“The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.”
Thomas S. Szasz
Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus
State University of New York Health Science Center
Forgiveness is often associated with religion, worse, of being a wholly religious idea or of religious origin.
Forgiveness is a human quality, not divine, although, it can feel very powerful when forgiveness is freely given – especially unencumbered by expectation or conditions that the other party apologize, change their behaviour or even minimally acknowledge their actions and/or the outcome/impact of their actions upon you.
Forgiveness is difficult, because we often think only in terms of what we cannot forgive – sometimes anticipating, sometimes after the fact. Lines drawn in the sand, lines that cannot be crossed or broken, lines lines lines, in intersecting circles of what’s forgivable and what’s not, often shifting depending upon who crossed them and under what circumstance and with what intention.
Although, we are generally more concerned with how actions impact us rather than what the person’s intention was – we understand the importance of intention, since that’s how we judge ourselves and asked to be judged.
Thus, forgiveness is partly being willing to accept the other person’s intention as more important or rather than the outcome as the determination of the relationship status. Asking and knowing the others intention may well be the first step towards forgiveness; it is the first step to mutual understanding.
That kind of forgiveness is with or under conditions – what if the person who causes you harm denies your reality of the harm and doesn’t claim the responsibility for their intention, action or outcome?
How can you forgive if the person won’t repent, won’t learn, won’t understand, won’t stop.
I think forgiveness is not about the other person or even your relationship with them – forgiveness is about you – what emotional qualities you want to carry, and grudges, even small ones, add up over time even if they are only in your mind and not made tangible by carrying grudge stones.
My spouse introduced me to the concept of grudge stones – in Newfoundland Canada, people carry a small symbolic stone when they carry a grudge, and when they are willing to let go of the grudge, they throw away the stone. The more grudges, the more stones, and they weight you down physically as the grudge weighs you mentally.
So forgiving someone who harms you – even and especially when they continue to do so – is a powerful thing and difficult to achieve – it’s easier to forgive with the passage of time and the ending of the offending behaviour – easier for one or a few instances – difficult for a continuum of never ending offensive behaviours. But at some point, you have to let go of the anger and fear and hatred as being too heavy a burden to carry through life – so if you can accept that you will forgive one day, why not make it sooner than later?
Even so, it was with some astonishment and much inspiration that I learned about the World Without Hate project.
It began with a post 9/11 hate crime and ended – well, part one ended the project continues – with the execution of the shooter but not until one of the surviving victims sought to have the death sentence commuted to life in prison without parole.
Because if we don’t forgive the haters, then they never have a chance to learn that they were wrong and ignorant to hate. They never get a chance to be better and to inspire or encourage others whom they can reach out to before they commit to the hatred and the dependent violence.
Because if we don’t forgive people who cause harm, how can they have the opportunity to redeem themselves instead of going from crime to time, crime to time, crime to time? What incentive, if not to be forgiven and have a chance to prove they have rehabilitated, do they have to change, to learn, to grow as people?
Forgiving is not forgetting, forgiving is just letting go and not carrying their burden of hate and misdeeds for them. Forgiving is handing them back that emotional baggage and letting them make it right – or at least attempting to the upper limit of their ability.
Forgiving is to allow yourself to let go of your hatred and fear of the person who harmed you, to not give them the power or ability to change you for the worst – to take away your trust and faith in humanity, to take away your trust in yourself and your ability to function, to interact and to participate – to connect without reservation to other people – to be able to make distinction and discerning judgments about the quantity and quality of those vital connections to other people without being tainted or undermined by past harms.
Forgiving is about trust – trusting yourself and trusting others – and trust is about certainty and purpose and meaning. Living authentically is to create and determine meaning, and losing trust – especially in yourself – is to lose everything that is dependent upon meaning – it makes no sense to allow others to take and undermine this – forgiveness restores it, because the act of forgiving is an act of meaning, making meaning and making sense of the meaning you must see in the world.
Trust is about expectations, you do not have to suddenly trust that those who have done you harm will cease to do so – especially if they deny your reality. Trust is expecting people to behave as you have observed them to do so – sometimes one person’s best really isn’t good enough – trust people to be consistent, not to be able to hold to a higher or your standard of behaviour, ethics and values.
Often when we feel betrayed or let down by people, it’s because they have done what they could be expected to do based on their behaviour and it’s that they have failed to attain a standard that we imposed on them unrealistically.
Trusting people doesn’t mean being vulnerable or allowing them to continue to harm you, trust just means you anticipate their behaviors based on their past performance and you adjust yourself accordingly. If you know a person can’t keep a secret, don’t share secrets with them. If you know a person can’t maintain self control, don’t rely or depend on them to do so – trust that people will behave in a continuous and consistent manner with past behaviour – no matter what the behaviour was – it will still disappoint you when they continue sub-standard or mediocre conduct, but at least it’s consistent and consistent is easier to cope with – and by changing your response, they may well surprise you with improved conduct.
Forgiving means being the change you want to see in the world, a world with less hate, less violence, less harm, less badness.
So forgive someone every day – and start with yourself – you can only be the best you can in the context and with the information you have and then resolve to do or be better when new information presents or the context changes. But you can only be your best when you forgive yourself and give yourself permission to be, and not carry other people emotional baggage or let them drag you down to their level.
Hold firm to your standards and ethics, forgive yourself when you slip so you can pick yourself up again and be better the next time.