Many people who have been hurt or whose trust and self-confidence have been damaged view resentment as the only way they can continue to live. Many believe that by forgiving a harm, they would somehow accept it, diminish its significance or release the perpetrator from all responsibility.
What does forgiveness require from us, and how much will it cost us? How will it benefit us? What must we do to forgive or be forgiven?
The difficulty of forgiving is largely due to the fact that the word “forgive” is often regarded as the equivalent of “to forget.” We humans can forget a lot. However, we cannot forget everything – and it does not seem to be in our best interest. Difficult situations that we have experienced or caused will remain in our memory. They did happen – and we should honor them by remembering them. We should also learn from our mistakes, use our experiences, which would be impossible if we just erased them from our memory.
Forgiving means accepting reality. We may not be able to forget harm, our own or someone else’s, but we can always forgive it. Instead of “it is unforgivable”, we should probably say “it is unforgettable”. Moreover, we must forgive even serious wrongdoings if we are to develop healthily. A refusal to forgive is a refusal to get rid of pain, resentment – to get rid of the victim status – and it results in misfortunes and spiritual anguish. To forgive is not to forget, but to accept what has happened, to build it into your experience, and to live on. Exactly: forgive and live on, not forget. Forgiveness allows us to remember without bitterness, even though sadness has never left us.
To forgive does not mean to release the perpetrator from responsibility. By forgiving those who hurt us, we show no tolerance or acceptance for their actions. For how could we forgive them if we didn’t first recognize that we had something to forgive – that those we forgive have done wrong? A critical evaluation of injustice is an indispensable part of the act of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is an active attitude, a clear indication of the wrong done to us, and a clear statement that it was wrong. It is not about “turning a blind eye” and treating the offender as if nothing had happened; it is not about pretending that an injustice may not have been so unfair, and therefore it is not about accepting it. True forgiveness is confronted with the reality of an unjust act.
Forgiveness also does not mean that we “erase” the fault. Each of us is responsible for our actions and must bear their consequences; we live in a complex social system that imposes obligations on us and imposes standards of conduct. The fact that we have forgiven the harm done to us does not undermine our right to receive compensation for it. John Paul II forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to kill him, but did not ask for Agca to be released. Forgiveness is an individual gift. The prison sentence was a consequence of Agca’s act required by the society.
To forgive means to gain freedom. Forgiveness does not in the least absolve the offender from responsibility for the harm done. It is the aggrieved person who gains freedom through forgiveness. Forgiveness heals every area of our life: it heals the body, relieving it of harmful physiological tension; heals the mind by replacing destructive thoughts with constructive thoughts; heals the spirit, allowing it to rise above the evil that has been done to us.
To forgive does not mean to reconcile with the offender. Many people believe that true forgiveness is about reconciling and reconnecting with the offender. This wrong view can seriously undermine the desire to forgive. Reconciliation presupposes a relationship between the offender and the aggrieved party. Perhaps, in an ideal world, forgiveness would lead to such a situation. Our world, however, is far from ideal. Some perpetrators are unwilling or unable to regret their actions and do not even recognize their fault and wrong they have done and caused. Reconciliation with an unrepentant person can be risky or simply unattainable. The culprit can also reject the offer of reconciliation. The aggrieved party cannot do anything about that.
Forgiveness does not require us to expose ourselves to further harm or take responsibility for the conduct of another – and therefore it does not require reconciliation.
To forgive is to be strong. Forgiveness is not easy. It is rarely a direct response of our heart to evil done to us. Revenge seems so much more appealing! As we try to rise above our desire for revenge and to shake off the need for compassion, we face powerful emotions. This is the price of forgiveness, a dedication that requires courage, commitment and strength, and sometimes a lot of effort – the effort to understand the culprit, the effort to constructively look at the world, as it is after the damage we have suffered, the trouble to come to terms with grief for the world as it existed before.
To forgive does not mean to fulfill the moral obligation imposed on us. Even though our religion might strongly urge us to forgive those who trespass against us, forgiveness is not a moral obligation imposed on us from outside. Moreover, forgiveness that comes from a sense of moral obligation can be difficult and harmful. Convinced that we must forgive someone who has hurt us, we are likely to offer them a poor forgiveness, a pure formality, the words “I forgive you” that will remain empty if they do not reflect a sincere desire – a desire rooted in something deeper than duty.
Many of us may have told someone we forgive him or her, because we thought forgiveness was the right thing to do or we gave in to pressure from others, but we secretly felt that it wasn’t true forgiveness. Such mock forgiveness can be detrimental to the “forgiver” because it pushes powerful emotions into consciousness where they ferment further, and do not actually relieve anger and resentment.
True forgiveness is personal and cannot be imposed from outside. It reflects the forgiving person’s personality and strength – characteristics independent of the will of others and of religious dictates. True forgiveness is a life-giving law that we cannot be deprived of, not a burdensome obligation imposed on us.
To forgive is to make a decision to forgive. We have an inalienable right to forgive, an inalienable right to get rid of grief and suffering, hatred and resentment. We don’t have to endure these negative emotions for years just because someone hurt us! The grace of forgiveness heals us and restores our self-confidence. We have an absolute right to this healing. We are not allowed to take it away from anyone. If someone hurts us, we have the right not to let that harm poison us for the rest of our lives.
Psychologist Gerard Jampolsky writes: “From the perspective of Love and the Spirit, forgiveness is a willingness to let go of a painful past. It is a decision not to suffer any longer, to heal our heart and soul. It’s a resolve to no longer value hate and anger, and to let go of the desire to hurt another person or ourselves over something that is a thing of the past.”
Forgiveness begins with being willing to forgive. Perhaps at first there will be only a desire to forgive, or only a regret that we cannot even think of forgiveness. This thirst, or desire opens the way for us to discover how to forgive. Without it, true forgiveness is impossible.