In follow up of my last piece on the need for the application of restorative justice in the growing numbers of intoxicated juvenile rape cases, I wanted to write something on the value case for forgiveness, in particular, showing the value of forgiveness when it’s especially difficult because of circumstances or because of the personalities involved. As I sat down to write that, however, it struck me how poorly understood forgiveness truly is and how necessary it is to challenge our understanding of forgiveness. For all of its ubiquity, there are prevalent urban legends and outright disinformation, which muddy understanding of this vital skill. With the help of Gary Hawk’s chapter on forgiveness in Wilmot and Hocker’s text on interpersonal conflict, I have compiled a list of the ten most common forgiveness myths (Hawk, 2011).
I start off with the definition of forgiveness proffered by scholar Robert Enright: “When unjustly hurt by another, one forgives when they overcome the resentment toward the offender, not by denying the right to the resentment, but instead by trying to offer the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence, and love; as these are given, those who forgive realize that the offender does not have a right to or expectation of such gifts.” (Enright, 2011)
While superficially that seems pretty clear, there remains a great deal of profound misunderstanding and much of what we have been taught is misleading. This might be an opportunity for clarifying the ten most common myths about forgiveness.
1. The first thing to acknowledge is that as we delve into the darker regions of human behavior, is that for most of us, forgiveness does not come naturally or easily. It takes work and effort. The easy thing to do is to get angry and seek vengeance. Our inner sense of justice needs to seek some parity not just for the injury but the shame and the embarrassment that accompanies it; we are driven to seek redress for the humiliation of being victimized. Revenge and retribution are celebrated in our literature, our theater and our culture. We revel in seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance. There is a pervasive feeling that doing good is, to an extent, its own reward, but to have justice fully served, we need to see evil punished. The sense of satisfaction we get when we see someone truly heroic and deserving rewarded pales in comparison to the deep and abiding sense of justice restored that comes from seeing the truly deserving evil villain humiliated in defeat. Shakespeare’s Othello, while still tragic, would not be so engaging if Iago was a more sympathetic character. How many more movies will we see examining the lives of criminals and gangsters before we see one about Mother Theresa? (I ask that in the rhetorical sense, to demonstrate a point, not because I’m waiting to shell out my $10 to see a Mother Theresa movie, in all honesty, I’d probably find it pretty boring unless Sylvester Stallone was in the title role.)
2. Number two on the list of misconceptions is the concept of “forgive and forget.” This is an unfortunate juxtaposition of two alliterative terms that truthfully have little to do with each other. Forgive in no way implies forget, nor should it. Few things can be more invalidating than an admonishment to “just forget about it.” Forgiveness acknowledges and confronts an injury; it cannot exist in the presence denial of responsibility. In his book recounting the South African process of reconciliation after Apartheid, No Future without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the Faustian bargain made in exchanging truth for amnesty, “To be able to forgive, one needs to know whom one is forgiving and why. That is why truth is so central to the whole exercise.” (Tutu, 2000, as cited in Hawk, 2011) Enright’s first of four phases of forgiveness is the “uncovering” phase in which there is a candid appraisal of the injury and the many feelings involved that are enmeshed with the injury. This is where the foundation of forgiveness is laid; there is simply no place for minimization, denial or dismissal of the pain, the injury or the surrounding emotions.
3. There is a tendency for people to cool off, heal and forget about an affront or injury. This passive tendency is not forgiveness. To be sure, time is a valuable tool to be used by the forgiveness practitioner, but the gradual waning of anger is not to be confused with a conscious choice made to pursue forgiveness. Regardless whether or not forgiveness is offered directly or if it is kept internally, to the injuring party, forgiveness is not a mere acceptance of what has happened.
Nor is forgiveness to be confused with appeasement. Whether it is undertaken under threat of negative consequences, through bribery or through simple expediency, it can be seen that to overlook an injury is not necessarily to forgive an injury.
4. Giving forgiveness does not decline or waive the right to pursue formal justice. Forgiveness can be complimentary to either retributive or restorative justice, but its pursuit may or may not be independent of the judicial process. One does not need to see an injuring party punished to initiate or pursue forgiveness, and even so, punishment may be inadequate to assuage the feelings of pain and humiliation, though punishment can be helpful and restorative when it is agreed upon by both parties and the punishment helps remediate the damage. At some point, an equivalent injury perpetuates a negative cycle. Simple punishment, e.g. incarceration, does not address the injured parties injury or need to tell their story, nor is there an opportunity for the injuring party to work towards redemption. Andy and Kate Grosmaire, the remarkable Florida couple that had courage and conviction to forgive Conor McBride, their daughter’s boyfriend who murdered her with a shotgun at point blank range as she was on her knees, pleading. McBride, after serving his 20-year prison sentence, will be required to speak to local groups about teen dating violence as a condition of his parole. This will not bring Ann Grosmaire back, but if his presentations prevent some incident of domestic violence, there is some redemption to be found in that particular punishment. (Tullis, 2013)
5. Forgiveness does not imply, encourage or endorse reconciliation. Reconciliation cannot occur in the absence of at least some degree of forgiveness, but forgiveness does not commit oneself to reconciliation. I arbitrarily divide forgiveness into 3 independent phases:
a. Intrapersonal or internal forgiveness in which the forgiving party decides not to pursue vengeance or harbor ill feelings toward the injuring party. One can make this choice without the injuring party being aware of it or even posthumously. “I’m going to let it go,” can be a private decision, which does not need to be contingent on an apology or some demonstration of remorse or contrition on the part of the injuring party. For intrapersonal forgiveness, there is no burden of achieving a standard of worthiness.
