Readings about the foregiveness
September 29, 2016 9:12 AM   Subscribe

What books, essays, novels, and poems about forgiveness can you recommend? I'm trying to wrap my head around how it works, what it requires, and what it feels like. When is it appropriate and when is their virtue to holding on to anger? How does it relate to reconciliation? I realize there is lots of material on the subject from a Christian perspective, and that's okay so long as it is somewhat accessible for the skeptic or non-believer.
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Cry, The Beloved Country is all about forgiveness. Plus it's just an all-around beautiful and amazing book.
posted by jdroth at 9:40 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is a book about forgiveness from a gently religious perspective that this atheist found totally accessible. One of the main threads is a slow burn forgiveness reached from a position of great (and perhaps justified) anger. It's a beautiful book.
posted by felix grundy at 9:41 AM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

There is a LOT about forgiveness in the Western Buddhist writings. Sharon Salzberg is one of the foremost American writers and speakers on forgiveness. You can basically google her name and "forgiveness" and get a ton of really good, practical, meaningful advice on the use and misuse of anger and forgiveness.

Here's a podcast.

Here is a blog entry.

Here's a book.

There's much more out there. If you like what you see here, there is much more to explore.
posted by janey47 at 9:46 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

In a way it's hard to understand without the context of the rest of the musical, but "It's Quite Uptown" from Hamilton is about forgiveness.

Lyrics here:
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:57 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
posted by janey47 at 10:24 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Janis Abrams Spring wrote an awesome book called How Can I Forgive You. It classifies the responses to offense into four groups--cheap forgiveness, refusing to forgive, acceptance, and genuine forgiveness--and dives deeply into each. Strong recommend.
posted by Sublimity at 10:24 AM on September 29, 2016

This is mildly counter to your request but in so far as understanding something sometimes is furthered by understanding its contrary, I might also suggest Bishop Butler's sermons on forgiveness and resentment.

He's generous towards resentment as a human emotion, and while he thinks that if we humans and/or the world were more perfect, resentment would not be required, he thinks that as things stand it's a useful emotion that helps preserve our sense of self-worth and protect us from those who are untrustworthy/harmful. He condemns only malicious resentment, which is when our resentment is out of proportion to harms done or when we cease to see the humanity of another and become vicious towards them. But he thinks that some forms of forgiveness are compatible with some sustained resentment—that we need not forgive people so completely that we make ourselves unduly vulnerable to whatever harm they may cause us, only enough that we see them as human, not merely antagonists.

The forgiveness Robinson evokes in the novel I linked above falls to the protagonist as a kind of grace, in excess of what is necessary or proportional; Butler's forgiveness is more pragmatic, not perhaps less demanding but certainly less absolute.

Here are the sermons: Sermon VIII, Sermon IX.

And here's a nice, pretty approachable summary essay: Bishop Butler on Forgiveness and Resentment

Again, though he's a bishop I'm not religious and found his framework lucid and helpful. The essay is much more secular, if you find there's too much God in the sermons for your taste.
posted by felix grundy at 11:00 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also: I note that I and others here have focused on personal forgiveness; are you interested in things like collective reconciliation as well?
posted by felix grundy at 11:02 AM on September 29, 2016

The spiral staircase by Karen Armstrong was a book I was given at a time where I very much needed to learn to forgive and let go. It is written by an ex nun who is religious, but as a non Christian I found it low on the Christian aspects.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 11:25 AM on September 29, 2016

felix grundy, I guess I'm thinking of this on both levels. In addition to realizing that I was still pretty angry about some things that happened a long time ago, part of what got me thinking more about this topic was a brief article on South African history.
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather at 11:32 AM on September 29, 2016

Okay a few more brief recommendations, then:

Coetzee's Disgrace is a powerful and disturbing novel in part about the limits of personal forgiveness in post-apartheid South Africa. (There's lots of secondary literature on this, too, that addresses the themes of forgiveness in a broader consideration of apartheid and the post-colonial generally; I don't know it well enough to recommend anything in particular, though.)

Jacques Derrida's "On Forgiveness," available in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, discusses the political uses of forgiveness in light of what he calls the paradoxical nature of forgiveness: namely, that what really needs forgiving is the unforgivable. (Fairly readable as Derrida goes, also ludicrously easy to find as a pdf online, though I won't link directly. YMMV depending on your tolerance for JD.)

