Knowing how to forgive is an essential, if not the essential skill of mindful loving. I’d like to offer you an example of betrayal and forgiveness, from Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a very complex work with multiple layers of meaning. To date, the book has been translated into 65 languages – more than any other novel. So, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this work, I will only summarize the part of the story that is relevant to the topic of betrayal and compassion.
Winston Smith, a civil servant/bureaucrat responsible for maintaining the propaganda of the Party, is a citizen of the Big-Brother totalitarian regime. He falls in love with Julia, a mechanic that repairs novel-writing machines. They develop a romantic-dissident relationship in a society that had banned both love and freedom of thought.
They are set up by a party member, O’Brian, and are eventually captured by Thought Police. They are interrogated and tortured. O’Brian explains that the Party wants power for the sake of power and aims to extinguish any form of free thought and individual partiality (such as romantic attachments; love, after all, is a form of partiality and individual bias). During this psychologically and physically trying re-programming and re-education, Winston quickly breaks down – he confesses anything just to escape further turmoil. O’Brian, who is personally responsible for this re-education, however, is not convinced. He believes that Winston still loves Julia. To help Winston break through this attachment, he designs a custom-made torture for Winston.
The following re-formatted dialogue from the novel will help set up the scene further.
O’Brian: “You asked me once what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” (The door opened… A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or a basket of some kind.) “The worst thing in the world varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal. <…> In your case the worst thing in the world happens to be rats. <…> By itself pain is not always enough. There are occasions when a human being will stand out against pain, even to the point of death. But for everyone there is something unendurable – something that cannot be contemplated. Courage and cowardice are not involved. If you are falling from a height it is not cowardly to clutch at a rope. If you have come up from deep water it is not cowardly to fill your lungs with air. It is merely an instinct which cannot be disobeyed. It is the same with the rats. For you, they are unendurable. They are a form of pressure that you cannot withstand, even if you wish to. You will do what is required of you.”
At this point, O’Brian explains how the contraption works: it’s basically a helmet with a sliding compartment door, with two hungry rats ready to bore through Winston’s face as soon as O’Brian slides the partition out. As the contraption is mounted on Winston’s head, he searches for a way out from this nightmare. O’Brian had clued him that there must be a way out and that Winston knows it. Here’s Winston’s epiphany:
Winston: “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!”
O’Brian is satisfied. Winston’s mind is now purged of all partialities – having reconnected with his primordial survival instinct, he is now only in love with the Party, with the Big Brother, with the only entity that can assure his continued survival. Winston’s off the hook.
Now, this is not a trivial scene from this nightmarish novel – the entire novel ends four pages later. This moment is a pre-climax. Here’s the climax scene – in my reading of this novel – the scene of understanding. It happens a few pages later when Winston and Julia – having been both released – finally meet again.
Julia: “I betrayed you.”
Winston: “I betrayed you.”
Julia (continues): “Sometimes they threaten you with something – something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick… <…> [but] at the time it happens you mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself. <…> All you care about is yourself.”
So, there you have it: to understand is to forgive. The scene seems anti-climactic but it isn’t. It’s a quiet explosion of acceptance! Julia, just like Winston, has been through Room 101, she understands Winston, she can relate, and, thus, not hold a grudge. She can forgive. Sure, they no longer feel the same about each other – in this grotesque dystopian system they have been brought to a brink of death and betrayed each other to save themselves. It’s hard to re-discover love after this – not because of betrayal that you can forgive and relate to – but because you know how it’ll end up. Big Brother will know… The fact that Winston and Julia go their separate ways is, however, peripheral in this context. The point to note is that Julia understands Winston and seems to be able to forgive.
In real life, one partner’s betrayal is rarely matched by a symmetrical counter-betrayal. Sure, an argument could be made that Julia could understand and forgive Winston because she herself has similarly betrayed him. But I believe it is possible to understand, and, thus, forgive someone who had betrayed you even if you have no similar reference point. How? By appreciating that betrayal isn’t betrayal, that betrayal is self-care. Now, this isn’t Orwellian Newspeak or Doublespeak. It’s just motive analysis. We’ll let O’Brian explain: “for everyone there is something unendurable.” A seemingly unlikely expert on compassion, O’Brian appreciates two very basic axioms of human nature: a) that survival is instinctual and, therefore, natural, and, b) that we all have breaking points. Therein lies the platform for compassion: a betrayal is an act of self-preservation. And as long as there is a self, the self will be self-serving.