This is deceptively more important than it appears. An injuring party may choose not to show empathy to his or her victim, they may not show contrition or they may show inadequate or patently false or self-serving contrition, and this eventuality must be accepted. The disappointment from watching someone make a poor choice is painful but bearable; the humiliation of having trusted someone who is willfully unworthy is almost intolerable. The risks of extending forgiveness must be confronted at this point; if one grants forgiveness with sufficient frequency, a forgiven party will at some point choose to act selfishly or choose not to reciprocate. The expectation that an injuring party will rise to some arbitrary standard of contrition seems likely to disappoint.
b. External forgiveness in which the forgiving party deems the injuring party and the circumstances acceptable to grant the injuring party’s sincere request for forgiveness. Again, this is the personal choice of the injured party and only has value if the injured party freely gives it. Much of this has to do with the circumstances and the injured party’s perception of readiness and worthiness of injuring party.
c. Reconciliation the process by which relational repair can move forward. It can be in the presence of full or perhaps only partial forgiveness, though it seems hard to imagine much meaningful progress in the relationship occurring in the complete absence of forgiveness.
6. Forgiveness is always a choice and should never be an obligation. Forgiveness not freely offered is at best superficial and has little relational or reparative value. In fact, vigilance is necessary to prevent forgiveness from being compelled or coerced and thus become a vehicle for enabling a more powerful injuring party to retain power and privilege and the expense of the injured party. It thus follows logically that one can only forgive another for the injuries he or she has personally incurred and cannot offer forgiveness on behalf of someone else; to do so would usurp their right to choose.
Many people see forgiveness as religious obligation, and that to remain in good standing in a religious community, a declaration of forgiveness is a requirement. This subtle coercion actually complicates the work of forgiveness by creating ambivalence and perhaps guilt on the part of whom forgiveness is asked. To embark on the path of forgiveness in a difficult situation requires a level of commitment on the forgiving party, unfettered by obligation.
7. Forgiveness is a gift directed at the individual, whereas punishment is directed at the act, injury or crime, but inevitably, the individual is collateral damage. Forgiveness is an attempt to humanize and understand someone who has injured someone else and it is an attempt to remind the injuring party of the consequences of their actions and their responsibility to fulfill their obligations as members of society. It is not a free pass, and it does not attempt to justify an injury.
8. As with conflict management, power balancing makes for better communication, improved relationships and a more robust conflict management. However, even in the presence of vast power discrepancies, forgiveness can be undertaken. Just as one can forgive a child, one can just as easily choose forgive a multinational corporation. In Hiroshima: Bridge to Forgiveness, his autobiographical account of how forgiveness reshaped his life, Takashi Tanemori, an orphaned Hiroshima bomb survivor who emigrated to the United States at age 18 with the single minded goal of seeking vengeance for the death of his parents and his hope for the future. (Tanemori, 2008) In Mr. Tanemori’s case, he was forgiving the United States of America. Similarly one can forgive another who is less powerful than oneself, but in the interest of the ongoing relationship, a balance of power ultimately works better. In a sense though, forgiveness is an egalitarian act that by its very nature moves to set us all on equal footing and toward a power balance.
9. Hawk struggles with the question of whether forgiveness is a decision or a process and ultimately concludes that in difficult cases, it is both. It starts with a decision, but faced with an omnipresent loss that cannot be recovered or compensated, forgiveness is a process that requires ongoing effort. Kate Grosmaire told New York Times reporter Paul Tullis that “Forgiving Conor doesn’t change the fact that Ann is not with us. My daughter was shot, and she died. I walk by her empty bedroom at least twice a day… I think about it all the time… Is that forgiveness still there? Have I released that debt?” (Tullis, 2013) Forgiving that kind of loss starts with a decision but requires persistent conscious effort.
10. The last misperception is seeing forgiveness as an act of femininity, weakness or acquiescence. We are taught from childhood that real men seek vengeance and that real men don’t get mad; they get even. According To Fred Luskin, forgiveness scholar and founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, forgiveness is a gender neutral resource allocation issue: a refusal to let past injuries take over parts of one’s consciousness that better can be used to improve one’s current and future situation. Luskin cites three core components that are necessary for the nurturing of a grievance: the exaggerated taking of personal offense, the blaming the offender for how one feels and the creation and propagation of a grievance narrative. All of this rumination squanders valuable processing time and energy in a highly non-productive direction. Forgiveness, in addition to manifold other health benefits, frees up processing space for more productive endeavors. It does not, however, provide justification or cover for heinous acts of injury.
By the time these myths are debunked, I would expect some doubt as to whether there is any familiarity with what was once believed to be a familiar concept. But, in reality, the original concept is hasn’t changed, just a few of the ground rules and, added a few common sense limitations. Perhaps the concept f forgiveness just needs to be repackaged for marketing to the consumer. Or perhaps before doing our own forgiveness work, we just need a clearer understanding of what is involved, what is to be expected and what is impossible.
Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Hawk, G. (2011). Forgiveness and reconciliation. In W. Wilmot & J. Hocker (Eds.), Interpersonal Conflict (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Luskin, F. (2002). Forgive for good. New York, NY: Harper Collins. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=tl&lr=&id=XF6v7HbX_G8C&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=Luskin,+fred&ots=67VDVR5w5N&sig=ODD4H62_IhNDu1ZmCtc-eM1IaaY
Tanemori , T. (2008). Hiroshima: bridge to forgiveness. San Jose, CA: TVP.
Tullis, P. (2013, January 04). Can forgiveness play a role in criminal justice?. The New York Times Magazine, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/magazine/can-forgiveness-play-a-role-in-criminal-justice.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&
Tutu, D. (2000). No future without forgiveness. New York, NY: Image/Doubleday.
Wilkin, L. (n.d.). The power of forgiveness. Retrieved from http://www.peacefromconflict.com/index.php/forgiveness 04/01/2013