The Five Myths of Forgiveness

Today, class, we will take an exam. It is a pop-quiz of sorts, to test your thinking about forgiveness, specifically with regard to what I am calling some of the “myths” of forgiveness.

See what you think.

1. Forgiveness is very much intrenched in popular culture right now, but the interest will fade, as all fads do. True or false?

Although interest in the topic of forgiveness may wax and wane through the generations and across cultures, forgiveness is timeless because, unfortunately, conflict and injustice are part of this world. As long as there are conflict and injustice, forgiveness will burn brightly.

2. For me to forgive, the other has to repent and apologize. True or false?

Although it surely is good when others repent and apologize, these are not necessary for you to forgive because forgiveness is a virtue and no other virtue requires a prior response from another person before you can forgive. Some say that the withholding of forgiveness until the other apologizes is a moral good because this then helps the offender to see the error of his/her ways and to make amends. Yet, no one who says this has convinced me that the reverse is not equally true: Forgive first and point out the other’s offense in the hope that he/she will respond to your offer of goodness and therefore repent.

3. It is better to stand up for justice than to forgive because justice will directly correct wrong. True or false?

Although the quest for justice is always good, this does not mean that we have to dichotomize justice and forgiveness and try only for one or the other. We can strive for justice and forgive as we do so. These two virtues are not mutually exclusive.

4. Once a person begins to show a pattern of devaluing forgiveness, it is likely that this will continue. True or false?

Although it is difficult to break habits, forgiveness education can and does change minds and hearts with regard to the topic. So often people reject forgiveness because they have been so very hurt in this world. Forgiveness acknowledges this pain and gently offers a way out of that pain. Never underestimate the power of genuine and effective pain relief.

5. Forgiveness is a good idea, but it is too hard. No one can truly accomplish it. True or false?

Because all of the other myths were false, by now I suspect that you said “false” to this one. My question, then, is this: Why is it false? One answer to consider: As we practice any virtue, we get more proficient at it. We need not reach perfection in any one virtue to be actually practicing it. We all practice all virtues in an imperfect way. The point is to try, and then as we try, we grow in proficiency in the practice of that virtue, including forgiveness.


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The Place for Guilt and Injustice

I have been perusing some of the forgiveness blogs on the Internet and there is one theme that comes up often: If we think of the world as having injustice and guilt, this blocks out love in our lives. As soon as we understand that there is no injustice, then we see that there is no guilt. As we see there is no guilt, we do not judge anyone guilty. As we do not judge anyone guilty, we do not judge. As we do not judge, we do not divide the world into the innocent and the guilty. As we do not divide the world this way, we eliminate conflict. As we eliminate conflict we are free to love.

Nope. This is too high a price to pay for inner peace. It is a false peace achieved by hiding under a bed of illusions.

Inner peace is not won through a lack of conflict, but instead by our response to the conflict itself. Inner peace is a steadfast will to love in the face of injustice and guilt and judgement and conflict in this world.

Otherwise, we have a situation as in the movie, The Time Machine. It is the year 802,701. The peaceful Eloi have all the peace they think they want, until the Morlocks choose some of them for slaughter. The Eloi, you see, have shut out of their minds that there is conflict so that they see nothing wrong with some of their brethren being slaughtered. It is the price they pay for a full stomach, to ignore injustice. In this Time Machine world, the Morlocks are not guilty. In this world, there is no judgment. In this world, the innocent are not divided from the guilty. In this world, there is no perceived conflict.

And there’s the rub. There is no perceived conflict when conflict is all around the Eloi. They do not have the courage to see it.

Love requires courage and so in the futuristic new age of the gentle Eloi, they talk of love but even their love is an illusion because ultimately they care little for their fellow man. It is inner peace they seek at all costs, including the abandonment of love while calling all of this love.

The Eloi are now all around us. Sad to say, but so too are the Morlocks. They are at the door even if the gentle Eloi fail to recognize them for who they are. And in the seeing, we can still love, but it will be a love that sets limits and strives for the betterment of all. Such striving involves much pain, which the Eloi have refused as part of their growth in love. As a result, they fail to grow in love.


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Who Has the Right to Forgive This?

Jerome Simpson is a professional football player for the Minnesota Vikings. He recently asked fans to forgive him for spending 15 days in jail on a drug-related charge.

He pleaded guilty on March 1 to a felony charge. Two pounds of marijuana were shipped to his Kentucky home in September when he was a member of the Cincinnati Bengals

“I’m not a drug dealer or anything,” he said. He has served his time.

So, do fans have the right to forgive him? After all, the fans had nothing to do with the purchase. They are not members of his immediate family who might be directly hurt by the incident. Can fans legitimately forgive him?

I think the answer is, “Yes” because fans put faith in athletic heroes and come to legitimately expect good conduct to go along with excellent athletic ability. Fans invest time and money in the athletes and teams and therefore have a right to resentment. They then have the right to offer or to withhold forgiveness.

In an earlier blog post (April 5, 2012) I made the point that it was not legitimate for a blogger to forgive the Chicago Cubs players for failing to win the 2003 National League Championship Series. So, what is the difference between the current call for forgiving an athlete and the previous caution not to do so?

The key to the answer is this: Was genuine injustice done in each case?


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Forgiveness Is Not a Gift We Give to Ourselves

In doing some blog searching today, I came across this quotation: “Forgiveness is not something good we give to the other person, but a gift we give to ourselves.” I have seen this numerous times in different places and it is not correct. Forgiveness has been seen as a moral virtue for thousands of years. Every moral virtue, without exception, is focused on giving goodness to others. Think about justice and kindness and generosity and love as just a handful of examples of moral virtues. When you are being fair, are you primarily being fair to yourself? Stopping at a stop light while you are driving a car is an example of being just or fair. Are you stopping your car for fairness to you or to the driver who is driving through the green light and could be injured by your lack of justice? When you are being kind, doesn’t there have to be another person to receive the kindness? That virtue is not exercised for the self. What about generosity? Don’t you have to reach out to another person to be generous? And love requires another to love. Yes, we should love ourselves, but in the context of extending love to others. We do not hold love tightly for the self.

The quotation above does not imply that one forgives for the self and for others, but exclusively for the self. The author of the quote unambiguously states that forgiveness “is not something good we give to the other person.” We supposedly hold it tightly for ourselves. How can this be a moral virtue if no other virtue you can name does likewise, save the goodness for self alone?

Either forgiveness is a moral virtue or it is not. If it is, then it’s goodness has to flow out from self to others for their good. A consequence of forgiving is stronger emotional health for the self, but this is a consequence and not an essence of what forgiveness is at its core.

The author of the quotation has confused the essence of what forgiveness is with one (and only one) consequence that happens (at least some of the time) when we forgive. Sometimes we feel better when we forgive. Scientific studies support this statement. We must be careful not to say then that forgiveness is—in its essence—a gift we give to ourselves.


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Extreme Forgiveness

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!

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