Behind the Apology

In order to forgive, we must first blame someone for an action we see as negative. Instead of thinking "I'm right and you're wrong," we should look at the situation from the other person's perspective.

By Ellen J. Langer, published on January 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 26, 2008

Ask 10 people if forgiveness is good. All will probably tell you
that it is. According to most experts, forgiveness is something to which
we should aspire. The more wronged we have been, the more divine it is to
be able to forgive.

Now ask 10 people if blame is good or bad. All will probably tell
you that blame is bad. And yet to forgive, we have to blame. If we do not
blame in the first place, there is nothing to forgive.

But there is a step before blame and forgiveness that needs our
consideration.

Before we blame, we have to experience the outcome as negative. If
your behavior resulted in something positive for me, blame would hardly
make sense. Those who see more negativity in the world are then those
more likely to place blame.

Evaluations reside in the evaluator, not in outcomes. As we too
often forget, outcomes are not good or bad but rather equally good and
bad, depending on how we choose to view them. It is in this choice that
our greatest control lies. But if we can't find the good, what
then?

How do we deal with the slings and arrows that we feel have been
aimed at us if we do not hold someone responsible? How can we deal with
the hurt caused by others? I am speaking to the small ways we cause each
other large hurts, not societal atrocities, murder, and the like, which
for many of us are not daily realities. But what is often felt instead is
what we view as the broken confidence, the unkept promise, the lack of
support. In such instances we nurse our feelings and too often feel
self-righteous. We have evaluated their behavior and judged that they
have behaved badly.

We implicitly assume that our actions are right. We further assume
that all sensible people would do the same thing. Therefore, if you
behave differently from me then presumably you behave differently from
all of us and you must then be wrong. This would be true if there were
only one perspective from which to view behavior. We fail to consider
that the other person's behavior made sense from a perspective other than
the one from which we are evaluating it. This kind of evaluative false
consensus—everyone would do what I did in that situation—leaves us
blaming, blamed, forgiving or needing forgiveness, and then resting on a
single-minded view of events: If I am right you must be wrong. If we
recognize that multiple perspectives are valid, then we may both be
right.

Behavior makes different sense depending on the perspective from
which it is viewed. If we see the sense to the behavior we probably would
find that if we framed the situation the same way, we would have behaved
the same way. The same behavior makes many different senses. If we don't
see that, then we will remain stuck in an evaluative mind-set. In this
evaluative mind-set, we then will experience as negative outcomes that
which could have been experienced as positive. If we experience negative
outcomes then we will be tempted to find someone to blame. If we blame,
at least we can try to forgive.

But if we ask what sense the action made to the actor in the first
place, we can instead come to realize that "To err is human, to
understand divine."