New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2015. 164 pp., hardcover,
With The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness, Quest editor Richard Smoley has created what most writers dream about: an accessible book that will make a difference for a long time to come. If you’re a spiritual writer, you might even go as far as thinking, “Why didn’t I write this book?”
Forgiveness may seem simple, but the hurts, resentments, and grievances we hold on to and the complex psychological, emotional, and social reasons behind them are anything but simple. Smoley assures us that there is something each and every one of us can do
about it if we are willing to forgive and be more forgiving. He tells us forgiving will make our lives freer, better, and more creative, and we in turn will also be forgiven. Smoley shows how often we identify with our hurts and grudges, believing that holding on to them is of value to us, or protects us in some way. But, he stresses, it is in our own best interest to forgive. Only in this awareness
can we become more fully present in our lives and useful to ourselves and humanity.
With his literate and fluent discourse, Smoley may even be creating a new language of compassion, awareness, love, and peaceful coexistence. Smoley does not ignore or minimize the horrors and sufferings of the world. Time and again he examines and writes with originality and depth about difficult subjects and illuminates them through his clarity of thought. As he navigates through difficult waters touching on deep historical grievances, he shows us how such grievances can be used to manipulate groups and nations.
During the twentieth century, many lives were shattered by two major wars, racism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and displacement. As I have learned from my own experience of working with Holocaust survivors and their testimonies, the events of the last century have left permanent scars on many psyches. In the aftermath, how individuals have dealt with forgiveness—in the many forms forgiveness can take—has been partly responsible for how they lived the rest of their lives. Consequently it has also affected the lives of their children and grandchildren.
More recently, as Smoley points out, after the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, the South African government explored a new model of justice. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the world was able to hear the grievances and testimonies of victims, as well as requests for amnesty by some of the perpetrators of atrocities. The terrible bloodbath that was predicted by many did not happen. Smoley discusses this and other historical examples “because they illustrate on a large scale what forgiveness may accomplish.”
On the spiritual dimensions of forgiveness, Smoley observes, “We as humans can forgive sins or debts that are owed to us personally. But it seems to be true that we can only receive total forgiveness from a higher level of consciousness and being than we are used to in daily life. We often identify this higher level with God.” Whether that is a more personal form of God, as it is for some, or impersonal, as it is for others, is left up to the individual to determine. Smoley, who is no stranger either to the Eastern or to the Judeo-Christian traditions, believes “that forgiveness can be offered and received in a much wider range of contexts than many religions teach.” He opens the door of forgiveness for people of all faiths and also for those who are atheist or agnostic.
The Jewish mystical tradition known as the Kabbalah speaks of Hesed, or “mercy,” and Gevurah, or “severity,” and says they need to be kept in balance. It’s important to be generous, giving, and even indulgent, but there comes a time to exercise boundaries and draw the line. As Smoley writes, “Keeping these in balance is crucial to any mature and decent life.” We often make the mistake of thinking that forgiving something means condoning it, and therefore we are not willing to forgive. But a refusal to forgive does not bring about justice, and forgiveness on a personal level doesn’t mean letting people trample on you, nor does it even necessarily mean forgive and forget. You may remember, but you can still be free of the anger and resentment that initially came with the hurt.
The author of The Deal offers a way of life that is more empowering and freer of grievances over our own mistakes and shortcomings as well as the trespasses of others. In my opinion, one of the best arguments this rare book makes is that “your actions today will have consequences far beyond those you may have expected, and they will benefit and heal, not only yourself and the people you have thought of, but many others you do not know and may never even meet.”
In today’s commercial culture, in which almost everybody is caught up in the frenzy of getting a great deal, forgiveness could, as Smoley claims, be the best deal of your life.
The reviewer is a translator and human rights advocate. She was historical adviser and interviewer for two award-winning
documentaries, one on the former Soviet Union and the other, produced by Steven Spielberg, entitled Survivors of the Holocaust.