I’ve seen a lot of posts about “forgiving” pass across my Facebook feed today.
Reading the posts and the comments, I think people make forgiveness a lot harder than it needs to be. Forgiveness is simply “letting it go.” Or you could say, “writing it off.”
I always find the concept of “forgiving a debt” helpful. You forgive a debt when it is no longer worth your while to try to collect on it. It doesn’t mean that you haven’t lost money, and it doesn’t mean you now like the person who violated your trust, or that you will ever, ever lend him money again. It just means that you are going to stop wasting life and energy and legal fees trying to collect on the debt. You write it off on your taxes as a bad loan — there’s a line item for that, right down at the bottom of page one of the 1040 form — and you let it go.
Emotional forgiveness is very much the same. You don’t need to “repair the relationship” to forgive — that’s a whole different thing, much more difficult, and it may or may not be worthwhile. To forgive, you simply need to let go: you decide it isn’t worth your time and energy to try to collect on the emotional debt. You write it off on your karmic 1040 as a bad experience and move on.
Forgiveness is unilateral. You can do it all by yourself, and you need no response from the person who wronged you: no atonement, no apology, no admission of wrongdoing. In fact, the essence of forgiveness is that you expect no response from the person who wronged you. That’s exactly what you are letting go of. They aren’t going to pay back what they owe you: forgiveness is coming to terms with this realization.
Forgiveness is also selfish, not selfless, in the healthy sense of taking care of yourself. All of the benefits of forgiveness are for you, and you alone. Oh, the other person may benefit from the fact that you no longer harp on them every time you meet at a family gathering, but that’s beside the point. The real benefit of forgiving someone who has wronged you is that you no longer need to carry the debt around. You don’t have to rehearse it in your mind late at night. You don’t need to remember exactly what was said, or when, or by whom. You don’t need to justify your own role in the matter. You don’t need to reopen the wounds periodically to make sure they still hurt as much as they always used to.
Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. If you are sane, you don’t want to forget: fooled me once, shame on you, fooled me twice, shame on me. But forgiving allows the injury to lose its lurid glow of life-shaping importance, and become just a bad experience, like stomach flu or a broken leg or a car accident. You can let it inform your life, appropriately — that’s what learning from experience is all about — but it no longer defines you or shapes your life.
Forgiveness is sufficient. The biggest confusion I’ve seen about forgiveness is when people believe it is the same as “making things right,” which typically means mending a broken relationship. That may not be possible — in fact, the relationship may never have existed in the first place. In many cases, you got played — you were used by the other person. You don’t owe the other person this confused kind of “forgiveness.” You owe yourself the benefits of forgiving them, meaning letting them go as a horrible experience you’d rather have avoided, but didn’t. Claim the tax credit on your karma and move on.
There is a deeper approach to forgiveness, based on empathy. This is the approach that comes of seeing things from the other person’s point of view. Rather than giving up because it’s costing you too much, you stop trying to collect because you understand the other person can’t pay you back. You understand that they hurt you by accident. Or the hurt was completely unavoidable. Or perhaps — and this is a hard truth to accept, if it happens to be true — the whole thing was really your fault.
This doesn’t change the nature of forgiveness, but it can go a long way toward what comes afterward, such as — for example — repairing a good relationship that tripped over human weakness and unfortunate circumstances.
For that reason, empathy is usually a better approach to forgiveness. It leads to better outcomes, and it exercises our capacity for empathy, which enhances human connection and simply feels good.
Sometimes, however, it’s best to forgive and then change your locks and your phone number.
All of this also applies to the more difficult process of forgiving yourself.
Forgiving yourself is complicated by a natural pair of psychological processes that Carl Jung wrote about as “individuation” and “integration.”
Individuation takes roughly the first half of life. It starts with the infant figuring out the difference between self and other, ball and bowl, blue and green. As the child grows, he or she learns more subtle distinctions, such as lazy or industrious, ugly or beautiful. Society says some things are valued, such as industry and beauty; others are not, such as laziness, or ugliness. The child starts to identify with various things, and make choices: I conform, I rebel, I am beautiful, I am ugly, I am kind, I am ambitious. In truth, every person is all of these things, and their opposite, to varying degrees. But in the process of individuation, every person chooses, not what they are, but what they want to be. All of the stuff that they are, but do not want to be, or don’t believe they can be, is stuffed into what Jung calls the Shadow.
Later in life there is (usually) a sea-change, and a person starts to re-integrate this Shadow. The kind person discovers a capacity for cruelty. The tone-deaf person discovers a passion for singing. All the stuff they spent the first half of life denying, returns.
It’s very, very difficult to forgive yourself when you are young and individuating. You don’t generally feel guilty about pursuing the things you want and believe yourself to be, so there is literally nothing to forgive — it’s always the other person’s fault when they slam face-first into your virtues and get hurt. You only need to forgive yourself for the things you do that are contrary to what you believe of yourself. But because you are still individuating, you can’t just “let go” of such things. You believe yourself honest, and then you lie. You believe yourself loyal, then you have an affair. You believe yourself kind, then you hit your child. You can’t just let these things go, but you also can’t accept them, so you bury them in layers of denial and rationalization.
It’s easier when you get older and start to integrate Shadow. You realize that you are (mostly) honest, but there are times to lie, and times to tell the truth that you aren’t strong enough to face. You recognize that you are loyal (mostly), but there are times and situations where you’ll betray any promise, however sincerely made. You realize that not only are you corruptible, your price isn’t really very high. You regret things you’ve done, sometimes even before you do them, and you certainly have to live with the consequences. But you can also recognize that you truly are not perfect, never have been, nor is the world a simple place, and this makes it easier to forgive yourself and simply let it go.
Easier. Not easy.
So is there anything truly unforgivable?
If something is unforgivable, it means you have no choice but to pursue payment of the debt until it is paid in full, regardless of cost. We generally call this “vengeance.” It exacts a terrible price: they say of vengeance that you should dig two graves, one for your enemy, and one for yourself. I’ve never been betrayed in a way that cried out for vengeance, and I hope I never will be.
While I’ve not experienced vengeance, I have seen grudge-holding. This is not a matter of facing the unforgivable, but merely a stubborn refusal to forgive what is forgivable. Like worry, a grudge accomplishes nothing: it does not really even inconvenience the person against whom you hold the grudge. But it does drain away life and joy — yet another reminder that to forgive is to release your own burden.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown swifter to forgive, and less likely to try to repair a damaged relationship. Even so, a deep betrayal may take me months or years to forgive. It’s appropriate to give yourself that time: like grief, it takes as long as it takes. But in the end, you forgive — you let go — and move forward with a light step.