Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.

Defining Memories


Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Game of Thrones

What a fictional world tells us about real victims and perpetrators.

Posted Jun 13, 2019

How do we respond to people who have wronged us–or to people we have wronged?  There can be lingering hostility, with an extreme form leading to revenge. Or there can be forgiveness and reconciliation.  Although these last two ways of responding to wrongdoing may seem similar, they are actually quite different.  

Forgiveness is a private act, arising from a strong belief-system and a sincere acceptance of flawed human nature. It begins when victims renounce anger, resentment, and revenge. And it proceeds by moving away from defining perpetrators only in terms of the injuries they caused and moving toward a broader view that pain and suffering are part of the human condition. 

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The expression “I can forgive but I can’t forget” is actually misleading.  Forgiveness involves a type of forgetting. A person needs to de-emphasize the original, primary memories of wrongdoing and emphasize a narrative memory that integrates forgiveness. Otherwise, strong emotion may be evoked whenever one thinks about the offenses, and forgiveness then becomes a continual effort to fend off emotional distress.

Forgiveness is an internal disengagement from the perpetrator, independent of the actions of the perpetrator.  Forgiveness is achieved, and lived with, in private.

Reconciliation, in contrast, is interactive. It is a step-wise process of acceptance, involving both perpetrators and victims. In a safe environment, perpetrators and victims work together. Perpetrators disclose their wrongdoing, accept responsibility for their actions, and acknowledge the suffering of the victims. Victims can then try to understand the perspectives of the perpetrators. Without efforts by the perpetrator, the victim should not be expected to reconcile.

Before reconciliation, victims usually think of perpetrators primarily through their destructive actions. When perpetrators elaborate on their actions and motives, they became more than the violence they committed. They become multi-faceted human beings. 

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People forgive the whole person but reconcile with the specific destructive acts of that person. 

The debate continues in psychology about the role of personality traits versus situational states in the behavior of perpetrators. And this theoretical debate becomes actualized in the confrontations between victims and perpetrators.  Most victims began as trait theorists, assuming satanic perpetrators. Who else could commit such terrible acts?  But as interactions proceed, victims can become more willing to accept a partially situationist perspective, with the perpetrator’s behavior influenced by the state of the situation. 

Which brings us to Game of Thrones and its compelling examples of forgiveness and reconciliation, and justice in general: both restorative and retributive. 

Brandon Stark (Bran) teaches us forgiveness, with Jaime Lannister and with Theon Greyjoy.  

Jaime Lannister threw Bran out of a window when Bran was a young boy in an effort to kill him. Bran didn’t die, but he did lose his ability to ever walk again.  In the final season of Game of Thrones, Bran forgives Jaime, taking responsibility for his own life and understanding Jaime’s motivations. In this way, Bran shows that forgiveness comes from within the person who was wronged and is not dependent on the behavior of the perpetrator.      

Bran also forgives Theon Greyjoy through a larger narrative of his own life. He understands that Theon’s betrayal of his family and violent capture of his home sent him into exile for a reason: so that he could become who he was meant to be.

Daenerys Targaryen shows forgiveness with her long-time protector Jorah, who spied on her and reported her actions to an enemy. Daenerys forgives Jorah’s betrayal by considering his many other acts of courage and love that kept her from harm.

Reconciliation is illustrated just before the final battle against the Night King and the army of the dead. Jaime Lannister confronts the people he hurt and gives his reasons. Three of the people he hurt sit in judgment about Jaime’s fate, similar to victims in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission considering the testimony of a violent perpetrator and then deciding whether or not to grant amnesty. 

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The three people (Sansa Stark, Daenerys, and Jon Snow) do not forgive Jaime, but they do reconcile. Jaime acknowledges what he did to hurt them and why he did it. He also reveals valuable information, telling them that his sister Cersei will not use her massive army to help them, as promised. Instead, Jaime says she intends to destroy them after their war against the Night King. 

Sansa Stark recognizes the truth of what Jaime says and the need to face the reality of the war ahead of them, Daenerys begrudgingly goes along, and Jon Snow reconciles Jaime’s offenses by acknowledging that their forces could always use another good fighter. 

Sandor Clegane (“The Hound”) shows what happens without forgiveness or reconciliation. He persistently maintains his hatred for his older brother, Gregor, who pushed Sandor’s face into a fire when he was a child.  Sandor ultimately gains his revenge, but at the cost of a closed life and ultimately his own death in the final standoff.  

Most of us don’t die from lingering resentment, but we do close ourselves off from living fully and joyfully. That is the lesson of Sandor Clegane. Although he redeemed his life to some extent through his courage and consistent application of justice, he remains forever bitter, always suspecting the worst in other people. (This unrelenting assumption is often helpful in Game of Thrones, but in real life, it usually leads to unnecessary misunderstanding and conflict.)   

For those viewers disappointed in the season finale, and especially those who signed a petition for a do-over, remember that the end of the story is not the story. There are vast middles of poignant and narratively satisfying dialog and action–the love affair between Jon and Ygritte, the red wedding, Hardhome–to name a few. You can forgive the creators of the show on your own or you can bring to mind all the joy and emotion and entertainment that Game of Thrones has provided. A disappointing ending can then be reconciled by considering all that was done well in the middle.