“Do it to, Julia!” Lessons
Motive-Focus: Betrayal – motivationally – is an Act of Self-Care
The first lesson here is the same idea I have been discussing in the Compassion Series: motive focus. To forgive a betrayal we have to focus on the motive – which is always, in one way or another, a pursuit of well-being. This is instinctual for all of us: we are all moving away from pain towards well-being. There is nothing wrong with that. A desire to advance one’s well-being is as natural as gravity. Say, your partner betrayed you by cheating on you. Was his/her motivation to hurt you or to seek satisfaction and pleasure through a parallel relationship? Chances are that your partner was motivated by his/her desire for sexual, romantic fulfillment. What this means is that it wasn’t about you but about your partner’s desire. Sure, it concerned you. Sure, you got hurt in the process. But what matters here – if you are to be able to forgive your partner – is that he/she was not motivated by a desire to hurt you per se, but by the desire to satisfy his/her… desire. So, motivationally, your partner’s act was just another, albeit short-sighted, act of self-care.
There could also be a scenario where somebody betrays to get back at you for some reason. Say, your partner goes on a rebound after you had cheated on him/her. While it would seem that your partner is determined to hurt you, to let you know what it feels like to be cheated upon, to give you a bit of your own medicine, the fact of the matter is that even in this case your partner’s primary motive is to restore some sense of justice, albeit in an emotionally immature manner. Whenever we try to hurt someone in order to restore some sense of balance or justice, we are, once again, motivated by self-care and hurting someone or hurting someone’s feelings is but a means to that emotionally immature end. But the goal – as always – is for us to feel better about the situation we are in.
So, if your partner betrayed you in return for your betrayal, it helps to keep in mind that he/she is trying to take care of him/herself rather than to hurt you per se. Whichever way you slice it, the motive behind betrayal is always self-care and since we are all in the evolutionary business of surviving, why judge someone on the basis of this universally held motive? If anything, recognition of this motivational common denominator is the beginning of re-connecting, the beginning of identification, understanding, and forgiving.
We All Have Breaking Points and They Are Set at Different Levels
We all have different breaking points. Threaten one person’s paycheck or bonus and they are instantly for sale. Threaten another’s whole career path and they don’t budge. Reality constantly bribes us with promises of pleasures and racketeers us with threats of suffering. In this sense, life is a non-stop batting cage and you are armed with a bat of skill-power one end of which is craving-control (to deal with temptation) and the other end is worry-control (to deal with consequences of threats). There are, of course, other ways of looking at this. You could say that our breaking points are propped up by willpower or that they are jacked up by integrity. I, as you see, am using the term “skillpower.” The words “willpower” and “integrity” are a bit too fixed, not sufficiently elastic to accommodate my next point. I’ll clarify what I mean in a moment. But for now, let’s just play with these two words (“willpower” and “integrity”) anyway.
Say, your partner ‘s subordinate enticed him/her with sex in order to assure a job advancement. Your partner fell for it. You ask your partner why he/she did it. They explain: I was turned on, he/she kept coming onto me, he/she is really hot. You object: “I understand that sometimes we all encounter temptations, but you should have had more self-control, willpower, integrity!” But then you gradually realize that if your partner had had more self-control, willpower, integrity than he/she did, then he/she would not have been him/herself. Indeed, as you are reading this right now, you are what you are, you’ve got what you’ve got and that is all you’ve got whether it is enough for somebody else or not. If right this very moment somebody made a pass at you, you might think that to flirt back to is to invite more such attention but if, say, you are having a crappy day, and this random act of flirtation feels just right, all your willpower and integrity might fly out of the window… or it might not… depending on how much of it you’ve got. But one thing’s clear: at this very moment you are only you, not more, not less, and your capacity to withstand temptation is exactly where it is at this moment, whether it is enough or not to manage this moment. Same would apply to your partner who cheated on you: he/she had whatever self-control, willpower, integrity he/she had at the time – not more, not less.
