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.
Published on June 10, 2013 by Janice Harper, Ph.D. in Beyond Bullying.