To Forgive and Forget

Saturday, December 10, 2011 -- 4:00 PM
Ken Taylor

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. 

Comments (11)


Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, December 11, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Ken raises many great

Ken raises many great questions, a few of which we did touch on during the show. For now, I'd like to post a few comments on matters related to forgiveness we did not have a chance to mention. First, as one of my students recently noted, much philosophical writing on forgiveness has focused almost exclusively on how overcoming, at least in cases of significant wrongs, some form of morally inflected anger is at the core of the effort to forgive. However, it seems clear that not all victims of wrong respond emotionally in this way. Sometimes people are saddened, disillusioned, or otherwise unhappy over having been wronged, and none of these feelings are angry ones. To be sure, these sorts of feelings seem not to be "aimed at" wrongdoers, even if they are caused by them, and this lack of a target, if that's the correct way to make the point, may make us wonder whether overcoming such feelings is quite the same as the forgiveness that overcomes, say, resentment. Still, other non-angry emotions, such as disappointment, may be directed toward a wrongdoer, and it seems there is no compelling reason to suppose that overcoming this sort of feeling could not be involved in forgiving. These thought suggest, as well, that the focus on anger in many discussions of forgiveness may ignore gender differences in how people respond to wrongdoing. Anger has long been regarded as a "male" response to having been wronged, not exclusively, but perhaps typically. Some recent work in moral philosophy on the ethics of care points to rather different orientations to personal relationships in which care and responsibility "for" others may imply different reactions to having been wronged; reactions that may not have as prominent a role for angry emotions as has been assumed by many writers on the topic of forgiveness.
Ken also seems to have in mind a notion of desert not affiliated with justice that may ground the claim that some people deserve to be forgiven. This topic we did discuss on the show, albeit briefly and all too superficially (by me, I confess). I'd certainly like to learn more about what this conception of desert amounts to, which might help make sense of what it could mean to ay that a wrongdoer deserves to be forgiven.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, December 12, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Forgiving and forgetting are

Forgiving and forgetting are artifices of human manipulation. The best approach, in my estimation, is to just move on and refuse to have anything to do with those who have done you wrong. If it doesn't kill you, it can make you stronger---so long as you do not agonize over it and blame yourself for the amorality of another. Come on, now---this is rudimentary stuff. And anyone who considers him/herself among moderns (or, postmoderns) need not give it a second thought. Look at it another way (chuckle): if we believe we have thousands of friends, via Facebook and other such insipid social media outlets, why should we give a nod to some yahoo (close or not so much) who has wronged us. It just isn't worth the time. As Spock was known to say: not logical.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

This is a great discussion.

This is a great discussion. The novel The Crying Tree (www.thecryingtree.com) by Naseem Rakha delves into the issue of forgiveness in a powerful way -- I highly recommend it!

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

One of the more promising

One of the more promising programs helping victims of serious and violent crime is happening in my state of Oregon. It is called Facilitated Dialogue, and it allows these individuals to meet with and speak to their offenders. Like it was said on the show, talking with the offender finding out why, how and what happened during the crime is often the best path to forgiveness. It allows victims to ask questions, and offenders to be accountable for what they did. People who have been through the program have said that the meetings have given them back their lives. Here is a link to an article about Oregon's program. There are 24 programs like Oregon's in the U.S. now. http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2010/05/healing_in_a_hard_pl...

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

My father was extremely

My father was extremely physically abusive and verbally abusive with all four girls he raised. Much as I tried to forgive him over the years, even while he remained unrepentant and even continued to abuse my younger sisters, I could not. At my most pious moments, I felt so much guilt over not being able to forgive him. I felt I SHOULD, but I could not. Years later, he died a slow and painful death from cancer...it was almost impossible not to let go of the anger. He was so small and fading away, what else could be said...it was a tragic and horrible situation. When it was all said and done, I felt no more anger, just pity for all of the love he had missed out on in life by insisting on remaining cold and cruel to the bitter end. I was left with the feeling that he had wasted the life that God or the creator had given him with rage and bitterness. And I became newly determined to not make the same mistake myself!

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Right

Right
Forgiveness is the right thing
To forget? refreshing to me. ( I almost forgot )
And even better the act of compassion
For those who do us wrong,
Surely another wrong won?t make it right or better,
Then better or compassion is only right.
But who has that kind of strength
To love One another wrong or right?
Perhaps it best not to judge or measure,
And treat everyone equal
Or simply Just right.
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 17, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I think the conversation went

I think the conversation went around in circles a bit during this episode, although some interesting ideas did come up. The question of whether forgiveness is ever morally required is an interesting one, and I wish we had discussed why it might or might not be instead of simply presenting the opposing views of forgiveness as a free gift by the forgiver and forgiveness as something that a wrong-doer should receive upon taking certain penitent actions. I also think that the decision not to forgive could have been examined in a deeper way, as it seems that it can be just as well thought out and justified as the decision to forgive, and not simply just the lack of some forgiving capacity or an unhealthy propensity to hold onto anger.
and @ Harold Neuman, I think the logic of forgiveness is that people often need to "forgive" in order to embark upon the process of forgetting about past wrongs and moving on. I think forgiveness is just the term used to describe overcoming that first emotional hurdle, those negative feelings towards another, in order to completely forget as you suggest. Even then, blissfully disengaging from past wrongs seems like a much more difficult process than you make it out to be, but this also probably varies a lot on an individual basis.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 17, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I would say that forgiveness

