What does forgiveness mean to you?

I’ve been thinking about forgiveness recently. I don’t have any clear or firm conclusions; this post is just some assorted thoughts.

Wikipedia says:

Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well. Forgiveness is different from condoning (failing to see the action as wrong and in need of forgiveness), excusing (not holding the offender as responsible for the action), forgetting (removing awareness of the offense from consciousness), pardoning (granted for an acknowledged offense by a representative of society, such as a judge), and reconciliation (restoration of a relationship).

There’s a lot of useful and interesting material in that paragraph about what forgiveness isn’t, but I’m not sure it really helps me understand what forgiveness is. The core of it, according to that paragraph, seems to be the changing of one’s own feelings about what was done.

Psychology Today says:

Most psychologists recommend mustering up genuine compassion for those who have wronged us, and moving on from the past, instead of allowing bitterness and anger toward others eat away at us. Although burying the hatchet usually brings peace to the soul, there may be some exceptions to that [advice], such as a case of sexual abuse. Sometimes a victim becomes more empowered when given permission to not forgive.

Equally, and perhaps more important, is learning to acknowledge your missteps and forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness is often the first step toward a more loving and positive relationship with yourself, and therefore with others.

Here, too, the emphasis seems to be on letting go of anger; on the person who’s doing the forgiving healing their own pain, rather than on the benefit, if any, to the forgiven person.

I think a lot of harm can be done by societal and religious valorization of forgiveness, pressuring people to forgive when they don’t feel forgiving. But forgiveness can be very powerful, when it happens voluntarily.

Given all of that, I’m interested in hearing from y’all. What does forgiveness mean to you? Is it something you do often? How does it feel to you?

I feel like this could potentially be a controversial topic, and I’m not up for moderating an argument about it today. So I’d like to ask that you try to be gentle with each other in your comments. In particular, please try not to criticize people who don’t forgive something, nor people who do forgive something that you wouldn’t.

2 Responses to “What does forgiveness mean to you?”

  1. Benjamin Rosenbaum

    I mean, I feel like I forgive and ask for forgiveness daily, multiple times a day, it’s a important part of the praxis of being in a family. Obviously this is the little stuff; we’re not talking about terrible sins, but things like screwing up someone’s schedule by forgetting you promised to do a chore by a certain time, or accidentally revealing some information you ought to have known was private (I did both of those things, and asked forgiveness for them, in the past 4 hours). Still, these are real transgressions and deal real hurts, and asking forgiveness for them is important. Especially as a parent, taking seriously the ways you screw up, and being authentic about them and willing to apologize is crucial. And the whole idea of forgiveness is that it has to be freely given, which means there can’t be social pressure to forgive — you can’t nag or cajole or bully or guilt someone into forgiving you. Again, this is particularly important when you have power, for instance when you’re the parent. You have to seek your children’s forgiveness and also make it clear that they don’t owe you forgiveness, that if you’ve done something to hurt them, they are going to be mad as long as they are mad, and you have no right to them not being mad. In an environment of goodwill where forgiveness is truly consensual and optional, if there’s clear communication, it’s relatively easy to forgive.

    I find that I can best forgive when I feel like the person who hurt me truly understands, and enters into, without defensiveness, what I felt. Sometimes reparations are indicated and important, but (at least for this kind of issue of transgressions within a healthy relationship) they aren’t usually central to my capacity to forgive. I’d far rather have them honestly understand and not be able to make it up, than to grudgingly go fix it. The commitment that they won’t do it anymore is usually more important than cleaning up the past. Also, I’m very uninterested in them suffering, e.g. as a way of equalling the emotional balance; not into that at all. “Penance” in this sense seems irrelevant to me.

    I don’t feel like I have been the subject of any great wrongs, so I’m not sure if I know much about forgiving those. But in my limited experience, I don’t make that much distinctions between the big wrongs and the little wrongs; I think the differences are matters of scale and circumstance. I am capable of committing small wrongs, and if you look at the big picture, my inaction and complacency on various fronts contribute to larger wrongs too. So I imagine forgiveness probably scales. But I don’t know for sure.

  2. Fran

    There’s an element of not holding on to anger that’s part of forgiving for me. I don’t like who anger makes ME; it’s less about the other person than it is my sense of self. I am willing to forgive if it makes that feeling go away.

    Position matters to me too. I find that my job as Associate Dean of Students requires daily forgiveness–students make wrong choices all the time, from little things like oversleeping to missing multiple classes to bigger things like not turning in work to serious things like plagiarism and dropping out. And I think one of the reasons I’m good at that part of my job is because I’m good at forgiving their missteps so that they can move on. But I’m pretty sure that the job is very Catholic (religious upbringing/believer/trying not to stomp on anyone else in my faith practice) in forgiveness: they come in remorse, and confess; I listen and offer a way to fix the problem (not-quite-absolution with penance/positive action to do). But what I mean by position is that these are seldom direct wrongs done to me so it’s easy to sort out how to forgive them. I think too that I believe so strongly in second (and more) chances that forgiveness has to be part of that. This plays out here too: for the most part, they don’t do things that I can’t figure out some way (even if it’s painful) to get past the wrong so they can get another chance to do better.

    (And all of this connects to Ben’s point: I often feel like I’m parenting the whole college and I get hurt the worst when the same kid comes and does the same thing he’s done so many times before because my forgiveness doesn’t translate into his action–one of us isn’t using the same value scale.)

    I have a big point of personal forgiveness in my history when my brother was murdered by his childhood friend. Often–years later–I am struck by his not being alive to do things that students I work with are doing. Soon, he will be more years gone than he lived. I am sad for that and that awareness colors my thoughts. I’d like to think that I have forgiven the boy who did it–but I haven’t been tested in that. I think legal justice was done–he was tried, found guilty, received a long sentence. I think the end of that sentence is a marker of forgiveness by the state. Do I believe that locking people away in a cell is a means to forgiveness? Not really. Not like making them take classes while incarcerated to be better when released, or doing things by labor to improve the lot of others. But I have never tried to contact him; I don’t want that. I don’t see myself wanting anything more in contact (either to hurt him or to befriend him) once he’s released. Do I want him to be a better man when he’s released? Oh yes; how can he possibly be a worse man in my estimation? So I’m not sure that I’ve forgiven him if I never have to face that moment of connection.

    I’ve written too much already but I’d really like to know about other folks’ thoughts on forgiving yourself. Because that comes so much harder to me that I feel like I can’t even begin to open up about it. I don’t think I’ve forgiven myself for coloring on the wall when I was 2?3? much less all the stuff I’ve done since then.


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