Those Who Walk Away: On Betrayal and Forgiveness

Growing up in the seventies, my siblings and I loved watching The Brady Bunch. We felt well-suited to identify with the Bradys since we too were a family of eight. We even had a regular visit from a woman for household help — our very own ‘Alice’. Episodes about sibling rivalry were particularly appealing. Who can forget Jan’s desperate exclamation over growing up in her older sister’s shadow: ‘All I hear all day at school is how great Marcia is, or how wonderful Marcia did that… Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!’ Or Bobby and Cindy, the youngest of the bunch, attempting a record for hours spent on a seesaw, to combat feelings of insignificance.

And then there’s Peter. Socially clumsy and lacking the confidence of his super-cool brother Greg, he tries out for the part of George Washington in the school play. To his distress, he’s instead given the part of Benedict Arnold, the infamous military officer in the Revolutionary War who plotted to betray his own army, later defecting to the British side. Already unsure of himself, Peter is now shunned and called ‘Traitor!’ by his friends. ‘Traitor’, the ultimate slur.

The writers of The Brady Bunch knew how to tap into the insecurities of adolescence. In terms of unfavourable characters to portray, traitors rank high on the list. To be a traitor is to betray a trust. For example, you might have been given care, refuge, even love, but later turn on those who’ve supported you, throwing them under the bus. It’s the element of betrayal that evokes a universal response of outrage. ‘After all I’ve done for you’, says the parent to the wayward child, the coach to the player defecting for a more lucrative offer. Indeed, it is the deliberate breaking of a bond of love and fellowship that makes treachery the worst sin in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.

A Special Place in Hell

There are nine layers to Dante’s map of hell, each of which houses a particular type of unrepentant sinner. In the more superficial layers are people who’ve committed ‘sins of incontinence’, sins resulting from an inability to exercise sufficient restraint through reason, sins such as gluttony and lustfulness. Further in, we have layers dedicated to the violent and inhumane, the murderers and plunderers, followed by those for ‘sins of deceit’ such as thievery, flattery and counterfeiting. The innermost layers of hell are reserved for ‘sins of deceit against those who have cause to trust’, the sins of traitors.   

The ‘lowest, blackest, and farthest from Heaven’, the traitor ring of hell is further divided into four regions. One housing traitors to family, another for traitors to nation, a third for traitors to guests, and the final region for traitors to benefactors or masters.

We commonly think of hell as a place of fire and brimstone. But when Dante descends through hell, he meets a bitter wind and a frozen lake at the ring of traitors. Here he finds sinners who betrayed family semi-encased in ice up to their heads, their frost-bitten faces cast down in shame. Dante moves on to find traitors to nation and to guests in various degrees of encasement, and he talks to several of them about their sins. At the circle of traitors to benefactors, however, Dante is met with silence: the figures are completely encased in ice, ‘like straw in glass’.

This innermost circle of hell is called Judecca, named after Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. At the centre of the circle, the centre of hell itself, is Satan, but not as we know him. Dante’s Satan has three faces and a pair of flapping wings attached under each chin, creating a strong wind that cools the lake and keeps it frozen. Satan too is frozen in ice up to mid-chest, and in each of his mouths he chews on a traitor: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas front and centre in the middle-mouth.

Brutus and Cassius are famous for their part in the Roman emperor Caesar’s assassination, but the worst punishment is reserved for Judas: the torsos of Brutus and Cassius hang free of Satan’s mouths — their legs and waist encased — but Judas is turned the other way around, literally facing his fate head-on, his writhing legs expressing his agony.  

Satan too, has cause to be found amongst the traitors. Also known as Lucifer, the once ‘angel of light’, he betrayed God by wanting to usurp His power. In Dante’s poem, Lucifer’s betrayal was expressed as defiance of God. As punishment for his betrayal (‘after all I’ve done for you’), God cast Lucifer out of Heaven and into hell. Through his treachery, Lucifer had turned his back on his benefactor, on warmth and light, and thus came to inhabit an icy landscape.

Fallen Angels

As with all major themes in life, we can see themes of betrayal in the creation myth at the heart of A Course in Miracles. Betrayal is one of the self-accusations that haunt us from day one of the ego’s existence. In the thought that there might be something more than God’s Love, we turned our back on Him and chose to experience a separate existence. We threw Him and His Oneness under the bus. The guilt and shame of this betrayal (after all, He had given us Everything) is intense and surfaces whenever we are faced with the themes of loyalty and betrayal in our daily lives.

And there are plenty of occasions for this theme to emerge. Take a fairly mundane example: switching where you buy your coffee. Though your regular place has been ‘good to you’ for many years, a new one opens up and you like their coffee better. If you decide to continue buying coffee at the new place, how would you feel if the old crew saw you enter the new shop?

Just this morning, the betrayal theme featured at the top of a news feed on my computer screen. The Rugby League World Cup final between Australia and Samoa was recently held in England. Australian player Tino Fa’asuamaleaui was caught between playing for two nationalities: he is of Samoan descent, and had played for Samoa before, but opted to represent Australia for the Cup. Fa’asuamaleaui spoke of his difficult run up to the final as he received multiple social media comments that he’d turned his back on his heritage. Members of the Australian women’s team also struggled with cross-cultural allegiances. Australian Kennedy Cherrington, who is also of New Zealand heritage, wept during the New Zealand national anthem. Along with another teammate of New Zealand heritage, she sung both anthems: ‘and it was emotional for both of them, we’re part of both countries and it’s hard to stay on one side.’

