Some years ago, while talking with a group of gay men on the subject of forgiveness, I asked how many people in the auditorium had never experienced deep betrayal at the hands of another person. Not one of the approximately two hundred men in the room raised a hand. It was a powerful moment for all of us, a dramatic confirmation of the reality that betrayal, loss, and abandonment are universal human experiences, and that none of us gets very far in life without experiencing them.
This incident also underlined how vitally important for our happiness it is to be skilled at forgiving others. Without this skill, at some point we begin to be prisoners of the past, bound and constricted by the increasing weight of our resentments and grudges. To try to get through life without practicing forgiveness is a little like trying to run a marathon while carrying a bowling ball. Forgiveness is, first and foremost, a gift we give to ourselves.
Yet most of us have, at one time or another, experienced deep resistance to the idea of forgiving, and many of us are adamant that there are some people we will never forgive for what they did to us. This feeling is both common and strange. What is strange about it is that grudges and resentments are painful experiences for the person who holds them, and most of us know that we feel better when we’re able to let go of them. Nevertheless, we’ve all held onto resentments, as if we needed them. I believe there are at least four reasons people do this:
- We imagine that holding onto resentments punishes others. The idea that harboring ill-will toward others somehow punishes them, even when they have no idea what we’re thinking about them, is a common irrational idea. I’ve heard many people say that they won’t forgive a wrong that was done to them years ago because “it would be letting him off the hook,” as if someone they haven’t seen in years is somehow living “on a hook” if they continue to think hateful and resentful thoughts about them, but would feel undeservedly better if they stopped.
- Forgiveness means condoning bad behavior. One common misconception is that forgiving involves minimizing or even denying the reality of the wrong that was done. In fact, however, we forgive actors, not their actions. Forgiveness, as I understand it, has two parts. The first is a decision to renounce vengefulness, to let go of the impulse to get even. The second, more subtle part, involves a decision to stop evicting the offender from one’s heart – that is, to stop demonizing perpetrators, seeing them as less than human, or as fundamentally different from oneself. None of this involves excusing or minimizing bad behavior.
- Forgiveness means that we have to let a person back in our lives. This misconception is based on the fallacy that forgiveness and reconciliation are the same thing. They aren’t. It is usually a lot easier to forgive a wrong if the perpetrator apologizes, but letting go of resentment and vengefulness is still something we can do completely on our own, without the other person even knowing we’ve done it. Forgiveness involves letting go of the past, but reconciliation is about committing to a future. It means returning to some degree of friendliness, and for that to happen, trust has to be reestablished. Unlike forgiveness, reconciliation can’t happen unilaterally. If I’ve done you harm, the first step to reconciliation requires that I accept and acknowledge my wrongdoing. If I deny responsibility for what I did, or deny that I did anything wrong, we can’t really be reconciled. If I act as if your feelings don’t matter, or deny that you have any right to hold me to your ethical standards, you won’t be able to trust that I won’t hurt you in the future. Genuine reconciliation can’t just be based on the desire for harmony. It requires a mutual commitment to shared ethical standards, and, where serious harm is involved, a meaningful process of amends and restitution. We may choose, then, to forgive someone who has abused us, but still recognize that the person might continue to be abusive toward us if we re-opened the relationship. Forgiving doesn’t mean being naïve about the character or intentions of others.
- We believe that anger (not forgiveness) keeps us in control. Anger is an intense energy, and feeling it can make us feel safe and in control. But the bottomless, self-righteous rage of those who feel mired in victimization feels anything but powerful. Those who are caught in that mind-state invariably feel impotent and imprisoned in their own inner hells.
Finally, forgiving requires the maturity to accept some uncomfortable truths: that the past can’t be changed; that another person’s hateful actions can never be undone; and that the people who wronged us may never see the error of their ways. But the practice of forgiveness can also reveal another important and surprising truth: that in the end no one else has to change in order for us to be at peace.