What Forgiveness is
In the process of forgiveness that we have outlined in two different books (Forgiveness Is a Choice and The Forgiving Life) there is one part of the process in which we ask the forgiver to “Do no harm” to the one who has been unjust. This idea of “Do no harm” is actually transitional to the even more difficult challenge to love the one who has hurt you. Yet, “Do no harm,” even though an earlier and supposedly easier part of the process, is anything but easy.
To “Do no harm” means three things: 1) Do not do obvious harm to the one who hurt you (being rude, for example); 2) Do not do subtle harm (a sneer, ignoring at a gathering, being neutral to this fellow human being); and 3) Do not do harm to others. In other words, when you are angry with Person X, it is easier than you think to displace that anger onto Persons Y and Z. If others have to ask, “What is wrong with her (him) today?” perhaps that is a cue that you are displacing anger from one incident into your current interactions.
It is at these times that it is good to take stock of your anger and to ask, “Whom do I need to forgive today? Am I ‘doing no harm’ as I practice forgiveness? Am I being vigilant not to harm innocent others because of what I am suffering?”
My challenge to you today: Do no harm to anyone throughout this entire day…..and repeat tomorrow…..and the day after that.
“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.
Inez: I’m finally beginning to understand the answer to my question, “What, exactly, do we do when we forgive?” But now I am worried. Can a person forgive too much?
Sophia: Aristotle talked about the balance of the virtues. Each virtue can be distorted in two ways, on either end of a continuum. In the case of forgiveness, if we practice forgiveness as a way of caving in to another’s request (by failing to see the injustice and acting without courage), our forgiving will look like “too much,” but it is not forgiving in any genuine sense.
Inez: I know why— because caving in is not a sign of goodness at all. The extreme expression of forgiveness as caving in distorts its essence.
Sophia: Yes, and the other extreme is to use forgiveness as a weapon against the other as you constantly remind her that she has needed your “virtuous” forgiveness.
Inez: In this case, rather than my being dominated, I dominate. That, too, is not morally good, and so I am not really forgiving.
Too often in society the word forgiveness is used casually: “Please forgive me for being 10 minutes late.” Forgiveness is used in place of many other words, such as excusing, distorting the intended meaning. People so often try to forgive with misperceptions; each may have a different meaning of forgiveness, unaware of any error in his or her thinking.
Freedman and Chang (2010, in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, volume 32, pages 5-34) interviewed 49 university students on their ideas of the meaning of forgiveness and found that the most frequent understanding (by 53% of the respondents) was to “let go” of the offense. This seems to be similar to either condoning or excusing. Of course, one can let go of the offense and still be fuming with the offender. The second most common understanding of forgiveness (20%) was that it is a “moving on” from the offense. Third most common was to equate forgiveness with not blaming the offender, which could be justifying, condoning, or excusing, followed by forgetting about what happened. Only 8% of the respondents understood forgiveness as seeing the humanity in the other, not because of what was done but in spite of it.
If we start forgiveness education early, when students are 5 or 6 years old, they will have a much firmer grasp of what forgiveness is…..and therefore likely will be successful in their forgiveness efforts, especially if these students are schooled not only in what forgiveness is but also in how to go about forgiving.
I recently was talking with someone who said that her therapist is helping her to accept what happened to her in childhood. When we have been traumatized, we should not expect ourselves to accept the situation. No one, for example, would expect an abuse victim to accept what happened.
Forgiveness is not about accepting situations. Why? Because forgiveness as a moral virtue is centered on persons and not primarily on situations. All moral virtues, whether it is love, justice, kindness, patience, or any other, is a form of goodness for other people’s good. We are not kind to tornadoes, for example.
When we forgive, we reach out to persons, those who did wrong. We work at accepting the humanity in that person, despite what he/she did. We do not accept what he/she did.
When therapists ask traumatized persons to accept unjust situations, they may be asking the impossible, which could lead to frustration and even guilt in the client. After all, if I am supposed to accept that I was brutalized, and then cannot accomplish that, I might feel inadequate. Clients need to know that it is not their job to accept situations, but instead to work on accepting the inherent worth of all persons, even those who are unjust. Even this thought takes time and effort, but is achievable with persistence and a good will.