Forgiveness of Ignorance

Children are delightful and I suppose part of their attraction to us is their naiveté. When they behave in an inappropriate way we often excuse them by saying “they didn’t know any better”. Unfortunately as people grow older we seem less inclined to offer them the same latitude. Adults, obviously, should know better! Consequently we judge their behavioural aberrations as willful and deliberately hurtful.


Some sages have been able to come to grips with this issue. Jesus, whilst dying on the cross, was purported to have said “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. (This was reported in the Gospel of Luke but nowhere else.)


This is a profound statement and is universally true – far beyond what the usual Christian interpretation might imply.


A desire to judge others seems a ubiquitous human trait. I suppose that is why Jesus’ purported statement quoted above seems uniquely forgiving. (Lest you think I have now become a Christian apologist I could give you other examples from other faith traditions expressing the same idea. I use this example because it is probably the best known and dramatically illustrates the point I want to make.)


As I stated, we seem capable of forgiving children for acting out of ignorance. Sometimes we extend our forgiveness further. My wife and I often walk in the mornings. We frequently come across a lady who walks her little dog and we walk with her and converse for a while. She obviously suffers a mild intellectual disability and because of her disability conversation is limited and sometimes (for me at least) hard going. She is quite gregarious and likes to chat with all she passes. Sometimes she says things that are probably inappropriate but that causes no rancour from those that she converses with because they excuse her because of her disability.


She sees the world differently to us and we forgive her any transgressions that result because of her disability.


If we were really honest, we all suffer such disability. How we view the world is shaped by a myriad of things, our genetic disposition and our early socialisation being high on the list.


The human child is born at a seeming disadvantage to most other animals. Its relative helplessness requires it to be protected and nurtured for many years. In contrast, a wildebeest calf born on the Serengeti needs to be up and running and fending for itself quite quickly if it is to avoid becoming a lion’s dinner. This is largely because the human brain continues to develop quite dramatically after birth compared with other animals. Whilst posing a problem, as mentioned above, it also provides a huge potential. As a result of this, human children have a far greater propensity to learn. Whereas most animals come with many of their behaviours “hard-wired” from birth, human children, for better or worse, are far more capable of learning behaviours and acquiring knowledge.


From an early age however, human behaviour is moulded by our social needs, our needs to belong and be wanted. We get positive reinforcement for those behaviours approved of by significant others. When we behave in a way that meets their approval we are told we are “good” – when we behave in a way that meets their disapproval we are told we are “bad”. In this way we are guided to construct a worldview and we filter our concepts of the world accordingly.


As Ashbrook and Albright wrote in The Humanizing Brain, “…. the brain selects information, sorts it, filters it, takes it in according to whether it is interesting and pleasurable or dangerous and painful, to be approached or to be avoided.” And further, “A central organisation of data exists prior to even the simplest input. It may be that neural pathways laid down in the earliest period of life affect our ‘decisions’ about what to notice and what to ignore. … Distortion, based on an emphasis of some features and a neglect of other features, affects the message and its meaning.” (Emphasis in the original.)


In this way our perception of the world and those in it is conditioned by our genetics and socialisation. None of us actually see the world as it is. (Remember the quote I have often referred to by the author Anais Nin – “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are!”). Just like you, my world view (which like everyone else’s is imperfect) distorts the way I see things and as a result my picture of the world is unreliable. Then, just like you, like children and those with mental disabilities I live my life contending with ignorance that comes from my erroneous view of the world.


We are starting to see some of the reasons why human relationships are so difficult.  We make erroneous judgments about the motivation and hence the intent of others because we can’t believe that they don’t see the world in just the same way that we do. It is wise to remember Alfred Korzybski’s admonition that “the map is not the territory” (or as Anthony De Mello quaintly put it, “the menu is not the food”!) We all have different constructs of reality but we persist in believing, contrary to Korzybski’s admonition above, that “the map is the territory”, and not only that, but that our map is the territory! That is to say we believe our construct is indeed reality and that it would be perceived as such by all human beings.


To quote Ashbrook and Albright again, “…. The brain lives in a reality of its own construction. Through its perceptual systems it builds up ‘maps’ of the way the world is. These maps are limited ‘images’ of the territory, never the actual territory itself. Since we each live in worlds of our own making, we never rid ourselves of ‘perceptual commitments.’ These commitments are the result of genetic endowment, past experience, anticipation, and individually determined purposes. There is no ‘lense-free’ system of viewing the world.”


