FORGIVE OR NOT TO FORGIVE?
By Ruth Minshull
For a long time the concept of forgiveness has bothered me.
I see a couple whose teenage daughter was mortally attacked by a serial killer/rapist. The mother tearfully tells the TV interviewer: “We have forgiven him.” Another couple, who have suffered a similar tragedy, eagerly observes the bad guy’s execution, and then declare that they finally have “closure.” A woman describes a friend’s betrayal, and concludes: “I will never forgive her.”
To me there was something disturbing about all of these responses, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.
To help me sort the whole thing out, I went to the dictionary where I learned that to forgive is:
1. To excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon
2. To renounce anger or resentment against
So the word has two quite different meanings. Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” The first people mentioned above (who forgave the killer) were possibly making a bid for divinity, but is this really possible? Is it in our power, as mere mortals, to excuse or pardon someone who has committed a crime? For one thing, the law does not forgive such a crime, so we couldn’t actually take him off the hook—even if we wanted to do so. Would a supreme being forgive—especially if there is no atonement? None of us are qualified to answer that. In any case, such an action may not be within the purview of mere mortals. If the couple’s “forgiveness” meant that they had stopped feeling anger or resentment toward the offender, this is a good thing. It’s not only possible, it’s the sane way to go. Of course, if those people were merely mouthing the words because their religious beliefs demanded that they be “forgiving,” the gesture would have no real benefit for themselves or anyone else.
The folks who were hung up in their victimhood until the killer’s execution had obviously spent a lot of time weighted down with dark, vindictive thoughts. They were more likely embracing the assertion of that ethically-challenged lawyer, Alan Shore (played by James Spader in “The Practice”) who said: “To err is human, but to get even? THAT is divine.”
I would like to say that I’m above such base feelings, but I am reminded of an incident some years ago when a scurrilous character tried to swindle me in a real estate matter. After he tied me up in court for four years with hearings, appeals and delays, I won the case; the judge awarded me repayment in the form of garnisheed wages. After the ruling, as the swindler ran through the courthouse halls pursuing my attorney and mewling, “Mercy. Have mercy!” I’ll have to confess to a bit of schadenfreude.
Of course, the woman who vowed: “I’ll never forgive her” is condemning herself to a lifetime of bitterness, thus sabotaging her own chances for future pleasure. No one will ever experience a lightness of spirit while weighted down by such acrimony.
The second meaning of “forgive” is the one we can and should employ: “To renounce anger or resentment against.”
That is sane, healthy and liberating.
We must patch ourselves up and carry on. We all know that it’s detrimental to harbor feelings of outrage and indignation. It won’t change the past and it won’t fix the object of our embitterment (nor does it make the bad actor crumble up and die). We harm only ourselves. Our sour thoughts will turn inward and erode our sense of well being; they can make us sick, give us indigestion or a heart attack; they will carve wrinkles on our foreheads and scars on our souls.
So what is the answer? How do we respond when we’re the target of another person’s misdeeds?
First, I think we should examine the nature of a particular infraction. Some are more harmful than others. After all, the legal system differentiates between a misdemeanor and a felony, a murder and manslaughter. We should do something similar.
The question would be: how serious is the offense?
“I know you’re the one who ate all the cookies in the cookie jar, but I’ll overlook it this time.” (Of course, we may want to tighten the Cookie Rules or find a better hiding place.)
The other person may have simply made a mistake—a bit of mischief, a step on the toes, an inadvertent omission, a forgotten promise, an unfortunate word choice. We’ve all done such things and had them done to us. These unintentional slights should be forgotten immediately. They don’t even need the act of “forgiving”; they should be dismissed as unimportant.
At another level, people sometimes create hurtful feelings because thoughtless behavior is in their nature. They don’t return calls or respond to emails, they’re chronically late, they neglect to thank people for favors, or their loutish behavior is a public embarrassment to their companions. It’s best to simply understand such people and (if we don’t remove their numbers from our speed dial) expect nothing better from them.
And then there are those clods with atrocious manners. They never mean to offend; they simply don’t know any better. You ask a couple to dinner and they arrive bringing three extra friends. You send a wedding invitation and they don’t RSVP. You invite them for a weekend visit and they won’t commit, “I’ll try to make it…” they say, and leave you on hold. You send a gift and get no “thank you”. You make an appointment to meet, and they show up 30 minutes late. In most such cases, these people don’t mean to slight us, they’re merely thoughtless. They haven’t grown up yet. (Some of them never will, of course.)
If such rudeness or neglect is habitual (with no bad intentions) we need to understand and accept them as they are Or, if we don’t want to be bothered, we can simply relegate them to the Christmas-card-only list.
None of these little flubs warrants tying ourselves in knots. We need to give them a shrug and move on.
On the other hand, certain conduct involves more than slip-ups or ill-mannered oversights. These are damaging acts by deliberate intention. A person betrays a confidence, sabotages our project, steals from us, undermines our work, delivers veiled insults, tells lies about us, stabs us in the back, harms us physically or emotionally.
Such behavior is not an accidental lapse, but an act of malice. His or her conduct exposes the person as an enemy or, at best, a “toxic friend”.
We need to acknowledge, without embellishment, that such people are evil. We should make no excuses for them, or try to explain away their behavior. They are simply wired differently than we are, and they are detrimental to our survival.
If someone cheats us, cheats on us, lies to us, lies about us, steals from us, or harms us in any way, we should move out of their orbit and then make every effort to benefit in some way from the experience. Instead of grumbling incessantly, we need to say, “OK. What can I learn from this?”
To make lemonade out of the lemon, it helps to sweeten it by recognizing a portion of our own responsibility in the situation. We may be able to examine and understand our own vulnerability, our naiveté, our gullibility or (dare I say it?) our stupidity—and thus avoid similar pitfalls in the future.
We may recall a moment (“You know, I had a feeling I shouldn’t trust him…” or perhaps “This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been so greedy.” or possibly “I was too needy and felt flattered by his attention.”). It’s remarkable how often we can find some level of responsibility when we search for it.
As to punishment, we’re better off when we don’t dwell on the desire for revenge or a wish to see the miscreant suffer. We might want to boil him in oil, to pull her fingernails out one-by-one, but, whatever flogging the person deserves, it is best meted out by the courts, his God or his conscience (if he has one).
But should we trust the betrayer in the future—with our life? Our children? Our money? Our heart? No, no, no and no.
Still we do need to get over it—whether we call it “forgiving” or something else. We do this, not to take the other guy off the hook, but to disconnect ourselves from the anger and bitterness—in order to restore our peace of mind.
Forgiving does not necessarily mean it’s OK for him to do what he did. It does not mean that we absolve him of all responsibility. (That isn’t up to us, and we couldn’t do it anyway.) It simply means: “I’m not going to let this thing stick to me. I’m done with it.”
So, whatever kind of “forgiving” we do—whether we’re trying to make the other person feel better, or we’re trying to be righteous (in a bid for divinity) or whether we’re excusing (“It’s OK. It doesn’t matter”)—the most important function of forgiving is disconnecting ourselves from all negative feelings toward the culprit.
In the end, the first thing to remember is that forgiving is not really about the other guy.
It’s about us.
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© 2011 by Ruth Minshull