At least forgive OR forget. Get things behind you. All good advice for those who don't want their life dominated by the bad things that have happened to them at the hands of others.
This week’s episode is about “Forgetting and Forgiving.” Frankly, though, the ‘forgetting’ part is sort of throw-away. You should never forget the wrongs done to you. Why would you want to? Forgiving, though, is another thing entirely. When somebody wrongs us, negative emotions can eat away at us. If we let go of our anger and resentment, we experience healing and reconciliation.
One could, I suppose, think that there are times and situations when forgiveness just isn’t called for. Suppose somebody does some terrible wrong to me and is totally unrepentant. It’s not at all clear that I should forgive them.
On the other hand, you could think that when you forgive, you shouldn’t do it for the sake of the wrong-doer. Rather, you should do it for your own sake, for the sake of your own mental health.
Of course, letting go of one’s anger and moving on won’t do you any good if the person is just going to turn around and do it again. And you could think that unless the person does something to really deserve forgiveness, you’d be a fool to forgive. Forgiveness, it seems, is at least partly a matter of desert.
But that conclusion seems a bit hasty. Even if you think forgiveness is all about what’s best for the forgiver and not at all about the forgiven, you can still think that there are times when one shouldn’t forgive -- without assuming the wrong-doer can ever deserve forgiveness. Even on this approach forgiveness would sometimes be totally self-defeating and would do nothing, in the long run, for one’s own mental health. Forgiving a foreseeably repeat offender is a case in point. So, for all I’ve said so far, one can coherently hold that forgiveness is not at all a matter of desert. At least part of me thinks that there is nothing a person can do to “deserve” forgiveness. Forgiveness is always gift. It has to be freely given. We’re never morally required to forgive.
But the following thought still gives me pause. Imagine a person who is fully repentant for a wrong done. They’ve resolved never do it again. They’ve done everything possible to make up for their transgression. Why wouldn’t you forgive such a person?
What does the anti-desert person have to say here? I suppose if you stick to your guns, you can still allow that you should forgive in that situation. But you’re going to insist that you don’t forgive for the sake of the offender or even in response to the reformed moral qualities of the offender. You’ll insist that forgiveness isn’t about making the wrong-doer whole, but about making the victim whole. But even while saying that you can allow that if the perpetrator has come this far down the path repentance, the anger isn’t doing the victim any good anymore. It isn’t serving any need of hers. So she should let it go – but, again, for her own sake, not for the offender's sake.
I’m not entirely convinced by this line -- though I'm not entirely unconvinced either. It seems to me that if you can’t bring yourself to forgive somebody who is fully and sincerely repentant, there’s something wrong with you. But is that enough to show that forgiveness is sometimes the morally right thing, the morally required thing? I'm not so sure.
My imagined resister to this line also thinks not. He will dig in his heels here and insist that while being unable to forgive might be some kind of psychological failing, it’s not a moral failing. He will grant that getting to the point of forgiveness can be really hard, even when you think it would be a good thing to do. If you can’t get there on your own, then maybe you need the help of a therapist. But the crucial point for him is that we don’t blame people who can’t forgive, we console them.
But let’s try another angle. Suppose somebody has done me some serious wrong – maybe he’s seriously betrayed my confidence. I’m outraged and can’t let go. But suppose that he is fully repentant. He does everything he can to make amends. He apologizes. He promises not to do again. I still can’t forgive him. But suppose I’m the only one who can’t forgive him -- the only one who refuses to believe him or even to acknowledge the steps he has taken. All my dearest friends have forgiven him for what he’s done to me. And they are trying to lead me to the point of forgiving him too. What kind of argument might they give? Won’t they try to get me to see the error of my ways, to see the perpetrator in a new light? But if there is an error of my ways that everybody sees except me, doesn't that show that maybe I've missed something of moral significance? Perhaps if I saw it, I would be morally required to forgive him (or at least to try) -- just like everybody else?
The problem with this set up is that you could argue that it makes no sense. There's no evaluating forgiveness or the lack thereof from a disinterested, third-person point of view. It's always and only completely personal. My scenario misss this because it talks about me being the last, presumably unreasonably, holdout to forgiveness. At the same time, the scenario also imagines that I’m the only one who has been directly harmed. And you might think – indeed some theorist do think—that you can’t forgive another on somebody else’s behalf – for the wrongs they did to the other. You can only forgive somebody who has wronged you. My friends have no standing whatsoever to forgive the wrong-doer. And they probably don't have any standing to argue that I should be more forgiving either. Only somebody who has walked in my shoes -- that would be me and me alone -- can do the forgiving on my behalf.
But I’m no sure this is correct. Suppose somebody murders my brother. He’s dead and gone and is now in no position to forgive. Isn’t it possible for me to forgive the murderer on behalf of my brother?
My objector will insist not. He will say that I can forgive the murderer for what he did to me --- deprive me of my beloved brother. What I can’t do, he will say, is forgive him for what he did to my brother. Only my brother can do that.
But think about self-forgiveness in response to this line. You’ve done something wrong to somebody else. You feel a sense of guilt and remorse way out of proportion to the harm you caused. Your guilt and remorse are eating you up. It can be a healthy thing to forgive yourself, to let go and move on. And it can be a healthy thing to do this even if the victim remains totally unforgiving -- most especially if he remains unreasonably unforgiving. So I think there is such a thing as being unreasonably unforgiving.
Now I admit there are limits to self-forgiveness – though, again, it does seem like a real phenomenon. It’s not like the murderer can say to the sibling of the man he murdered, “Oh I murdered your brother. I know you can’t forgive me. But you know what, I forgive myself. So everything is fine. The slate is wiped clean.”
What does this all add up to? Lots of questions, but not many answers. Forgiveness is certainly a tricky thing. Tune in this week to see if we make some headway at making coherent sense of it. It should be a fun episode.
By the way, this is the third episode we've done on themes related to forgiveness. A few years ago we did an episode with Charles Griswold on a similar theme. We've also done a show on reconciliation and "political" forgiveness, which focused on lessons learned from South Africa. You could do worse than listening to all three of them.