Feb 5, 2013 - Psychology    5 Comments

Forget Forgiveness

I’m an excellent audience. I listen attentively. I nod agreement, I shake my head in reproof. I gasp, I groan, I giggle. I smile my encouragement throughout, and applaud heartily at the end. If every listener were like me, speech classes wouldn’t be nearly so dreadful.

But I walked out on a sermon at church this Sunday.

The speaker was a very nice man, visiting the church while our pastor was doing a guest stint for another congregation. He worked very hard to be engaging, though I felt like Google and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations should’ve been given sponsorship ads. But when he started spouting tired nostrums about why it was a moral imperative for everyone to practice forgiveness to be a good person, I couldn’t take it. (I did my very best to look like I was on a mission, rather than just marching out down the main aisle in a huff.)

And just what provoking topic stirred me so strongly I couldn’t sit still?


Yeah, you read that right. Forgiveness is a huge hot-button issue for me. I have many of the finer feelings: love for my fellow humans, compassion, empathy, helpfulness. I’d like to think I’m an honorable, honest, and generally decent person.

But forgiveness is vastly overrated.

Much of my resistance comes from my wide contrarian streak. When a person is hurt or abused, modern society tells that person that they can’t heal, can’t be whole, unless they forgive the abuser. There are no allowances made for whether the injury was accidental or intentional. The pressure to forgive begins almost immediately. And nothing irks me more than being told I “can’t do” something.

Forgiveness isn’t even just for social equilibrium or a restorative justice system to function–because heavens know we don’t have either of those. No, people are told they must forgive to purge the poisons of trauma and grief, lest they irreversibly damage the body and soul. Psychologists have published dozens of studies* to demonstrate that forgiveness has an impact on physical and mental health. Whole legions of therapists and motivational speakers have built an industry on wildly cathartic activities to free people from past wrongs and the harm they continue to inflict.

In theory, none of these are bad things. Holding grudges isn’t healthy in any sense of the word, and sometimes a good crying jag or public exorcism of wrongs is the best cure available. I’m certainly not advocating grinding every axe by the saturnine light, or keeping extensive lists with titles like “People I Will Not Warn About The Impending Invasion” (though that can be a satisfying short-term exercise).

But the pressure that society puts on people to forgive and forget wrongs small and great gets internalized, and if you can’t see your way to forgiving the guilty party, then you’re left to wonder what’s wrong with you. A person who can’t forgive is treated like our society currently treats a smoker– as an immature person who indulges a destructive habit out of spiteful pleasure or addiction.

I’d like to see a more nuanced discussion of what’s needed and what’s healthy in the wake of trauma and heartache. In my case, I draw a bright line between “letting go” and “forgiving.” We all let dozens of daily slights pass away after a moment of tooth-grinding and curse-muttering. A realistic person recognizes just how little they can control in their world, least of all their human neighbors’ actions and feelings. When you can’t let go, you’re hooked as securely as a fish on a line. The Buddhists have a word for this: shenpa; the Western Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has a wonderful series of lectures on how to get and stay off that hook (here’s just an excerpt). Ironically, some people don’t feel that criminals and other wrongdoers deserve forgiveness because it “lets them off the hook,” when it’s not uncommon for the injured one to be far more firmly hooked than the injurer.

I’m not saying that “forgiveness” and “absolution” are the same thing, either. Forgiveness doesn’t require you to forego an admission of guilt and responsibility from the person who committed the wrongful act. Taking responsibility for your actions is integral to any mutual healing and restorative process, not to mention every 12-step program out there.

So it’s right and good for me to let the past go, but my forgiveness is a gift. It’s mine to give or not, and I’m not harming anyone–least of all myself–by choosing not to bestow that gift on someone who hasn’t shown the slightest interest in taking responsibility or making amends for the harm that was done to me or my loved ones. I’m not giving myself fibromyalgia or depression or cancer by choosing to see things this way. I’m not preventing my wrongdoers the chance to move on with their lives, and I’m not stuck in the past myself. I’m not waiting for anyone to earn my forgiveness, either–in fact, no one can earn it.

So in the comfort you offer anyone who’s been hurt (including yourself), on whatever scale, don’t tell them that they need to forgive. Nobody needs to forgive to be whole, and we need to learn to be able to make amends and move on without having been forgiven for our own mistakes. Those who are hurt don’t feel control over much of their lives, so don’t insist on forgiveness for anyone’s “good.” The best gifts, both given and received, are the ones that are neither required nor expected, and those in pain need them the most.

* From the most cursory Google search, here’s one from doctors, therapists, religious leaders, and Oprah, for cryin’ out loud.


  • I’ve seen recently people (such as @SarahNMoon and @graceishuman) bringing up that the social function of “forgiveness” in many contemporary Christian groups is a mechanism that allows dominant members to exert power over others. I pointed out that for early Christians it would have been a mechanism to foster unity that was very important to an (often communally living) apocalyptic cult.

    I asked if the idea of “forgiveness of sin” or the like, CAN BE anything other than a tool for control, and no one had an answer.

