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 January 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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."