Scenarios like the above are tricky because we all know the pain of betrayal: there are so many ways it plays out. Even a friend becoming close to someone you regard as an enemy can feel like betrayal. Which team are they on anyway?!

Denial and Separate Interests

Another form of betrayal is to falsely deny knowing someone to protect your own interests. It is the emphasis on self-interest that makes this scenario problematic. A Course in Miracles distinguishes between form and content; our actions and the thoughts that motivate them. It is possible that love guides us to deny knowledge of someone or something because this is helpful for all concerned. Coming from love, we won’t feel shame or guilt over our actions, even if the world would call them treacherous, because we haven’t seen our needs in conflict with anyone else’s — love automatically addresses everyone’s shared need. As always, it’s not what we do, but who we do it with, that counts: the ego or the Holy Spirit; fear or love.  

A famous example of fear-based denial occurs in the Gospels when Jesus, at the last supper with his disciples, predicts that Peter will disown him before the rooster crows the next morning. Peter protested earnestly, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ Yet following the arrest of Jesus, Peter denied knowing him three times. After the third denial, he heard the rooster crow and recalled Jesus’ prediction, just at the moment Jesus turned to him as soldiers led him away. Ouch. Peter broke down crying.

A more contemporary example can be found in ‘Caught in the Crowd’, a song by Australian singer songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke. It is a moving portrayal of the singer’s regret over denying her friendship with a boy who was being bullied. The boy was shy, quiet, and wasn’t in her class, but she sometimes raced bikes to school with him, and once they’d walked for a short while together talking about music. The following two verses and chorus evoke the shame, guilt, and regret we feel when we disown someone or something due to fear:

It was after school in the afternoon

The corridors were crowded as we came out of the rooms

Three guys I knew pushed him into the cement

Threw away his bag and said he had no friends

He yelled that he did and he looked around

Tried getting up but they pushed him on down

That’s when he saw me, called out my name

And I turned my back, and just walked away

Yeah I turned my back, and just walked away

I was young and caught in the crowd

I didn’t know then what I know now

I was dumb, and I was proud

And I’m sorry

If I could go back do it again

I’d be someone you could call friend

Please, please believe that I’m sorry.

These are sentiments we can all relate to. The adolescent need for acceptance impels us to deny associations with so many things, both without and within, betraying others and ourselves. Each time we feel angry in the face of someone’s betrayal (real or imagined), it’s because we haven’t yet forgiven ourselves. ‘Would I condemn myself for doing this?’ is a question the Course tells us to ask whenever we judge something harshly in others.

Remorse helps us decide to do things differently in the future, but to properly deal with the magnitude of our shame and guilt, it’s important to remember that the things we hold against ourselves from our personal history are the ‘artificial floor’ over a belief that we betrayed God. A way out of our pain, therefore, is to get in touch with the memory of our Self, at home in God, beyond the dream of exile. We might get a sense of this through meditation or prayer, but the Course aims to save us time by focusing on clearing the interference to such communion, via forgiveness.

Forgiveness and the Treachery of Specialness

When we turn to anything in the world to provide us with a sense of security and happiness, we have made it an idol, a substitute for God. The Course calls these idols ‘special love’ objects, whether they be a person, place or thing. Because nothing of the world can give us what we really yearn for, we will always feel betrayed if we look outside ourselves for happiness:

‘Seek not outside yourself. For it will fail, and you will weep each time an idol falls… Each idol that you worship when God calls will never answer in His place. There is no other answer you can substitute, and find the happiness His answer brings. Seek not outside yourself. For all your pain comes simply from a futile search for what you want, insisting where it must be found’ (T-29.VII.1:1-2; 4-7).

But can we really be betrayed by an object of special love if it was never in a position to fulfill our needs? The Course points out that only our ideas about a special love object can be betrayed:

‘How happy would your dreams become if you were not the one who gave the “proper” role to every figure which the dream contains. No one can fail but your idea of him, and there is no betrayal but of this’ (T-29.IV.5:1-2).

We are in a better position to deal with feelings of betrayal when we realise our expectations of someone were unrealistic, and rely on God instead. What this means in practical terms is that we rely on aligning our will with God’s for our happiness, which means our primary aim becomes practicing forgiveness:

‘What could you want forgiveness cannot give? Do you want peace? Forgiveness offers it. Do you want happiness, a quiet mind, a certainty of purpose, and a sense of worth and beauty that transcends the world? Do you want care and safety, and the warmth of sure protection always? Do you want a quietness that cannot be disturbed, a gentleness that never can be hurt, a deep abiding comfort, and a rest so perfect it can never be upset?

All this forgiveness offers you, and more. It sparkles on your eyes as you awake, and gives you joy with which to meet the day. It soothes your forehead while you sleep, and rests upon your eyelids so you see no dreams of fear and evil, malice and attack. And when you wake again, it offers you another day of happiness and peace. All this forgiveness offers you, and more’ (W-122.1-2).

We forgive ourselves for betrayal by forgiving others, and this helps us become a clear channel for doing whatever is necessary now. And we won’t feel conflicted as we develop trust in where our happiness and security lie, and in the ‘still, small Voice’ within.

Image: The Last Supper, by Carl Block, via Wikimedia Commons

Books by Stephanie Panayi

The Farthest Reaches of Inner Space

Alchemists of Suburbia

Above the Battleground: The Courageous Path to Emotional Autonomy and Inner Peace

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume One

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Two

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Three

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volumes One to Three

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