What if those hokey truisms about forgiveness are true?

I had friend years ago — I’ll call her Kathleen — who was twice my age and, in some ways, was a model of the kind of person I hoped to become. She was incisive, funny, bold, and warm, with a character committed in equal parts to having fun and fulfilling her personal ethical code. I loved and admired her during the decade I knew her before she died, but I was also aware of a stubborn knot at her core. Kathleen was a smart, sociable, mature woman, but she clung to her anger over the wounds of her childhood as if it were a precious, freshly received gift. She would barely even countenance discussions about forgiving such wrongs, regarding such talk as the Hallmark-inflected claptrap of people who were religiously deluded and morally floppy.

When, some years later, I began to recognize that some of the apparently hokey truisms about forgiveness might actually be true, I was chagrined and irritated. I certainly did not want to count myself among those wishy-washy Pollyannas who seem happiest when serving as doormats. Nevertheless, my life experience had begun to reveal to me that some of the most hackneyed sayings about forgiveness probably contained grains of useful truth. I had also become increasingly familiar with individuals who struck me as admirable warriors of forgiveness, masters like Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama, courageous social justice leaders who had nothing in common with the turn-the-other-cheek sheep Kathleen had found so distasteful.

With some of my prejudices about forgiveness out of the way, I was motivated to explore what lies beneath the Sunday school truisms and finger-wagging moralism so often associated with it. And, in fact, my first insight was that the impressive power of forgiveness remains hidden, largely because it is so often garbed in the flesh and clothing of cheap do-gooderism. It is sometimes even interpreted and presented as a self-flagellation I should perform to prove to others and to myself that I am a “good” person, surely a far better person than whatever asshole harmed or wronged me in the first place.

Here are a few popular beliefs about forgiveness that I now experience as being pretty accurate:

• It is something one does for oneself, not for the other person.

• It is an act performed from strength, not of weakness.

• It is not equivalent to forgetting.

• It is often necessary if one is to move forward with one’s life.

Again, the critical turn for me was conceiving of forgiveness as operating outside what we normally think of as a moral framework. From this perspective, the structural integrity and real power of forgiveness is not about moral “shoulds,” but about factual, instrumental relations between actions and consequence. It’s not that I “should” forgive in order to be a good person, then, but that unless I forgive I cannot find peace. This is consistent with the Buddha’s psychological and analytical approach. He does not tell us that we’re violating moral rules if we hold onto our resentments but, instead, describes anger as a hot coal that burns the hand of the one who holds onto it. From this perspective, the true motivation for forgiveness has nothing to do with a fear of offending God or of breaking some transcendent moral law. It is, instead, rooted in the basic psychological/metaphysical structure of human beings, for whom harbored and cultivated separations and resentments tend to create suffering and discontent.

Of course, viewing forgiveness this way does not dissolve all of its conundrums and paradoxes. For one thing, the practice of forgiveness between individuals seems quite different from that which involves groups and collectives. Part of why Mandela looms as such a heroic figure is precisely that he forgave whole classes of wrongdoers, including, it must be said, those who continued to actively hate him. Such systemic and collective contexts are a reminder that the model of forgiveness we’re often fed — one kindergartner apologizes to another on the playground — is pretty limited. I suspect that, at its core, to the degree that it is a spiritually interesting and viable principle, forgiveness might be understood as somewhat impersonal. Some even argue that, because the separation among beings is actually an illusion, forgiveness of the “other” is not, strictly speaking, necessary or possible. It would be a bit like expecting one’s elbow to forgive one’s knee.

I’ll admit that this supposedly spiritual, increasingly abstract view sounds a bit like the hippie, touchy feely attitude that Kathleen found so objectionable all those years ago. Do we really expect serious moral wrongs to dissolve away in a cloud of patchouli and weed? Abandoning her anger at those who had treated her poorly as a child would have felt both like agreement with her victimization and a concession to live in a world of incredibly low moral expectation. I am sympathetic with such criticisms. On a richly human level, isn’t there a place for durable, righteous anger? Given the seasons and variability of individual and collective human development, to expect oneself or others to forgive abusive treatment may itself be a form of abuse. We must each find our own way of responding if the possibility of forgiveness begins to call to us. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that some of the fiercest, most effective advocates for justice and compassion are those who have been re-energized by forgiveness, not lulled into a stupor by it.

In any case, I am not here to “advise” folks to practice forgiveness anymore than I would try to persuade others to take vitamins or go for walks in nature. Frankly, it is challenging enough for me just to focus on managing my own life. But I can happily report that I find myself better prepared and more motivated to fight the life battles that call to me when I am not permanently angry at “others.” And, to be clear, I am not just referring to the various individuals who seem to make my life difficult in small ways, or to the hate-filled groups determined that “people like me” should live as second class citizens. In fact, for me, the real shift began only when I recognized that my greatest sense of injury, victimization and resentment hasn’t really been directed at identifiable individuals or groups at all. No, I have been most pissed off at humanity as a whole, at the entire world really, for the colossal cruelties, unfathomable stupidities, and apparently boundless, repetitive suffering. But if I could come to love the whole of it, would there be anything left to forgive?

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One thought on “What if those hokey truisms about forgiveness are true?

  1. Wonderful.

    Here’s a short comment from a character on TV (a Russian general on The Americans).

    “I used to have a dog. She was not smart or beautiful, but I loved her. I loved her because I cared for her. In life, it is the things we care for that we come to love.”

    Seemed appropriate here. As often, it seems that action precedes the kind of emotions we look for to motivate us to act.


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