Should I Forgive?
The fallacies of forgiveness.
Posted March 4, 2020
Forgiveness can be seen as just another F-word—for it is fraught with fallacy. And it can be used, just like the F-word, for all kinds of things that don’t have anything whatsoever to do with genuine forgiveness.
Here’s one thing you can count on: The minute you say to yourself that you SHOULD forgive someone, you’ve already left the room of forgiveness and entered the arena of obligation. Forgiveness—if it is genuine—is a process that occurs at the level of the heart. It cannot be brought about by saying affirmations, by cognitive control, by duty or obligation or by simple action. Forgiveness—if it is genuine—is all heart.
So, let’s talk about what forgiveness is NOT, then we can talk about what it is with greater clarity. Forgiveness is NOT taking him back after you kicked him to the curb last week. Your action of taking him back could be caving to his manipulation, or it could be motivated by guilt or pity for him. It could be that you took him back because you can’t live with him and can’t live without him. So, you see the action itself is not the same as forgiveness. In fact, I’ve seen many people take him back only to hold "it" over his head like the sword of Damocles for years after taking him back—there’s no forgiveness in that kind of resentment.
Forgiveness is NOT pity for the perpetrator. Poor guy, he couldn’t help it. We may realize that someone was out of control without actually going through the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an internal process that has to do with allowing ourselves to walk through our own feelings. Forgiveness is NOT atonement—so that the person is, through the act of forgiveness, set free from the burden of having done the deed. Forgiveness is actually NOT something we do for the other person. In fact, forgiveness is NOT something we do—forgiveness does us.
Forgiveness is NOT pretending to ourselves that things are okay when they are not really. Forgiveness is NOT talking ourselves into being nice. Forgiveness does NOT make us more righteous or more right. Forgiveness—when it is genuine—actually makes us more humble. Forgiveness can NOT be controlled through the intellect. We can’t just decide to forgive someone and tell ourselves that all we needed to do was decide to forgive. Forgiveness runs much deeper than that.
Genuine forgiveness is an internal process that looks and feels very similar to grief. And it is something that happens within us as a response to our willingness to just feel and sit with our own emotions without judging ourselves for having them. Therefore, in the process, the genuine process of forgiveness, there will be anger. Perhaps even intense anger. Perhaps even rage. But we don’t necessarily need to act on that anger at this point except to get more in touch with it—perhaps by writing it down or dialoguing with the anger. Perhaps by allowing it to express through physical exercise. The point of this is allowing the anger a voice—because in that voice we find empathy for ourselves. Pretending we are not angry is NOT forgiveness. Allowing anger its voice is a part of the forgiveness process.
Allowing sorrow its voice is likewise a part of the process. Feeling the hurt, and allowing ourselves time to both sit with that pain and learn to self-soothe are important aspects of the forgiveness process. Allow the tears, write down what the sorrow is all about, maybe even dialogue with the sorrow—ask it to tell you more about why you feel so sorrowful. Then get up and do something self-soothing: dance, sing, run, talk to a friend, take a walk, eat some yogurt, do something that really soothes you—not something that should soothe you, but something that really does.
Stop bargaining with forgiveness by saying IF/THEN with it. IF I take him back, THEN it will be different this time. IF I rant and rave at him and then forgive him, THEN he will finally get it and he will never treat me that way again. What we can count on with people, generally speaking, is that they will do what they have always done—unless THEY decide to start doing something different. And that usually only happens when THEY get in enough pain to really WANT to transform their own lives. But we fool ourselves a lot in relationships by telling ourselves that the game we call forgiveness will actually make things different in the relationship. That’s not what forgiveness is for. Forgiveness is meant to change YOU.
Forgiveness is a river that flows through us in a natural process, and that, because of its power, changes the landscape around it. It carves its way through our habits of mind to get us to peer into our own souls. Then we can bring our souls to the table of life and live deeper, more meaningful lives. Genuine forgiveness finally gets us to a place in which we no longer hold on to the events of the past for we are so engaged in the now that the past was just how we got here.