Meanings of forgiveness

I have an issue with forgiveness.

More accurately, I have an issue with understanding what people mean by forgiveness, because I keep running into articles or blogposts about forgiveness and what roles it plays, that say that the thing that I understand as forgiveness is not forgiveness, but leaving me unclear on what the distinction is between what I think it is and what other people think it is.

I’m put in mind of this again because someone whose writings on counselling and emotional development I really respect, Karen @ Counselling In Northumberland, writes Is Forgiveness Necessary? and says that the thing I think of as forgiveness is an important step, but then says that forgiveness isn’t necessary but a personal choice.

I am left wondering what it is I’m missing about “forgiveness” that other people understand in it that goes beyond:

Recently I wrote a piece for Welldoing which discussed letting go of resentment at failures our parents had made. It is important to understand that this is not for their benefit, but for our own. We let go so we can look more dispassionately at the past, and so anger and resentment do not eat away at us, like the invisible worm of Blake.

Working on this anger, finding a place for it, an outlet, can be incredibly healing.

Forgive and forget

The obvious place to start, it sees to me, is to look more deeply at how I construct forgiveness in terms of my own emotions and attitudes.

For me, forgiveness is that state at which it is possible to say that, when I see the person who wronged me in trouble, I would help them the same way I would help a stranger in trouble. It means that I no longer feel a desire to do them harm in retaliation or retribution for the wrong done me (though I may feel that there should be protection against them). It does NOT mean that I welcome them back into my life, or in any way mark down as insignificant to me the harm that they did, and it doesn’t mean I would ever give them the chance to do harm to me in future. It is a state of saying that I am emotionally freed from the harm without dismissing that harm or how it felt.

There is a well-worn cliché of “forgive and forget” and, it seems to me, some people conflate the two into a single concept of forgiveness.

But for me, my position is “I forgive, but I never forget”. Some people might view my attitude as one of bearing grudges, because my not-forgetting means that the past harm does change my relationship with a person, but for me, I have forgiven them because I have no ill will towards them. I just am not going to pretend that they didn’t hurt me, and I’m not going to give them another chance to. I am, however, going to say that I will not feel anger, hatred, or violence towards them. (These things lead to the Dark Side of the Force, don’t you know?)

Letting things go

Karen describes how the social norm of “sorry/that’s okay” is taught from an early age:

Many of us will remember as a child being told to say sorry, and mouthing the words with little understanding of what they meant. It is one of the first sets of rules we teach toddlers to help them navigate the world. If you hurt someone, say sorry. If someone hurts you, they must say sorry, then you both must put the hurt away. Sorry is an ending, a line drawn, and must be accepted.

This certainly sounds familiar, but I remember how frustrating it was, too. You had to say sorry even if you didn’t mean it and felt your action was justified. You had to act as though the sorry was enough, even if deep down you felt it was anything but.

I remember vividly from when I was 5 years old and I knew I had done wrong, I had hurt another child. The teacher stood us opposite one another and told me to say sorry. I said to the teacher, “Okay, but go away first”. This was because I knew that if I said sorry while the teacher was standing over me, then it meant nothing. But I really was sorry. So I needed the teacher to go away so I could mean it.

I tell this anecdote this time, to point out that the effect of this “If someone hurts you, they must say sorry, then you both must put the hurt away” rule was that you weren’t allowed to act on it, but I would feel it anyway. If anything, I learned, get your retribution in before they make you accept the apology!

It’s easy to see why you need that rule for young children: there needs to be some way of preventing hostilities and retaliations going on and on forever. Just as a peace treaty doesn’t wash away the bitterness between two peoples, the “sorry/okay” formula simply prevents fresh hurts from piling up when children have to share the same spaces day after day. But, as Karen expounds, this is not always a healthy or rational approach for adults. It is also not, in any way that I understand, forgiveness.

But we do get this narrative of “letting things go” or “moving on”. Politicians who have fucked up and want to escape the consequences of their fuck-uppery are always talking about “moving on” (it was a perennial Blairism, for example; now we have a very similar thing with May and “the national interest”). Similarly, “letting things go” is more often used to mean, “Let’s pretend that didn’t happen”, or, “That is the past and has no relationship to the present”.

Again, I don’t see any of this as necessary to forgive someone. Because I don’t ever forget, I don’t process things as ever being “let go” in that sense. With “move on”, it only has relevance when there is some kind of fuck-up and the problems the team were working on still remain, at which point it makes sense to say rationally, “Now is not the time for recrimination, now is the time to rescue what we can from this catastrophe.”

Saying ‘I forgive you’

Karen writes:

It is rare that something which harmed us in the past stops ever causing hurt. It can fade, like an old scar, which we forget most of the time, but it never goes away. This can actually be reassuring to some survivors, who do not want to feel that their past is closed off to them. … Finding a path which acknowledges the past without overwhelming us can take time but it is possible.

This feels to me like the definition of forgiveness, but many disagree. For instance, Karen follows it with: “We can let go of anger, move forward with our lives without saying ‘I forgive you’,” as if these are two different things.

The interesting point for me here is the wording: “without saying ‘I forgive you’.”

This frames forgiveness as a transaction, as something that passes between people when it is communicated, rather than a state of being or feeling for one person. Is this where my understanding differs?

For me, to feel forgiveness for someone is more likely to be expressed as “I have forgiven you”, something that happened in the other person’s absence.

Perhaps, hypothetically, I would have this conversation:

MOTHER: “Why haven’t you forgiven your brother?”
Me: “I have.”
MOTHER: “So we’ll see you at his party?”
Me: “I’ve forgiven him, but I have no wish to be around him again.”
MOTHER: “That’s not fair if you’ve forgiven him.”

(These are not my real relatives, I hasten to assure you!)

I would feel absolutely that it was perfectly fair and perfectly consistent with my having forgiven my hypothetical brother. It seems that some people would think that I could only claim to have forgiven my brother if I continued to go to parties and other social events with him.

If my hypothetical brother called me and apologised and asked for forgiveness, then I would say I forgave him, but if he then expected me to change my behaviour back to what it was before the hurt, he would be disappointed. (An apology intended to pressure a change of action is, in my mind, no apology at all.)


Karen says there is no obligation or necessity to forgive, but then defines the process of healing as including the thing I define as forgiveness, so the question is, what is there that I think there’s no obligation or necessity to do?

There is no necessity and no obligation to welcome someone back as if they never hurt you. There isn’t even any obligation to have any future contact with them beyond what you may need to do in life (say if it’s a workmate). I don’t think forgiving someone requires you to say anything to them or act as if they didn’t hurt you. It is not a clean slate or status quo ante, but rather, a detachment from the hurt itself, and from vengeance or animosity.

I have a different definition of forgiveness, and I still don’t know what the reason is. I am sure that there is nothing in terms of the intent of Karen’s piece that I disagree with, the only reason to mention it is the way the word “forgive” is used, and how it exposes a difference with the way I use it.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Language, Philosophy, SCW and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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