In the context of relationship drama, dealing with family and friends, or other interpersonal dealings, forgiveness can be key in moving past certain incidents and on to a brighter future. That key ingredient is not easy to come by, however.
Probably not, and here are a few reasons why:
1. It’s easy to get it wrong.
We often only go through the motions of forgiveness, either intentionally just going along to get along, or truly thinking we’ve forgiven someone while subconsciously holding a grudge. Even Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is a bit fuzzy on “forgive,” defining it as “to stop feeling anger [toward someone who has done something wrong, or about something]; to stop blaming [someone].”
Funny thing, Merriam-Webster’s: there’s a school of thought that says our brains can’t effectively process negative commands. Our cognitive processes are far more likely to visualize and manifest the most tangible element of a thought first, which would be nouns or active verbs. People discuss this concept in terms of positive reinforcement and parenting. Examples would be a dieter telling themselves to “eat carrots” instead of “don’t eat cake,” or parents telling small children to “stay in your seat” instead of “don’t run around.”
It’s hard to visualize and process don’t. It’s far easier to visualize eating cake or running around, so it can be sabotage to try and modify those with a cognitively amorphous “don’t.”
The very definition of forgiveness begins with a don’t of sorts, “to stop.” Feeling anger and blaming people are easy for most of us to do, and very hard to stop. It would be easier if we could agree on a positive definition, but for some it means forgetting what was done to you, and for some it means moving on but never forgetting. For some it means prayer, and for some it requires revenge.
We can’t even agree on a positive definition of this allegedly most positive act, so it’s no surprise that so many of us get it wrong or are just faking it.
2. It requires you to tell the truth.
If we’re to aim for something that functions as actual forgiveness, we have to come from a place of full honesty. Memory and experience are subjective to begin with, and that subjectivity is intensified exponentially when we feel hurt or injured. Forgiving the person(s) who caused the insult or injury will require reconciling it in the first place, and things get sticky when trying to ascribe order to emotions.
Every situation requires its own evaluation, so there could be a time when you’re so hurt by what someone has done that you need to sift through layers of hurt within yourself before even involving the other party. Sometimes a legitimate offense causes disproportionate pain because it triggers something within you, as opposed to as a direct result of what was just done to you.
If you’re going to forgive someone, you have to see things as they actually are, not only as you felt they went down. This means allowing room for the other person’s perspective and coming from understanding as opposed to still feeling victimized but handing out this “forgiveness” like a martyr.
3. It’s only a step to healing, not the final answer.
Many people preach forgiveness as a solution or a way to alleviate pain, but forgiveness alone does not equal healing, and if specific care isn’t taken to address our pain as well as the other person’s, it might not even end up helping. Because our emotions can be so tangled when we’ve been wronged, it’s our responsibility to detangle our feelings and respond accordingly.
Successfully moving forward after a fight, betrayal, or even a grave insult is impossible without forgiveness, but it isn’t guaranteed when forgiveness is present, either. Forgiveness is only a piece of a much larger pie, and damaging pain can still be lurking beneath forgiveness’ lovely surface.
The adage “forgive, but don’t forget” is intended as a caveat against totally wiping your memory clean, and in the best cases that can mean that you forgive someone and move forward with them, but are wiser following your hurt. But the petty is powerful. If each element of your betrayal or issue is not addressed and you “forgive” but don’t forget, all that stuff you’re not forgetting can come bubbling up at a later point, bringing with it fresh pain from old hurt.
4. The other person(s) might be reversing your efforts.
The people you’re trying to forgive might be getting in the way of their own forgiveness, whether intentionally or not. I’ve seen women with men who cheat on them and treat them poorly, only to “forgive” them and remain in a cycle of mistreatment. In some cases, those men don’t want forgiveness; they want to continue to do wrong. They don’t change their ways because they think of wrongdoing and forgiveness as two parallel one-way streets instead of an intersection.
So here you are feeling hurt and trying to forgive, when he’s giving you tangible reasons not to. But you really want to forgive, so you keep trying. Maybe you even get there, but if the other party doesn’t involve himself at all in your healing, your forgiveness is either unfair to your own well-being or disingenuous. The person who hurt you has to actively participate in their own forgiveness if it’s going to be sincere and meaningful.
5. There’s so much pressure to do it.
If you’re a person of faith, forgiveness is preached at you. Even if you’re not, there’s huge pressure to have a very Oprah or “Kumbaya” response to even the most grievous of offenses. This is often in direct opposition of our natural impulses, and even worse, we’re made to feel bad for feeling bad if we don’t immediately jump to forgiveness.
I’m here to tell you that in some cases, moving forward with someone who has hurt you may not be the best choice for you, and forgiveness might not be an option at all, and that’s OK. I’m not suggesting that you bust the windows out of everyone’s cars, but rather that you be true to your emotions instead of attempting an automated forgiveness response devoid of meaning.
The desire to forgive someone has to come from within you, and the reason to do it is because it truly is glorious when it is both genuine and justified. As I said, it’s difficult to process negative modifiers—if you have a migraine, you feel it and you know it but you don’t walk around on days when you don’t have a migraine talking about how you don’t. You just feel the relief.
Forgiveness is similar; when you’re wrestling with it, it hurts. But when you’ve really achieved it, it’s about the absence of pain.
Real forgiveness is freedom.