    I grew up believing that forgiveness was a good thing, but now, I wonder if it can ever even be not actively oppressive.

  • Odd – I’ve almost never heard ‘forgive and you’ll feel better’ offered to someone as comfort. Seems like the kind of thing that someone who is upset enough to need comfort would find infuriatingly unsympathetic.

    ‘Don’t dwell’ and ‘let the past be’ have certainly come up, numerous times. They often seem like code for ‘this isn’t convenient for everyone else to have to think about right now’, and usually in the context of a parent or authority figure dismissing a child’s personal problem. That is the context that comes off as the most callous.

    ‘Acknowledge that this happened’ seems perfectly reasonable, as does ‘how much real estate over time do you want to give this in your head?’, which is not about forgiveness at all. It’s how much you want the rest of your life defined by something that happened. The answer may be ‘an awful lot’, referencing the piece of paper folded into corners. It may be ‘as little as possible’. Making your peace with an idea and living through and on from it is a super sane thing to do, if it can be done. But none of that requires forgiveness. There’s a spectrum between accepting, even coping, with a thing and saying that it was okay, that it did no harm. Obviously it did harm, or no one would mention it.

    I do want to speak on behalf of forgiveness as an idea. If someone has made a sincere effort, figured it out, tried to improve, if forgiveness is something that *can* be offered – then that is a personal thing, between those two people, and private, and good things can come out of it. It’s a mercy, in some ways, and it requires a willingness to be merciful – which is not something that can be earned. You can’t check a series of boxes and qualify for it, mail in your receipt and get it. It takes the burden of kindness and places it on the wronged party, not the party who did wrong in the first place. That is, I think, what makes it miraculous if it is offered, and it can feel like a wonderful thing. But it is rare. I think people say ‘forgive’ and mean something that is not at all actual forgiveness so much as ‘could you please shut up’.

    But that’s just one perspective, for what it’s worth.

    • I should make something clearer than I managed in the post, I think: I don’t think forgiveness is bad, or should never be given. I forgive people all the time, for problems great and small, and true effort to make amends and set things right make me far more likely to forgive. But when I forgive, it’s a gift. I give it when it’s meaningful to me, and I give it freely with no strings attached. My forgiveness doesn’t put the receiver in debt, nor would I ever hold that over their head.

      On the flip side, there are people I can never forgive for the damage they’ve done. I can understand why they did what they did, what they’ve done since to avoid committing the same mistake again, and how they’ve shown some kind of accountability. And I personally have moved on and made the best of things; as you say, it doesn’t take up a whole lot of real estate in my head from day to day. But I don’t foresee a circumstance in which I will ever feel good about giving that gift, and I can live with that.

      Hope that makes things, if not clearer, more thoroughly articulated.

  • forgiveness is a powerful tool, not necessarily to heal, but to show moral superiority over an opponent. In Hinduism, the only person you ask forgiveness for, in the sense that you’re talking about, is god. And even then it’s not asking for absolution, but asking for understanding. Karma is Karma, after all–you can’t just wash it away with forgiveness.

    But when it comes to the sins of other people against you, even Krishna says you offer them compassion and you set aside their issue, but you don’t give them a free pass of forgiveness. If you do something that demands the forgiveness of another, you repay it with the fruit of your karma in this life and the next. And you learn that somethings are just unacceptable, and you pray that you are granted the understanding to correct your ways.

  • I couldn’t agree more with your post, Jess.

    The pressure to “forgive” is huge, and the platitudes come raining down.
    “Just get back on the horse.”
    “Let it go.”
    “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”

    Since the rapes and subsequent devalue/discard…since my community turned against me and embraced my rapist…since betrayal after betrayal around this issue, I see “forgiveness” in a whole new way.

    Too often, this urge to forgive is nothing more than yet another way to normalize abuse, blame the victim, and release the perpetrator for any wrongdoing, giving them social license to continue.

    I don’t forgive my rapist. I don’t forgive the community that turned against me and embraced him. I don’t forgive my therapist who betrayed my trust. I don’t “dwell” on it, but my forgiveness is a gift, like you said, one they don’t deserve.

    If they showed one ounce of human kindness or compassion, even acknowledgment of the damage caused, my forgiveness would be quick, no doubt, but I have no patience for people who perpetuate abuse, even support abuse and make excuses for it, and call it the victim’s fault.

    None whatsoever.

    By crying for “forgiveness” of such acts, with all the excuses given around why, further shames the victim, blames him/her for somehow not being good enough or pious enough or kind enough, when it wasn’t their lack of integrity or good nature that damaged them. It was someone else’s abuse that damaged them.

    The best thing any friend or family member can do for a victim of abuse or survivor of rape/sexual assault is to just *be there* with them. No judgment. No advice of how to “move on.”

    Acknowledge the great pain they are in. Acknowledge the PTSD. Tell them they are reacting normally to an abnormal situation. Tell them it takes time to heal and that you are so sorry this happened to them. Tell them you are there for them for as much or as little as they want to share.

    Without platitudes. Without judgments. Without the urge to forgive the unforgivable.


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