Forgiveness: What It Is and What Its Not
“Doesn’t forgiving him mean that I have forgotten about what he did and I am not letting the pain get to me anymore?” As, the Group Facilitator, I listened to the question of the young woman in front of me, knowing that her story involved a significant amount of abuse of every kind. Every group member present felt the dense weight of her pain. I looked around the room of young women with similar backgrounds. Each of them seemed to have the same question burning in their hearts. I asked the group, “What do you think forgiveness is? What does it mean to you?” Responses varied, but a general theme emerged among the group members: forgiving means forgetting.
Forgiveness can be a sensitive subject. It has moral and religious ties, both of which may influence our view of what forgiveness means. From a psychological perspective, forgiveness is a merciful act. When we are unjustly hurt by another, we overcome resentment toward the offender not by denying our right to resentment, but by instead offering the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence, and love; and as we give these, we realize that the offender does not have a right to such gifts (North, 1987). Such a definition of forgiveness reminds us that an objective wrong has taken place and a just response to such an event will likely involve experiencing legitimate anger and pain.
According to forgiveness researcher Robert Enright, it is helpful understanding what forgiveness is and is not before we begin applying it (or not) in our healing processes. First, forgiveness is not condoning or putting up with the wrongdoing. Condoning enables, which maintains the wrongdoer’s behavior and possibly breeds resentment between the parties involved. Second, forgiveness is not justifying the wrongdoer’s actions or explaining them away. This might be more common in those instances where we perceive the ends justify the means. Third, forgiveness is not forgetting. As much as we might like to, we cannot undo the past. Though it makes sense that we would want to forget painful events from haunting our memories, trying to forget them may actually prolong our pain by hindering us from compassionately turning towards it. Lastly, forgiveness is not reconciliation. While forgiveness only takes one person’s decision-making, reconciliation requires both parties involved. Reconciliation may be the optimal outcome we aspire to in healthy and reciprocal relationships, but there may also be times when it is actually unsafe from a person to consider reconciliation. This is especially true when one’s safety is at risk.
As I shared this definition of what forgiveness is and listed what it is sometimes mistaken for, the young women began to open up. “You mean, I’m not supposed to forget about what happened? And it is okay if I am angry about it?” “Yes,” I responded, “You cannot change what happened so you cannot simply forget that this offense took place, but you can open yourself up to the legitimate pain you feel and from there begin considering what forgiveness might look like in your unfolding story.”
Next time, I will share more about the anger we feel following an offense and its important role in the larger forgiveness process. Until then, consider whether one of forgiveness’s imposters has gotten the best of you. If so, consider whether or not North’s definition of forgiveness is one that makes sense to you.