Is forgiveness only for the unforgivable?
May 7, 2012 2:28 PM   Subscribe

How to forgive yourself and others healthily

I've been thinking about the concept of forgiveness lately and realized that when I have forgiven someone in the past, I have either:

- not included the problem in question into my idea of who that person is (i.e., ignored/forgotten about it)

- changed the problem into a non-problem by pretending it doesn't present a problem, or convincing myself not to worry about it (i.e., been a doormat or repressed the negative feelings against them)

Neither of these really amounts to what forgiveness should be, but I don't know what healthy forgiveness would look like. I want to hear from you on how to forgive in a productive way that requires neither ignoring the problem or pretending it isn't a problem. What circumstances deserve forgiveness and what circumstances preclude it? What does "forgiving" ultimately mean? I'd appreciate personal anecdotes, literary sources, philosophical musings, or practical resources that can lend advice to this question.
posted by grokfest to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I just read this and wanted to put it somewhere useful, and then saw your question:

If you see someone in the fullness of their humanity, you see how they are acting out their own confusion and suffering. This does not justify hurtful or evil acts. It doesn’t even always inspire forgiveness. But if you see someone this way, you respond more in sadness than in anger. And that is simply a more excellent state of being. Even if you’ve never had this experience (and more’s the pity), respect the experience of those who have.

It's from Sarah Horowitz, responding to her father's difficulty with the concept that "all human beings, no matter their trespasses, are incarnations of the divine spirit." I think even outside the religious context, the key to forgiveness is recognizing that everyone has their own burdens.
posted by mercredi at 2:44 PM on May 7, 2012 [15 favorites]

Forgiving is the act of letting it go. Of not allowing whatever it is rent space in your head anymore. Most importantly forgiving is something you do for yourself, not the other person.

If someone is unkind to you, but it was a lapse, or unavoidable or whatever, and you feel that it is worth it to forgive him or her because ultimately their presence in your life is worth it, then you can forgive them.

If someone constantly uses you, disregards your feelings or puts you down, you can forgive them, (they don't know any better) but you might want to phase such a negative influence from your life.

Forgiveness is not ignoring a problem, or pretending it doesn't exist. That is doormat-ism. If you have a friend who makes plans with you, but will ditch you in a minute for a hot date, the first time you may choose to forgive the behavior, but if it happens again, you may want to re-assess your relationship because one of you is more into it than the other.

Here's a hint, if you're stil angry about it, you haven't forgiven, you've ignored. This is toxic and unhealthy.

If you have someone in your life and they behave badly on a regular basis, you must discuss it with them. "I don't like it when you ____, it makes me feel __________, and I don't want to feel like that." You can have a dialogue, but if you can't come to an agreement, or the person shines you on, you have to reframe your relationship.

This is really hard with family. But boundaries are excellent things. Good fences do make good neighbors.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:44 PM on May 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

If someone does something wrong to me, forgiving them means accepting that they did it and not harboring any resentment or anger about it, while at the same time taking steps to fix the situation or prevent it from happening again. For example, if someone borrows something relatively of mine and breaks it and for whatever reason can't replace it, I'll forgive them and not hold a grudge but I may be less likely to let them borrow something or be more careful about letting people borrow important things in general.

What circumstances deserve forgiveness and what circumstances preclude it?

I at least try to forgive everyone for everything because at the end of the day holding a grudge is only something that makes me miserable. When you actually forgive rather than just forgetting about it or ignoring it, there's not really a downside to forgiveness because it's just a healthy way of thinking about what happened. Even if someone does something really horrible to you, you can absolutely work to make sure they face consequences and/or that you never have any contact with them again, while at the same time reaching the point where internally you can forgive them for what they did and not let it continue to hurt you.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:53 PM on May 7, 2012

Response by poster: All interesting responses so far, but each seems to focus more on crimes specifically against me by another person, rather than crimes against my morality. Since this is the circumstance that stimulated my thoughts on the matter, I wanted to ask for advice that would apply to such a situation.

