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