In this way our worldviews are formed and we take on the beliefs of significant others, mediated also by our genetic platform and the exigencies of our particular environment. Through this process we unconsciously come to believe my group (be it a nationality, a race, a religious society, a peer group or whatever) is uniquely imbued with the truth. This serves to reinforce the concepts of “us” and “them”, “ingroups” and “outgroups” that our egos fervently strive to create to cement our sense of specialness. And even beyond this, that I as an individual am particularly special.


It took me a while to understand this, but the good Dr Phil has advocated for a considerable time that there are no “special” people. At the core of our humanity we are all the same even though our egos strive to convince us otherwise. Our desire to cement our “specialness” naturally conspires to have us believe that we possess some “special” attributes that set us apart from others.


Because of these processes none of us ever get to observe the world entirely objectively. We each have our blind spots of ignorance. Should it not be logical then that we should be more tolerant of the aberrant behaviours of others just as we are of children and the simple-minded? And we should of course do so not from a viewpoint of being “holier than thou” but from a sense of humility knowing we also are thus fallible.

3 Replies to “Forgiveness of Ignorance”

  1. When a person bumps into us from behind we are affronted until we see the perpetrator has a white cane. The action is not the issue to us it is what we perceive was the motive for the action that hurts our ego. In the case of a blind person it is easy to recognise that we may have incorrectly guessed their motive or intent. To believe at any time that we understand someone’s motive for an action is of course ridiculous. We can not possibly know why someone responded as they did. In reality we are interpreting their actions based on our own experiences and past responses. If we assume that someone’s action towards us was intentional and hurtful it tells us more about our own personality than the alleged perpetrator. Yes, forgiveness is not just a virtue it is logical as well.

  2. or “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…..”.

    Very good Ted. I hope you’re gonna put “purported to have said” and insert parenthetical disclaimers in front of every quote you quote by Lao-Tzu or Confucius or Buddha etc in future.

  3. Esther made the following comment which my blog site for some reason wouldn’t publish. (I think it struggled with her Kiwi accent!)

    “My little tip bit!
    I fed the cat last night ! I thought I’d produce a treat and cut up some fresh South Island Salmon . Very tiny and orange pink on the plate! How could a cat resist!
    Needless to say the Salmon was there in the mornin without a scaric of movement! I resisted yowls all night to bring out the familiar can of shredded chicken breast or succulent tuna!
    On contemplation of my annoyance with the cats ‘world view’ and resistance to move outside of its comfort zone, I found myself hoping I was never like that cat and would use my ‘trueself’ in any situation ‘that inner voice’ ! A wild cat would have used its true nature (self) and not hesitated!”

    I am sorry Esther your response is too deep for me. I don’t even understand women let alone cats!

    Thank you for your comment Greg. You have a good understanding of these matters I look forward to your comments.

    As for you Jack, you are trying to bludgeon me with Christianity again! I suggest you get into the archives of my blog essays and read “Some Tarnish on the Golden Rule” which I posted May 15, 2011. I don’t resile from qualifying quotes from Jesus with “purported to have said” because even if he existed (which I personally doubt) those recording his life were not even present when he was supposed to have made these utterances and the gospels that you put such faith in are at best second or third hand accounts (and an arbitrary selection at that!). And of course he personally left no written record whereas Lao Tszu and Confucius did.

    Buddhism however is similar to Christianity insofar as the core beliefs were written down long after the perpetrator had died. On the edges Buddhism shares some of the failings of Christianity. Buddhism was propagated into communities that had predecessor religions – Vedanta, Hinduism and various animistic traditions. Its proponents did not try to disavow adherents of their beliefs. They merely proposed we have found something that will overcome your suffering. Try it and see if it helps – if it doesn’t work for you well no matter, go on believing what you will. Christianity on the other hand was a far blunter object. Not only did it usurp into its beliefs what it thought was attractive in the pagan belief systems but then having cobbled together this disparate set of ideals asserted (like many other religions) we have the unique truth and you will be damned if you don’t agree with it.

    I am reminded of a story that I read about the Dalai Lama. Someone came to him and asked, “Your Holiness what do I need to do to become a good Buddhist?” The Dalai Lama responded, “What religion are you?” The person responded, “Actually, I am a Christian.” The Dalai Lama shrugged his shoulders and said, “Don’t concern yourself about being a good Buddhist – just be a good Christian!”

    Come on Jack – tell me a good Pope story!

Comments are closed.