When, how and why should we consider forgiving each other? It’s a vital issue for viable human interaction, both at a personal level and a world one. How long should we hold on to anger for? How does the giving or withholding of forgiveness affect those involved? Is it always the right call? I’m going to focus on the personal scale here because it’s easier to talk about, but there’s scope to scale up. Conflicts between individuals can be walked away from, you can opt out of someone’s life. Countries don’t really have that option, making peaceful solutions far more critical.
Making mistakes is very much part of the human condition. We’re also emotional creatures, and we lash out in pain and in fear. Once angered, or threatened, we may say and do things we had not intended or later come to regret. It’s important to remember that all of us can and do make such mistakes sometimes.
If you feel a person has wronged you, then you may choose to hold a grudge, seek revenge, or step away from them. All of these actions with increase the divide. Where the wrong is severe – physical harming, criminal action, life damaging betrayal, then backing away may be the best call. However, in a minor flare up, there is reason to consider forgiveness, especially if it will enable the relationship to be rescued. Forgiveness comes from the aggrieved party. If it is given freely, then the wrongdoer is not challenged, they may in fact feel that their position was justified, and they may do it again. No way should a person be freely forgiven twice for the same mistakes – that’s reinforcing and encouraging wrong behaviour and serves no one.
To forgive someone when they have offered nothing, may arguably be of benefit to the one who forgives, and no longer needs to carry that anger inside them. However, it does not enable the transgressor to learn, nor can it be relied upon to improve matters into the future.
To my mind, forgiveness should be sought, not offered. The first step in this is that the wronged person should make it known to the transgressor that they have caused offence. This should be done carefully and respectfully so as not to inflame the situation. A transgressor who refuses to listen or engage, who responds with further anger and unpleasantness, should be stepped away from until they are ready to hear the issue. (Which may never happen.) People are not good at admitting they have made mistakes, it takes a swallowing of pride to fix things, and where a relationship is not valued highly, people will seldom sacrifice pride for the sake of making amends.
Once the transgressor is aware of their error, the onus on them is to apologise. They may have reasons and explanations to offer. It is not always easy to listen to those, especially if they contradict wildly with your own perceptions but it is important to allow the transgressor opportunity to explain. At this point there is chance to tackle any genuine misunderstandings and mistakes. There may well be mistakes on both sides, and the plaintive may need to acknowledge errors and swallow pride as well. Sometimes this is sufficient to enable genuine forgiveness all round and permit all parties to move forward with greater understanding. Such a process, where it can be achieved, strengthens relationships.
If the transgressor refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing – even inadvertently, then the plaintive has to decide whether to forgive and accept what has happened. “I am not responsible for you feel” is not an unusual response. Someone who will not deal with the unexpected consequences of their actions is never easy to relate to, but it is something you can choose to tolerate and work around. If the transgressor acknowledges a mistake, then gestures of reconciliation are good, with some acceptance and moving on. However, if they keep causing offence in the same way it needs to be made clear that saying sorry and carrying on as before is not ok.
It is always reasonable to seek restorative justice, asking that the damage be fixed. It is not ok to use wounding as leverage for something else. If forgiveness is given, it should be fully given, not creating a cease fire on the issue until you decide to use that incident as a weapon in the next fight. True forgiveness is an act of letting go of the past and allowing all involved to move on. It is not easy to do. Acceptance is easier to achieve, and sometimes more productive. Clashes of personality mean we cannot always be precisely who others wish us to be, nor they serve our every need. Sometimes we just need to accept who we aren’t, and work around it.
Willingness to work through issues in this way is, to my mind, essential for honourable relationship. It can’t be done well by one person alone, requiring a willingness to recognise failings and a genuine desire to affect positive change. It is a harder way of approaching problems than with fists or raised voices. It takes longer, requires much more give and humility, and can result in some good emerging from a setback. Where people are able to work this way, it makes for stronger, better and more trusting relationships.