Finally, in At The Mind's Limits Jean Amery sets out the impossibility of forgiveness after Auschwitz, arguing (put simplistically) that the very conditions that would make forgiveness possible disappeared in that event. "Resentment" would obviously be the chapter most directed towards this, but it relies upon the exposition in the other chapters.
posted by felix grundy at 12:40 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I like looking to a mix of art (in the broadest sense of the word -- music, painting, etc) and biography for stuff like this.

Alanis Morissette wrote the song "Thank You" about, basically, recovering from probably some sort of PTSD from her meteoric rise to fame. She was really young when she got so famous and after her first big album, she didn't do any music for a time until she went to India and, in just huge crowds of people, was anonymous. People there did not know her. This is why the song says things like "Thank you India." Meatloaf also crashed after his meteoric rise to fame and it took him like 15 years to recover. He was sued by his music publisher for non-performance and played minor league softball to pay the bills. So Alanis did something pretty extraordinary.

Rembrandt had a lot of tragedy in his life, including the death of his son. Learning a bit about his life and looking through the series of self portraits he did was a deeply moving experience for me. As he got older, he made his peace and the face in the self portraits mellows.

I also like the song Forgiveness by The Eagles and the fact that when the band got back together, they called the reunion tour "The Hell Freezes Over Tour" because they had broken up bitterly and often said stuff like "hell would have to freeze over for us to get back together."

So, if you know of any art or music on this topic that appeals to you, learning the backstory behind who wrote it may give extra meaning to their artistic expression.

Siddhartha is also a good read.
posted by Michele in California at 12:48 PM on September 29, 2016

Ursula LeGuin's collection of linked novellas "Four Ways to Forgiveness" might be of interest
posted by crocomancer at 12:51 PM on September 29, 2016

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is a novel about, well, many things (don't spoil it for yourself by googling too much beforehand), but the core theme of reaching reconciliation, understanding and forgiveness was what stayed with me the most. Also, it's clever and moving. And fun.
posted by sively at 1:03 PM on September 29, 2016

The book Amish Grace is about the collective forgiveness of the Amish community following the Nickel Mines tragedy. I found it very interesting.
posted by kitten magic at 1:04 PM on September 29, 2016

When forgiveness is optional or forbidden on
posted by SyraCarol at 1:38 PM on September 29, 2016

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness is a book my father recommended to me, but I haven't yet read. Apparently it discusses the issue of forgiveness in the context of the Holocaust.
posted by matthewfells at 1:42 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the justice and reconciliation work done in Rwanda and Bosnia, I found The Key to My Neighbor's House to be very informative and absolutely compelling.
posted by janey47 at 3:10 PM on September 29, 2016

Seconding The Sunflower!
posted by Grandysaur at 3:45 PM on September 29, 2016

Seconding the recommendations for The Sunflower. It presents a dilemma of forgiveness as a true short story and then the rest of the volume is a series of reflections on the question from many different perspectives - It really help me understand how thoughtful people from different traditions and philosophies arrive at different answers to this question.
posted by metahawk at 4:58 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Close Up by Abbas Kiarostami
Secrets and Lies by Mike Leigh
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Adam Bede by George Eliot
"The Will" by Mary Lavin

The Sermon on the Mount by Jesus
posted by Morpeth at 8:45 PM on September 29, 2016

Anything that Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, in particular No Future without Forgiveness.

L. William Countryman's Forgiven and Forgiving, if you can find it. IIRC, that has a strong Christian perspective, but I still found it very helpful.
posted by dancing_angel at 10:34 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

My therapist recommend Fred Luskin's "Forgive for Good" to me. I periodically reread it in troubled times and have always found it helpful, and I recommend it to others too.
posted by raw sugar at 12:07 PM on September 30, 2016

For more non-fiction, Laura Davis' I Thought We'd Never Speak Again is all about reconciliation (approaching, choosing, or steering away from). Lots of stories about everyday and extreme (war-torn) situations about how relationships fell apart and what happened in trying to heal. It's a fairly quick read, and it is neutral/non-religious.
posted by cluebucket at 8:04 PM on October 5, 2016

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