For instance, imagine a family member has committed a crime you consider morally indefensible. How do you go about forgiving this person in a way that maintains the relationship but does not excuse the wrongdoing?
posted by grokfest at 3:06 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I started this after your update, grok, so forgive me for not addressing it...

My dad was an identical twin. His brother, R., was married and had three kids. One day many years ago, R's wife decided that she didn't love him anymore and she found a new man. Instead of getting a divorce, she made the decision to kill R in a violent, terrible way. But she was sloppy and got caught and sent to jail.

Fast forward and R's kids are grown up now with kids of their own. One of R's grandkids was graduating from high school. Hooray! So Dad went to the graduation party to celebrate with the family. And who was there to celebrate the graduation? R's wife, the murderer. The woman who killed his identical twin brother.

Dad later told me that he had to make a decision instantly. For 20+ years he had harbored anger against this woman, vowing to kill her with his own hands if he ever saw her again. I heard him mention it a few times growing up, how it would be justice served. But faced with a surprise confrontation, Dad took the high road. He locked eyes with her for a moment and forgave her. He didn't yell at her. He didn't beat her up. Even though she killed the person he was closest to in the world, he made peace with her crime and decided to move on.

I don't know if he cried afterward. I know he didn't speak to her or tell her his decision - he didn't acknowledge her presence. But I bet there were some intense emotions going through his head that day.

Ever since, I have found it surprisingly easy to forgive. After all, nobody has done something as heinous to me, and if he could forgive such a crime, then I can too.
posted by tacodave at 3:25 PM on May 7, 2012 [8 favorites]

For instance, imagine a family member has committed a crime you consider morally indefensible. How do you go about forgiving this person in a way that maintains the relationship but does not excuse the wrongdoing?

I don't think this is really the same thing as forgiveness, at least to me. You phrase it as "crimes against your morality" but really if someone is doing something that doesn't actually affect you then it's less something you can forgive them for and more something that you can decide not to judge them about. It's a related concept but not exactly the same thing. Personally I think it's a good idea not to judge people too much for flaws in their personality or mistakes they have made, but to a certain extent it's always going to color the way you perceive them.
posted by burnmp3s at 3:28 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me, forgiveness is, as Ruthless Bunny said, letting ago. It's the act of simply releasing the hate and anger and pain so that it doesn't take up space in my mind and heart anymore, and accepting that nothing I can say or do will ever make the thing that hurt me okay. You don't forget about it, or pretend it away, you just fully accept the thing that happened in a way that takes a lot of its sting away.

True forgiveness is, for me, sometimes very difficult. It has taken me years in many cases. It's really not about the person you're forgiving at all. It's about your own hurt and pain, and how you deal with it so that it doesn't continue to fester, making you ever more bitter.

And I'm sorry to say, in my experience, truly forgiving a person for doing something you find morally indefensible doesn't necessarily allow you to maintain the relationship. My father was a violent drunk and drug addict who, on more than one occasion, tried to kill my mother, brothers, and me. I was able to forgive him, but not until I had already cut off contact with him. He was a deeply sick and troubled person; continued contact with him would have always led to continued pain. I couldn't begin to forgive the old pain until new hurts weren't being caused.
posted by mostlymartha at 3:41 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Look into Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, and other works by Stoic philosophers. They often touch on this subject and on taking nature for what it is.

... it is not men's acts which disturb us, for those acts have their foundation in men's ruling principles, but it is our own opinions which disturb us. Take away these opinions then, and resolve to dismiss thy judgement about an act as if it were something grievous, and thy anger is gone. How then shall I take away these opinions? By reflecting that no wrongful act of another brings shame on thee: for unless that which is shameful is alone bad, thou also must of necessity do many things wrong...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:43 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You can forgive (internally) and choose to never be in the presence of that person every again. If you must be in their presence, you can choose to not acknowledge their presence, particularly in the way they usually want you to (which is with open acceptance).

Forgiveness can also come in the guise of "I understand why but I don't agree with it and I choose very deliberately to only interact with you in certain ways".

