Forgiveness and the Conflict between “Either/Or” and “Both/And” Thinking
“Either/Or” thinking is important in many cases: Do I jump into the raging river to save the drowning dog (even though I cannot swim) or do I call for help instead? I have added the numbers 10 + 11+ 12 and have gotten answers of 33 or 34. They cannot both be correct and so I better add again.
“Either/Or” thinking helps us avoid contradictions or, in the case of the drowning dog, unwise decisions. Thus, we cannot look on this kind of thinking as the bad guy in many situations.
Yet, in other situations, it is untenable and can lead to distortions. One such instance concerns the understanding of forgiveness. Some people reason that if they forgive, then they cannot seek justice. It is an “either/or” choice between two moral virtues: either I forgive or I seek justice. Yet, as Aristotle reminded us over 2,000 years ago, we should not be thinking of the moral virtues as existing independently of one another. For example, courage by itself might lead the person mentioned above to jump into the river even though he cannot swim. The practice of courage without wisdom can be dangerous and even destructive.
The practice of forgiveness with “either/or” thinking could lead to the forgiver being exploited by those forgiven. After all, the offenders might reason, we can keep up the abuse and even ask our victim to forgive us, because that victim will keep coming back for more. Forgiveness needs justice to balance the forgiving response to one that offers compassion and mercy and at the same time stands in the truth that unfair treatment must not and will not keep happening: forgiveness and justice.
“Both/and” thinking allows forgiveness and justice to grow up side-by-side, allowing the forgiver to be soft-hearted in offering mercy and tough-minded in asking for change in the offender’s behavior. Sometimes, “either/or” thinking is beneficial. At other times, it distorts and can be unhelpful. We need “both/and” thinking when we forgive.