There has been an increased media attention on forgiveness in the form of news, documentaries, web-posts, etc. All of which are not surprisingly, on the sensational side, highlighting the most severe cases of injustice in which the victim must exercise “extreme forgiveness.” It seems similar to the growing popularity of “extreme sports” with events showcasing sensational, risky, attention-grabbing feats of extreme fitness, endurance, strength, and athleticism. Events like Tough Mudder and Iron Man, or sports such as free-style biking, BASE jumping, and speed skiing keep taking extreme to the next level. More and more, it seems the more dangerous the better; marathons, for example, are no longer extreme enough. A mere marathon has been topped with “ultra-marathons,” which can mean anything from a double marathon to a multiday race of 1000 miles or longer.
It can make one wonder, what is this drive, this need, for the extreme in our lives? Why this desire to see and witness others pushed to and beyond the normal limit of human capacity? Why does there seem to be such a focus on extreme cases while we brush over every day acts of heroism and virtue?
Are we becoming desensitized, less attentive and less responsive to every day struggles — our own and others? Is the media being driven by our demand for the extreme or are we being shaped and desensitized by the media’s push of the extreme?
I’m not sure which it is, the media or public demand, driving us to extremes, but I do think a reality check may be in order. This is not to diminish the true courage, compassion, and perseverance of those heroes who have forgiven in extreme cases of injustice. Rather, this is to point out what preceded those extreme acts of forgiveness…namely, the “small” acts of forgiveness we persevere in every day. How does one push past the so-called “normal” limits of human capacity, whether it’s sports or forgiveness?
When we witness extreme acts of forgiveness, we may wonder, would I be able to forgive someone if they did that to me? Would I be able to ever forgive someone who murdered my loved one? Who crippled me? Who abandoned me? The answer is “yes!” Does this unconditional answer seem a bit over the top, a little abnormal, counter-cultural? Well, it is! Forgiveness tends to be that way. How can I be so certain that forgiveness is possible? It’s called training. Much like an athlete trains for his sport, so too a forgiver strengthens his “muscles” of virtue and forgiveness through every-day forgiveness. Forgiveness becomes part of our lives as we practice it daily the best we can, as often as we can. Each time we forgive, it becomes easier and more ingrained into our being. And here’s the beauty of it — it’s never too late to forgive! We can even forgive those who we may not have been ready to forgive before.
Further, forgiveness is a process! This means, we can even forgive the same person, for the same injustice, over and over again, reaching new levels of forgiveness each time. The process of forgiveness takes times and cannot be forced or faked for true healing to begin. We should never expect others to forgive, nor should we allow ourselves to be coerced into forgiving. If and when this kind of “forced forgiveness” takes place, it is not true forgiveness; rather, it is a lie, a façade, often to appease others’ expectations. Take the example used in this documentary review from the Huffington Post:
In the case of the Amish shooting, theologians and counselors in the film also wonder if there is a kind of violence to the self that such a quick forgiveness might inflict. They worry that the suppression of natural emotions might stunt healing; and that a legalistic understanding of forgiveness could short-circuit the full response that such a tragedy requires. In a chilling anecdote, two boys are watching the destruction of the school house where the murders took place and one boy says: “They can take down our school, but they can’t take away the things we remember.” To which another boy replied: “You better be quiet don’t let people hear you say that — we are supposed to forgive.”
Hopefully, in their analysis, these theologians and counselors considered the fact that there is a difference between genuine forgiveness that is freely given (if and when a person chooses to do so) and forced forgiveness in which it is coerced. In the latter case, the victim may go through the actions in order to appear to forgive, but true forgiveness is an internal act of free will. So unless our exterior actions are motivated by the internal actions of the heart, they do not constitute real forgiveness, and may indeed do more harm than good. So, as in the above statement, “You better be quiet; don’t let people hear you say that” we are supposed to forgive. Not only does this response reveal that some kind of coercion may be taking place (or at least in the young boy’s perception), but also a deep lack of understanding about what forgiveness is. He seems to think that unless his friend forgets the incident, he is not forgiving. However, his friend’s remembering in no way conflicts with forgiveness. On the contrary, his friend has made a realistic and poignant point that is very much consistent with what it means to forgive. Forgiveness does not take away the things you remember. When you forgive, you remember what happened, but you begin to remember in new ways that give healing and hope. A false form of forgiveness may be occurring if one is under the misconception that by pushing the memory away, he is forgiving. This attempt to forget will more likely lead to suppression of his emotions rather than the healing that true forgiveness could give.
So let us make a distinction between this kind of forced or misconstrued forgiveness and what the author above calls, “quick forgiveness.” We should be careful to distinguish between true forgiveness and pseudo-forgiveness as in the example above. We should also be careful in how we identify or label these false forms of forgiveness in order to avoid distorting the meaning of forgiveness. “Quick forgiveness” seems to imply that the act of forgiveness has been completed and done in the moment of stating, “I forgive.” Now, if a person stopped short there, by simply saying, “okay, I forgive, moving on now,” then, certainly, that would not seem to be a sufficient, much less healthy response. Again, this would be a form of false or pseudo-forgiveness. We need to remember that choosing to forgive is only the first step in the process and it doesn’t end there. The process starts with a freely-given choice, but can continue for days, weeks, months, and even years. Surely, in the case of the Amish school shootings, the victims will be recovering and working on forgiveness for a long time to come.
Theirs is a process that began with a unified statement and gesture of forgiveness as a community and will continue within each individual heart. It is a process for which each of them has been preparing for by living out forgiveness in their daily lives. This is a process in which they will need to support each other in their daily struggles to forgive.
So when asked if you could forgive as some victims of the Amish shooting, the Rwanda genocide, or the Nazi holocaust have, you can say, yes. Will we be able to forgive overnight? Do we need to choose forgiveness immediately? Will it be a “quick forgiveness,” done and over in a single breath? No, it won’t happen overnight or in a single act of the will. No, we don’t need to be ready to forgive sooner than we are ready. But with a clear understanding of true forgiveness, in its full scope and sequence, and by living the forgiving life through small acts of forgiveness, we can be prepared to exercise extreme forgiveness, should we ever need to. You might not be able to choose forgiveness immediately as the Amish did, and forgiving certainly won’t be easy, but it can happen when we are prepared by living an every-day forgiving life. Yes, extreme forgiveness is possible!