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A Lesson from Nelson Mandela on Forgiveness

If we cannot forgive in our own lives, perhaps we can learn to forget.

In recent weeks I have received a couple of different queries about how and why one should forgive. One reader wrote asking if he should forgive those who had so seriously hurt him in his workplace, costing him his job and reputation. Another wrote that she knew that healing required forgiving those who’d harmed her, but she was not yet ready to do so.

In both cases, those the readers sought to forgive probably weren’t even sorry for the very real damage and wounding they had caused. Particularly in cases where damage is inflicted by a group, the individuals within that group rarely take responsibility for their own actions. Like members of a firing squad who simultaneously pull the trigger, they sleep soundly at night knowing they couldn’t have fired the deadly bullet. Besides, such logic follows, if “everyone” is hurting someone, the blame falls on the target for having done something to deserve it.

There can be no more timely moment to contemplate the concept of forgiveness of those who are not sorry than now, as Nelson Mandela reaches the end of a life that became an exemplar of forgiveness. Imprisoned for 27 years for his objection to Apartheid, tortured many of those years, when he was finally released from prison in 1990, he called not for revenge, but for forgiveness and reconciliation. Many felt betrayed that he would turn away from righteous anger, particularly when the terrors of Apartheid were ongoing, yet the world took note of such a powerful heart and mind, and thus it came to be that the dark years of Apartheid reached their end.

If a man tortured and imprisoned for nearly three decades could find in himself forgiveness, what lessons might we take from him on how to respond to acts of aggression and cruelty in our ordinary lives? Ought we forgive those who are not sorry for their cruelty and the pain and suffering it produced?

Perhaps we must first give thought to why those who harmed us may not be sorry. If we bump into someone in the street, we will say we’re sorry. But if we bump into them with our car and break their bones, we are less likely to apologize. Why is that? (Aside from the fact that we don’t want to be sued once we’ve admitted our culpability.) Assuming we are normal healthy people and not sadists or psychopaths, the reason we are less likely to be sorry for our actions the greater the damage they have caused is because we are humane. And because we are humane, we find it very troubling to face those aspects of ourselves that are fallible and cruel.

Think of it this way: if we bump into someone in the street, we aren’t likely to stay awake at night reliving the event and wondering if we did the right thing by walking in their path. It was an inconsequential act that won’t even cross our minds again. But if we have really hurt someone with our actions, we are more likely to toss and turn and relive the event—until we settle on the best possible explanation for our own actions. And that explanation usually comes down to: I did the only thing I could do. I had no other choice. They were the ones who weren’t watching where they were going. It was their fault, not mine. They got me into this ordeal.

We will focus more on forgiving ourselves for our actions by excusing them, than on asking for forgiveness, because we do not want to believe we are the kind of people who would so something to hurt another so badly. This is the process of cognitive dissonance, which enables us to psychologically adapt to facts which make us uncomfortable. We tend to find the loopholes.

So back to forgiveness. If those who have harmed us are not sorry for the damage they have done, is there any point to forgiving them when they have no remorse? Perhaps revenge is sufficient reason, for as Oscar Wilde once said, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” Another reason might be that if we forgive in our hearts those who are not sorry, we open our own hearts to compassion, and the ability to forgive ourselves.

Forgiveness requires compassion, which is to say, remembering the humanity in each person—whether we respect or like them or not is irrelevant. Recognizing that those who harm us have made poor choices—choices that may have cost them nothing, may even have advantaged them, but for which we alone must suffer—does not mean that they are exempt from moral responsibility for their actions. It means only that we understand they were not acting as “monsters,” but as humans. And humans can indeed behave monstrously at times.

Finally, when forgiveness is too hard, there is another way. When anger and pain overpower a person’s ability to forgive, perhaps it is not forgiving one must focus on, but on forgetting. Clearly, there are historical events such as Apartheid or the Holocaust that one must never forget. And any act of cruelty we suffer comes with it lessons we best not forget lest it happen again. But to release the anger and heal the pain of wounds caused by another, we must first learn not to think on how much we are hurting. We must learn not to relive the event again and again in our words and our minds. When thoughts of another’s injustice intrude, we become empowered by pushing them out. When the swelling anger of a wrong once done begins to mount, we learn to shift to another thought or vision. We move our bodies and move our minds, from our pain to our presence—and fill that presence with laughter, peace or a concentrated focus on anything but our pain.

And we do it again and again, until those thoughts diminish. And in time, we begin to forget. And in forgetting, we make room to forgive. To forgive someone does not mean what they have done is excused; it means we recognize that they made a poor choice in how they acted and for that lapse in judgment, they are forgiven. That is not the same thing as forgiving someone for the damage they have caused. The damage is done. It is up to the other person to accept or reject responsibility for that damage (and chances are, they’ll reject it). But it is up to each of us to accept or reject responsibility for our futures, whatever limits there may now be upon it.

In honor of the life Nelson Mandela has lived, let us each find one small place in our hearts to extend forgiveness to another. And if we cannot forgive, let us work to forget. Once we have forgotten, and moved forward in our lives, we may discover we’ve forgiven, if no one other than ourselves. Which is where all healing begins.

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