I actually don't know if it's always healthy to completely remove feelings of hatred from certain relationships. I know my family had a weird dynamic where very bad things were forgiven and accepted and that was largely it. In my view, it had quite long-lasting negative effects. Continued association with such people meant that to a certain extent what they did was absolved. It's not something that sits very comfortably with me.

You are entitled to your anger. The people who usually tell you to stop being so angry are the ones who have some role to play in it. It's when it consumes your life in a negative way that it becomes a problem.

So, I don't think forgiveness is always necessary. Moving on, though, is - whether physically or mentally.
posted by mleigh at 4:13 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think forgiveness is necessary. If you search you will find some articles about that - that society pressures people to forgive because it is good for society, but is it really any better than just not caring anymore? Does everyone really deserve forgiveness?
posted by meepmeow at 7:56 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Background: my mother was verbally abusive to me throughout my entire childhood and on a few occasions, she saw me as her punching bag to kick and throw around. If I would go to her with any kind of interpersonal problem, she'd laugh at my face, call me pathetic, and badmouth me to the person in question. Whenever I threatened to call Child Protective Services or the Police on her, she'd manipulate my Dad into convincing me to keep her in the house for the sake of our social standing in the community. :(

Anecdote: in 8th grade, I remember crawling into my mother's car one day and sobbing because I'd had an awful day being bullied. I begged her to allow me to attend Milton, a boarding school, because I didn't want to be near my peers (or her...) any longer. She looked at me for a few moments, started laughing at my face, and said she'd go report my grievances to my school principal. I asked her to not go to the principal and to instead allow me to present my case for boarding school at dinner time. She refused, got out of the car, and made a huge scene with the principal until the principal herself walked to my car and asked me what was going on. So, I awkwardly had to explain that I'd been admitted to a leading school back East and was being picked on by a female peer who started a Myspace to bash me publicly (that still hasn't been removed) and that my efforts to subpoena her, her family, and Myspace and to create a cyberbullying case were unsupported by my mother. The principal then had the audacity to tell me to respect my mother's informing her about my unhappiness and promptly dismissed all of my documented and notarized AIM, Myspace, and in-person bullying evidence. My mother then smirked, dropped me off at my sitar lesson, and then conveniently forgot to ask my nanny to pick me up. So, the 14 year old version of me without a cell phone had to walk eight miles after dark. (Imagine the things that could've happened to me!) Upon my arrival at home, my mother smacked me and ripped apart my Milton acceptance letter.

Conclusion: if you multiply the above paragraph by infinity, you'll have an accurate reflection of the kind of mother-daughter relationship I experienced and explains why I have such severe trust and commitment issues. Upon moving away from her, I managed to forgive--but not forget--the kinds of things my mother did to me and how little she cared for me by recognizing that wasting any energy hating her was killing away the neurons I needed to cram for my A levels. After accepting that I'd be the bigger person by letting go of the hurt and severing non-obligatory ties, I was able to look her in the eye and see her not as a monster to be feared but as a frail, narcissistic, menopausal woman to be pitied. Notice that the realization for me was internally-imposed; no therapist, friend, lover, or trusted elder can eliminate the pain and betrayal you feel. Only you can!
posted by lotusmish at 8:09 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My long time saying:

"Forgiveness is a gift. Trust is earned."

I think way too many people confuse the two things.

Coincidentally, I wrote two days ago about what it looked like to forgive someone who abused me as a child:
posted by Michele in California at 8:21 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: FYI, found this in the Paris Review advice column:

"I’m working on a character who is trying to figure out secrets in his family and still hold it intact … I've been reading Albert Camus’s The Fall and loving it, but wondered if you might have any other suggestions for literature dealing with themes of forgiveness to help out with some inspiration?
Much Obliged

