I used to be a fan of forgiveness, but lately I have changed my mind. The forgiveness process has so much shaming in it: Forgive or you are a bad person; you have anger and because anger is unacceptable, then you are incompetent; others can forgive, but not you. Do you see the shaming here?
Yes, I do see the shaming, but in no case does the forgiveness process involve any of the statements in your question. No one passes judgement on one who is deciding whether or not to forgive. This is why I deliberately entitled my first self-help book as Forgiveness Is a Choice. I did not entitle it, Forgiveness Is a Demand or Else! Further, anger is a natural part of our response when treated unjustly. There is healthy and unhealthy anger. The healthy kind occurs shortly after an offense against people and shows them that they deserve to be treated better. The unhealthy kind is not a condemnation, but instead a sign that the person should begin to pay attention to that kind of anger that deepens and abides because it can lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. If you go to the doctor for a sore knee, should you be condemned? If you have a broken heart in need of mending, should you be condemned? No. Regarding pressure to forgive, each of us has a unique journey of forgiveness depending on who hurt us, when, and how deeply. We should not compare ourselves to others, thinking that forgiveness is some kind of race in which we all must cross the finish line at the same time. Do you now see that the forgiveness process is not a shaming process?
For additional information, see What is Forgiveness?
When I am hurt by others, I tend to quickly say to myself, “I forgive you.” Is this ok or do you think I actually am not forgiving?
Forgiving is a process that requires more than a statement such as “I forgive you.” Your statement to yourself may be more of a promise to now work on the process, to commit to the struggles of seeing the inherent worth in the other person, to bear the pain of what happened, and to be good to the person (within reason; you need not reconcile if the other is harmful to you). So, try to see the positives in your statement to yourself. Try to see it as the beginning of the commitment now to follow through with the hard work of forgiving.
Learn more at How to Forgive.
Suppose that over time, a culture began to see forgiveness as simply moving on with a sense of tolerance. Have the people in that culture then changed what forgiveness is? After all, the current thinking in psychology and philosophy is that forgiveness is a moral virtue of goodness toward those who have been unjust.
I think it is impossible to alter the essence of forgiveness, no matter what happens in a particular culture or in a particular historical moment. We could, I suppose, see forgiveness as a relative concept, flexible in its meaning depending on the consensus of a group at a certain point in time, but that would be to invite error.
Here is what I mean: To label forgiveness as “moving on with a sense of tolerance” will mean that forgiveness is now equated with other terms, such as acquiescence and, as part of this definition, tolerance. Yet, forgiveness never gives in or acquiesces to wrong doing, but instead labels the wrong as wrong. Forgiveness never tolerates injustice but instead labels the injustice as unjust.
When it appears that a given group is defining forgiveness in an odd way, ask yourself this question: What else might this definition represent other than forgiveness? If you come up with a sound answer, then I urge you to stand firm in the truth of what forgiveness is, despite protests and even ad hominem attacks on you as a person.
Forgiveness is what it has been, what it is currently, and what it will be long after each one of us reading this post is gone from this world.
I recently read an article by an abused person who seemed angry at forgiveness itself. The person talked of a cultural demand for forgiving an abusive person. This put pressure on the one abused. The culture of forgiving, as it was called, seemed to create a sense of superiority in those who forgive in contrast to those who refuse to forgive. Further, the person seemed angry because this cultural demand for forgiving was creating a sense of entitlement for the abuser, an entitlement that forgiveness be granted.
My heart goes out to this person who now must live with a horrible action perpetrated. No one deserves this.
At the same time, forgiveness itself deserves accuracy. If forgiveness is to be criticized, it is my fervent hope that the criticism comes from a place of truth about forgiveness’s flaws, and not from a position of error.
I think there are errors in the criticism of forgiveness which I would like to correct here and I do not want to be misunderstood. By this essay, I am not saying that the person should forgive. I am not saying that this person is inferior. I am saying that forgiveness should not be dishonored because someone does not want to avail themselves of that forgiveness.
So, please allow me three points:
1. People who forgive rarely feel superior based on my own experience talking with those who have forgiven. The path of forgiveness is strewn with struggle and tears. After walking such a path, a person can feel relief, but it is difficult to feel superior as the person wipes off the emotional stress and strain from that journey. If a person happens to feel superior, this is not the fault of forgiveness itself. Forgiveness itself is innocent.
2. Anyone who demands that others forgive is creating the pressure. It is not forgiveness itself that is creating it. Forgiveness is seen in philosophy as a supererogatory virtue, not demanded, but given if and only if the person wishes to do so. A supererogatory virtue does not make demands, even if people do demand.
3. Some who perpetrate injustice do play the forgiveness card and tell the victim that without forgiving, then the victim is a hypocrite. “Sure, you talk of forgiveness, but then you do not forgive me,” the story goes. This is a power-play by the one who perpetrated the injustice and should be recognized as such. Again, as in points 1 and 2, the fault is with particular people, in this case those who act unjustly. It is not the fault of forgiveness itself.
Forgiveness can be given a black eye by people, those who misunderstand. My client, forgiveness, is innocent and I ask the court to dismiss the charges against it.
Whenever there is war, there are serious disagreements between or among those who fight. One kind of disagreement is the contradiction in which two sides cannot both be correct. One is right and the other wrong. Then we have as a second kind of disagreement, what we call contrary views. Here, it is not necessarily the case that one is correct and the other incorrect. Both may have a partial truth. Thus, both may be wrong on some level and in different ways.
When groups insist that they are correct and morally right when this contradicts reality, and if this belief persists in the face of clear evidence against the position, we have a delusion. Delusions are part of the totality of war. Both sides can be wrong (in different ways) or just one side might be wrong and hold to a dangerous delusion that their own group is completely correct.
Forgiving others is one strong way of looking reality in the face and saying, “Yes, this person (or group) treated me (or our group) wrongly,” or “Now that I think about it, there is nothing to forgive because I cannot see how this person (or group) acted wrongly.”
Forgiving clearly is one way to break delusions that others deserve harsh treatment.
Forgiving clearly is one way to stop a war before it gets started if the aggressor can face his or her own delusions, see that others should not receive that aggression, and therefore stop acting on the delusion and aggression.
We need forgiveness in educational institutions when children are 4 years old. Forgiveness education needs to be part of instruction through the end of high school. Such education gives students the opportunity to grow up knowing how to look reality in the face, discern fair and unfair treatment, and stop the delusions, that can lead to war, before the aggression begins.