I would say that forgiveness is very real, and very necessary. It helps both parties, for one needs to receive it, and one needs to give it. Holding grudges will eat you up, and just cutting off all those who every wrong you will quickly leave you standing alone. Now forgiving is not the same as forgetting - it does not require that we leave ourselves open to the same abuse over and over again. What is does require is that we don't keep bringing the old harm up, we don't keep a scorecard.
From a Christian perspective, whether the person deserves forgiveness is irrelevant - none of us deserves forgiveness, for if we did then we could demand it. All forgiveness is by definition unmerited. We all need forgiveness (no exceptions), and we forgive because we are forgiven. Being unwilling to forgive is not a matter of justice, or whether the other person deserves it. It is a matter of not recognizing one's own need for forgiveness, as well as the forgiveness one has already received.
So all of us have needed forgiveness at some points in our lives (I don't know any perfect people, and I am not one), and all of us have received it as well (or we would have no friends or family by now). And we've never deserved that forgiveness, as shown by the fact that we could not demand it. So we are all beneficiaries of unmerited forgiveness - in other words, of grace. By what arrogance, then, could we refuse forgiveness to someone else?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Forgive and forget show: I

Forgive and forget show: I picked up on overt rudeness from John and Ken towards their guest... Can I forgive them? I suppose but their image is forever tainted in my mind.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 24, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

How the heck are you, Ken?

How the heck are you, Ken? When I saw the title of this post, I couldn't help but think "So...is this going to be about sinning? Or Sinn-ing?" Interesting page...missed the episode. Forgiveness seems a somewhat paradoxical topic. On the one hand, we have the advice of many spiritual traditions that forgiving wrongs suffered is good for the victim. If I am wronged and am able to forgive the wrongdoer, I benefit: I harbor no resentments, no vengeful wishes. Certain readings of the christian and buddhist traditions seem to encourage immediate and unconditional forgiveness, regardless of the attitude of the party who has harmed you. And on the other hand, we have many stories, anecdotal (perhaps apocryphal?) of the transformative power that being forgiven has even on previously unrepentant wrongdoers. Not long ago I saw a show on ...one of those cable channels...about a woman whose son had been murdered. Visiting the man convicted of the murder in prison, she told him it had been difficult, but she was able to forgive him for what he had done. Apparently the man had never shown remorse, but on hearing the mother of his victim say "I forgive you", he broke down weeping and THEN because remorseful and repentant.
So forgiveness seems good for everyone. One of the things that always interested me is the following sort of case. Take Ken's example of the man who killed his brother. Suppose this man really and truly is being tormented, continuously, by what he did. He is truly remorseful, repentant, whatever we want him to be; if he could go back in time, he would rather kill himself than kill Ken's brother. And suppose Ken is likewise being consumed, continuously tormented, by his resentment, his wish to be able to take revenge (perhaps the killing was particularly brutal or sadistic). We can suppose that both Ken believes "If I could forgive this man, I would lose this consuming desire for revenge". And the killer might also think, "If only his brother could forgive me, I would be much easier in my mind". And yet...I can perfectly well understand Ken NOT being able to forgive the killer. Now, it seems interesting that we can think of cases where we wouldn't understand the inability to forgive, or, perhaps, we would disapprove of it. If someone makes a joke about me publicly that I take as a severe personal insult, such that even after he apologizes, explains why he thought it would be just an acceptable bit of humor, and shows all the signs of genuine remorse, I, out of wounded pride, just can't forgive him. I take it I would be thought unreasonable, overly sensitive, something of the sort. I take it no one would have such an attitude towards Ken, if he can't forgive his brother's killer, or a woman who was unable to forgive her rapist, or the victim of torture unable to forgive his torturer. We can admire someone who COULD forgive such things, perhaps even wish that we, and more people in the world, were able to do that. But while it seems that in the case of my being insulted by the joke, someone could get away with, or perhaps speak for the majority, by saying, "Oh, come on man, get over it", any such statement to a victim of rape, or of torture, would be seen as extremely inapporopriate. Even if I were to reply that YOU can have no idea how deeply the joke hurt me, how damaging it was to my psyche, how many sleepless nights it caused me, etc., to some extent, the worse the damage I tell you the joke did to me, the less respectable my recalcitrance appears. It was JUST A JOKE...etc. Perhaps we do a kind of projection..."If I were the victim of action A, would I be able to....". In the case of the embarassment caused by a joke, we imagine ourselves able to let it go. Perhaps because we can't really imagine what it would be like to have your brother murdered or to be raped, unless we've actually gone through such a trauma, we can't say..."Oh, sure, I would be able to forgive...".
It's an interesting topic.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, February 5, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

In "The Sunflower," Simon

In "The Sunflower," Simon Weisenthal recounts the story of a dying German officer calling in a Jewish prisoner and asking this single Jew to forgive the atrocities the officer has committed during the Holocaust against the Jewish people. The prisoner eventually decides that he cannot forgive for the millions of others whose lives have been destroyed by the hatred that was active also in this single officer. If 'to save one life is to save the world entire,' then to destroy one life out of blind bigotry and hatred is to destroy to world entire. Those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks would be able to forgive the pain they experienced, but cannot forgive in the name of those slaughter.
We can take the pain and grow. Ellie Wiesel, among many others, has made his Auschwitz experiences a springboard toward creating a world of caring responsibility and love. Many members of 9/11 families opposed the attacks against the Arab people because they would not have innocent people killed in their names. Redoing the world in response to injustice is a great healing act but does not imply the forgiveness of the perpetrators who must live with the consequences of their actions.
What do you think?
Bob

 

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