Dear Obliged,

The first title that pops into my head is Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? Then I hear Henry James: “Yes, and forget her, too.” James wrote lots of novels about forgiveness. The Wings of the Dove, which I have never made it through, The Ambassadors, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Altar of the Dead all turn on acts of forgiveness. If your subject is forgiveness in marriage, you may be inspired by Norman Rush’s Mortals or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief. Then there are Jonathan Franzen’s last two novels, Freedom and The Corrections. Forgiveness is a big subject in Franzen’s work, though critics don’'t often point it out. The Corrections is less about marital forgiveness, more about how hard it can be to forgive one’s parents and kids. Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment has to do with forgiveness in divorce. D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers has to do with forgiveness between mothers and sons; Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage has to do with forgiveness between Geoff and D. H. Lawrence ... For some reason everywhere I turn today, I see people asking to be forgiven and trying to forgive. Maybe you can’t go wrong. "
posted by grokfest at 11:22 PM on May 7, 2012

To your question: You and the person who hurt you both have your ankles locked in a bear trap. It's painful as all hell and you are desperate to get out. But in order to set yourself free, you'd have to set the other person free as well. Are you willing to do that? Which is more important, being right or being non-miserable? Grudges can be terribly exhausting and not very useful.
posted by Orchestra at 11:42 PM on May 7, 2012

I occasionally go to AA meetings with a close friend. My friend is a member, I am not, nor am I an alcoholic. At a recent one someone talked about forgiveness and reconciliation, that it is possible, even desirable, to forgive without that necessarily involving reconciliation or rapprochement. Letting go of the anger, the grudge, is liberating, but in some circumstances it is better to just cut that person out of your life rather than trying to find a way to get along.
posted by mareli at 7:19 AM on May 8, 2012

Response by poster: People have talked about forgiveness meaning letting go of anger or a grudge against someone, which I find interesting. I don't have anger or a grudge, but on the other hand I feel like I should have those things if I think about what the person did and continue to have a problem with that behavior.

I think I tend to think about things in fairly deterministic terms. Event (1) I establish a norm of acceptability (2) Someone breaches that norm (3) Either I respond (internally or externally) in a way that demonstrates its unacceptability, or I reevaluate (1).

What is a different way to act at point (3)? It's seems logically complete, and in this system, it is hard for me to understand where forgiveness fits in.
posted by grokfest at 2:31 PM on May 8, 2012

Hey, grokfest: Some people arejust not strongly emotional. It sounds to like that might be your situation. But for people who are strongly emotional, forgiveness can be a gift they give themselves in terms of letting go of negative emotions that have been eating them up. If that is not an issue for you, then you probably only need to evaluate the person in terms of trust. In other words, you need to judge only if their past actions give you reason to trust them or not. Some people can be trusted in some situations but not others.

Does that make sense? Or did I misunderstand your question?
posted by Michele in California at 3:55 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

What people are doing when they forgive are: purging themselves of feelings of hurt, anger, sadness, distress and allowing themselves to move on with their lives. Forgiveness is about freeing oneself - if you don't feel you need to be freed from anything, then you don't need to forgive.
posted by mleigh at 9:23 PM on May 8, 2012

Response by poster: Michele in California:

In a practical sense, framing it as a question of trust makes perfect sense, and is extremely illuminating. I really appreciate it.

On the other hand, though you address this somewhat at the outset of what you wrote, what I'm wondering is if I would feel angry/hurt/distressed if I didn't repress the feelings by either ignoring the problem or pretending it wasn't a problem. Am I truly unemotional, or just dishonest with myself and not self-aware?
posted by grokfest at 10:41 PM on May 8, 2012

Hi grokfest:
I do not know you enough to judge you personally and give you the answer you are looking for, but in my experience, strongly emotional people do not need to ask such questions. They are typically prone to stewing rather than ignoring or suppressing things. It sounds like a fairly intellectual exercise for you, so I suspect you are just not that emotional. Most likely, it takes a whole lot to really get to you emotionally. If so, you may find that you actually are grudging, possibly extremely so, for the small number of things in life which went beyond the pale for you. Other people are simply much more emotionally reactive than it sounds like you are.

posted by Michele in California at 12:23 PM on May 9, 2012

Response by poster: Michele:

Yeah, ok, I get what you're saying. I'm just trying to evaluate the alternatives. Thanks for your help.
posted by grokfest at 5:22 PM on May 9, 2012

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