There is much in current thinking about forgiveness. It is being spoken about in religious, “pop” psychology, 12 step, and “new age” circles. The basic premises, as I understand them are:
1)When we hold onto a grudge or resentment we are only burdening ourselves, and tethering ourselves to our past.
2)The offending person is, after all, flawed and damaged, and their “true self” would not have acted in such a harmful way.
3)We might be mis-remembering or distorting the painful event(s).
4)As related to #1, forgiveness is for our own benefit, teaching ourselves to expand our hearts and our capacity to extend love, even in difficult or dire circumstances.
5)It is a way to try to continue an otherwise intolerable relationship.
I would like to suggest that these positions are based on mistaken premises. In shorthand, “forgiveness is highly overrated”. This is not to say that I am dismissing forgiveness. It is a precious experience of repair in an actual relationship, and requires that both parties be present and emotionally available. So, let’s say I were to act out of anger, or through a lack of awareness, or through selfishness, etc. and injure another person. This would clearly cause emotional damage to the person, and (if I knew this person) to our relationship. In this actual relationship, if I am faced with the harm that I caused, I may feel a resonant pain, and remorse. “I see how I hurt you; your hurt evokes a pain in me. I truly feel badly for how I affected you.” If you believe my reaction, and are touched by my remorse, forgiveness may follow. This is a repair between two people. It is a relational event, and may well deepen our relationship. And it is a spontaneous occurrence of each person both feeling affected and affecting. The hurt and anger transforms into sadness and warmth. The hurt is not forgotten, but the person is forgiven. And there is then a trust, an assumption, that this person will know and consider your need or sensitivity going forward.
But, what happens if the offending person is not open to hearing us, or is not affected but our expression, or is self- justifying or defensive, or hears us and apologizes, but does not change. Much of the “popular” approaches say that we should still forgive. The other person is limited, is wounded him/herself, had a bad childhood, etc. We should open our hearts even if they cannot open theirs. But then, what is forgiveness? We don’t have the experience of feeling heard, of experiencing our hurt touching the other, of feeling that we matter. And we don’t have a reason to trust that this won’t happen again. So melting, relaxing our self-protection, allowing ourselves to return to an intimate state of vulnerability is actually not healthy. We are in a relationship with someone we imagine – not someone who is – and we will likely be hurt, wounded, or disappointed again.
So then, what are we left with? I would say that acceptance is what may be called for. In acceptance, we allow ourselves to see things as they are; we acknowledge our hurts or disappointments. We acknowledge that the other person may never be different, whether through unwillingness, incapacity, or some other limitation. We may assess the relationship to see if there is still value to us in maintaining some form of connection, despite this limitation. (There may be some important “positives” in the person or in our connection). We may consider if we are able or willing to adjust our expectations. And we make our choice to remain involved with some new creative adjustment in the relationship, or to accept our need to end our connection. We see the person, our needs, and the situation for what they actually are, accept what we see, and go on in the best way we can see for ourselves.
We can forgive when there is an engaged other who is vulnerable to our vulnerability. This is an act and an experience of intimacy.
Acceptance is an act of awareness in the absence of an involved and vulnerable other. It is an act of acknowledgement, self-support, and self-regulation. And as such, it is an intimate connection with oneself.