Let’s try another example: you and your partner are in the process of buying a car. You decided not to be bullied by car salespeople, you got your own figure in mind, you got a game plan, but then, while on the car lot, one of you succumbs to the high pressure pitch and accepts a bad deal. You are infuriated, feeling betrayed. But, hold it, consider what happened: your partner backed down because he/she couldn’t withstand the pressure, the tension of it any longer. You were fine, you didn’t bail, but he/she did. It is what it is. Perhaps, after a bit of analysis, you realize that your partner’s need for approval and external validation came into play here. You realize that he/she is too easily threatened by losing others’ approval. Sure, for you it’s not a big deal, you can deal with it, you can de-catastrophize the consequences of others’ unfavorable thoughts about you, but your partner isn’t as smooth at this kind of psychological karate. He/she, unlike you, hadn’t had the same nurturing parents or the years of therapy to work through insecurities. Having pondered this, you realize that your partner’s betrayal of the game plan wasn’t a betrayal of you, but a desperate move to stop the tension. And you reasonably accept that, of course, there would be differences between the two of you in what you can stand and what you cannot stand (because, after all, if you wanted to be with a clone of yourself, you would have just partnered with your reflection in the mirror).
So, to briefly sum up this point, our breaking points depend on self-regulation skillpower (self-control), or, if you wish, on willpower or integrity levels. We differ in what we can handle (temptation-wise and/or distress-wise). We all have different breaking points. However high or low they are for any given mind, they are where they are, at any given moment in time. Which brings us to the final point.
Breaking Points Aren’t Fixed, They Are On a Range
When we talk about willpower or integrity, we tend to mean a certain fixed amount of some kind of moral stamina. It’s not like that. Breaking points – if viewed as a real-time, moment-by-moment capacity to withstand the temptation or distress – can be attenuated by a variety of factors. Take intoxication, for example. Take the most devout priest, pour enough Irish Coffees into him, and you’ll discover that the ten commandments apparently have loopholes. Intoxication dilutes our judgment, turns off our frontal-lobe breaks, and, as a result, our judgment goes downhill. Let’s add a few more pixels to this picture. Say, you are a career clergyman. After years of impeccably devout, if not ascetic, mission in, say, Africa, you have been reassigned to a comfortable Western parish. You haven’t had a serious drink in years but you decide to celebrate this transition with an Irish Coffee – after all, Catholic Church allows it. Until this moment, you thought your breaking point was pretty high –after all, you have survived many a deprivation and restrained many a passing desire. But suddenly tipsier than you thought you’d be (and how could have you known if you had abstained all these years), you find yourself reaching for a second and a third shot. Before you know it, you are out and about, just to get some air, and you bump into a lovely young lady that compliments you on your earlier sermon. You realize you are flirting with her – the fact that it might not be obvious to her is another matter. You know it! But what do you really know? That you sinned? Hell, no, you just had too much to drink which biochemically eroded your frontal lobes, and, as a result, the bar of your spiritual integrity slid down a bit. No big deal, happens to us all, humble, humans.
Let’s reverse the scenario. You are Father So-and-So and you’ve been keeping a pretty steady regimen of night-cap spirits. You can handle your liquor like the best of them which allows you to keep your chastity vows at pretty darn high level, drunk or not. So, what do we have here? A case of spiritual integrity or pre-cirrhotic tolerance of booze?
Whatever it is, one thing is clear: we all have breaking points and they are subject to moment-by-moment attenuation. A morally-impeccable congressman gets limbically high-jacked by a whiff of infatuation – it doesn’t help that he had been pulling pre-campaign all-nighters either. A chronically relapsing mind-in-recovery – powered up by craving-control psychotherapy– walks straight past a battery of street-corner drug come-ons, bumping up his/her breaking point to a new level.
Whichever scenario you examine, chances are a) you are dealing with something you can, in principle, relate to; b) there is a breaking point involved that is where it is, at a baseline, and it slid off from that relative baseline “high” to a new low thanks to a combination of complex internal and external factors, and c) the seemingly unforgiveable betrayal of you, in reality, had nothing to do with you – the “traitor” was just trying to take care of him/herself exactly in proportion to his/her psychological resources at the moment.
What’s there not to forgive, right, Julia?! We are all motivationally innocent, doing the best that we can, at any given point in time. To understand is to forgive is to love.
Julia gets it. Do you?
Romance (infatuation) is not love; it’s pre-love; it’s one of several pre-requisites to love. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the real romance, the real love, the true gift of relating.
Self-Acceptance Manifesto (self-acceptance = other-acceptance)
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2011