up, looks him in the eye, and says, “I’m going to kill you,” and then sits down.

After being in prison for a year or so, the boy is visited by that mother, and he’s kind of frightened. She says, “I’ve just got to talk with you.” They have a little bit of conversation, and as she leaves him she says, “Do you need anything? Cigarettes?” and leaves him a little money.

She starts to visit him. She goes every few months, and over the course of three or four years, she starts visiting him more regularly, talking to him.

When he’s about to get out at the age of 17 or 18, she asks, “What are you going to do?” and he says, “I have no idea. I got no family, no nothing.” And she says, “Well I’ve got a friend who has a little factory—maybe I can help you get a job.”

So she arranges that with the parole officer. Then she asks, “Where are you going to stay?” and he says, “I don’t know where I’m going to go.” And she says, “Well I have a spare room where you can stay with me.” So he comes and stays in the spare room, takes this job, and after about six months, she says, “I really need to talk with you—come into the living room. Sit down, let’s talk.”

She looks at him and says, “Remember that day in court when you were convicted of murdering my son for no reason at all, to get into your gang, and I stood up and said, ‘I’m going to kill you?’”

“Yes ma’am, I’ll never forget that day,” he says.

And she looks back and says, “Well, I have. You see, I didn’t want a boy who could kill in cold blood like that to continue to exist in this world. So I set about visiting you, bringing you presents, bringing you things, and taking care of you. And now I let you come into my house and got you a job and a place to live because I don’t have anybody anymore. My son is gone and he was the only person that I was living with. I set about changing you, and you’re not that same person anymore.

But I don’t have anybody, and I want to know if you’d stay here. I’m in need of a son, and I want to know if I can adopt you.”

And he said yes and she did.

What is forgiveness?

What is this human capacity for forgiveness? What is the human capacity for dignity no matter what the circumstances of life?

As this story shows, forgiveness is not just about the other. It’s really for the beauty of your soul. It’s for your own capacity to fulfill your life.

Forgiveness is, in particular, the capacity to let go, to release the suffering, the sorrows, the burdens of the pains and betrayals of the past, and instead to choose the mystery of love. Forgiveness shifts us from the small separate sense of ourselves to a capacity to renew, to let go, to live in love. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.”

With forgiveness we are unwilling to attack or wish harm on anyone, including ourselves. And without forgiveness, life would be unbearable. It’s hard to imagine a world without forgiveness, because we would be chained to the suffering of the past and have only to repeat it over and over again. There would be no release.

It’s not easy. “Love and forgiveness is not for the faint-hearted,” wrote [the Indian mystic] Meher Baba. But someone has to stand up and say, “It stops with me. I will not pass on to my children this sorrow.” Whether it’s in Ireland or Israel, someone has to say, “I will accept the betrayal and the suffering, and I will bare it, but I will not retaliate. I will not pass this onto the next generation, and to endless generations of grandchildren.”

I remember a woman coming to see me amidst a terrible divorce. Unfortunately, her ex-husband was a lawyer and a very good one, so he wangled most of the money and a lot of the custody of their children. She was just desperate and struggled in all these ways to protect herself. Finally, she said to me, “You know, I simply am not going to bequeath to my children a legacy of hate. I will not do it. I will figure a way through this and I will not hate him—the bastard.” Humor helps, it really does.

When someone betrays you, you can hate them, or at some point, you can say it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to live day after day with hatred. Because for one thing, that person who betrayed you could be in Hawaii right now having a nice vacation—and you’re here hating them! Who’s suffering then?

As Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate, writes: “Suffering confers neither privileges nor rights. It all depends on how you use it. If you use it to increase the anguish of yourself or others, you are degrading, even betraying it. Yet the day will come when we shall understand that suffering can also elevate human beings. God help us to bear our suffering well.”

Not quick or sentimental

So here is a little bit about the architecture of forgiveness. First, forgiveness does not mean that we condone what happened in the past. It’s not forgive and forget. In fact, forgiveness might also include quite understandably the resolve to protect yourself and never let this happen again.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you have to speak or relate to a person who betrayed you, necessarily. It’s not about them. It doesn’t condone their behavior—it can stand up for justice and say “no more.”

And forgiveness is not sentimental, or quick. You can’t paper things over and smile and say, “I forgive.” It is a deep process of the heart. And in the process, you need to honor the betrayal of yourself or others—the grief, the anger, the hurt, the fear. It can take a long time. Sometimes when you do a forgiveness practice, you realize that you’re never going to forgive that person. And never takes a while.



The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society. Based at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the world’s leading institutions of research and higher education, the GGSC is unique in its commitment to both science and practice: Not only do we sponsor groundbreaking scientific research into social and emotional well-being, we help people apply this research to their personal and professional lives. Since 2001, we have been at the fore of a new scientific movement to explore the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior—the science of a meaningful life.

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