I disliked the word “forgiveness.” It confused me.
Once I was in a discussion about a father on trial for the brutal murder of his daughter’s rapist and murderer. The issue was, if the father did commit the crime, whether he deserved to be forgiven by the family of his victim, the man who raped and murdered his daughter. Toward the end of the discussion, I think this sentence popped from my mouth: “no one deserves to be forgiven, just as there’s no one who does not deserve understanding.”
In my opinion, forgiveness is overrated. Personally, I have never been able to forgive anyone who has hurt me enough to leave scars, as much as I have wished to.
What I have been able to do is to stop feeling the pain and move on. Eventually, I may even mend a previously close and genuine relationship. Their past actions just don’t bother me anymore. I suppose forgiveness isn’t a prerequisite for love and compassion.
If you’re still with me, I think you have become just as confused as I was about what forgiveness means. “How can forgiveness not be a prerequisite for love and compassion,” you instinct chides. However, if I were to ask you to define forgiveness, can you come up with an answer that satisfies yourself?
The word “forgiveness” occurs so often in mass media, the self-help genre in particular, that media producers and consumers have come to assume “forgiveness” to be self-defined. “Forgiveness” is the new “organic” — everyone uses it and puts it on a pedestal but no one explains just what it means.
For the longest time, I have thought of forgiveness as recovery. It’s about how I react to what happened to me, not about the person who committed the actions. However, when forgiveness is attached to another person, like in the phrase “I forgive __(that person),” its meaning becomes murky.
Because I think of forgiveness as something relevant only to me, I have never believed that forgiveness for another person exists. As a result, I feel repulsed when self-help gurus bring up the phrase “I forgive you” and prescribe it as some omnipotent antidote to victimhood.
The Definition of Forgiveness
To get a more objective outlook on forgiveness, I asked Google. I searched “what is forgiveness,” and decided not to trust online articles with their truckload of pre-existing assumptions as well as the circular, one-line dictionary definition: “the action or process of forgiving or being forgiven.”
I went to Wikipedia instead, because it is the source that seemed the most objective and provided the most extended definition:
“Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, forswears recompense from or punishment of the offender, however legally or morally justified it might be, and with an increased ability to wish the offender well.
Forgiveness is different from condoning (failing to see the action as wrong and in need of forgiveness), excusing (not holding the offender as responsible for the action), forgetting (removing awareness of the offense from consciousness), pardoning (granted for an acknowledged offense by a representative of society, such as a judge), and reconciliation (restoration of a relationship).”
Apparently, my instinctual definition of forgiveness — that forgiveness is the same as self-recovery — is pretty close to Wikipedia’s.
On the other hand, attaching forgiveness to another person (“I forgive he who hurt me”) sounds more like excusing, while attaching forgiveness to an action (“I forgive you for bullying me”) is dangerously close to condoning. It is these two concepts — condoning and excusing — that often get mixed into the way we talk about forgiveness, when we’re mindless about it.
How Forgiveness Is Used in Everyday Language
If you don’t agree with me here, think about the way forgiveness is generally used in everyday language:
A: “I was drunk. I’m sorry for sleeping with your boyfriend while you were still going out.”
B: “It’s okay; I forgive you.”
When forgiveness is granted, it almost always follows the phrase “It’s okay.” It might be true that B has truly moved on and no longer feel hurt by the broken relationship and A’s betrayal, but does it mean it is okay? We are not even sure what the “it” in “it is okay” refers to — A’s sleeping with B’s boyfriend, A’s drunkenness, or the pain that B endured.
Instinctively, to say that something is okay implies that it is just. In reality, however, no action that needs forgiveness can be objectively justified in the first place. It is not okay that A slept with B’s boyfriend, even if A was drunk, and it is not okay that B experienced pain because of A’s action.
That is why I have never said “it’s okay; I forgive you” to anyone, because I don’t feel honest saying those words. I have changed my feelings and attitude about the offense, let go of negative emotions and the desire to punish the offender, and genuinely wished those who have hurt me well, just as Wikipedia defines forgiveness to be.
But for me to say “it’s okay; I forgive you,” I feel like I will somehow efface what happened and the damage it caused, like I’m saying “it’s okay you did what you did to me.” Even if I were to leave out the “it’s okay” part, by merely attaching forgiveness to the offender, I still feel as if I’m no longer holding the person accountable for actions that, objectively speaking, they should be accountable for.
The Power of Forgiveness, and How to Wield It Correctly
“But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”
— Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Forgiveness is powerful. However, the way forgiveness is commonly used turns what could have been a potent tool for recovery into a pretense, a sponge that wipes away hurt by calling it “okay.” The healing power of forgiveness is twisted into the dark magic of revising history. That’s not what forgiveness is, and that is not what healing entails. From firsthand experience, I’ve seen that healing can occur without sanitizing the offense and making it benign.
I was once confused about what forgiveness means, but now I see that forgiveness isn’t at fault for what I felt to be misalignment with my healing process. It is the way I was taught to express forgiveness that has made me reluctant to say that I have forgiven.
Indeed, the word “forgive” should have been an intransitive verb, attached to neither the offender nor the offensive action, only to the subject who has recovered. The expression of forgiveness should be an inner celebration, a party within ourselves, a milestone in our healing journey.
However, until major dictionaries change the transitivity of “forgive” from transitive to intransitive, I will stay away from using the verb form in conversation with others. Instead of saying what others expect me to say — “it’s okay; I forgive you,” I will say something else even more magical: “I am okay.”