“Forgive” is a word that means a lot of different things to us. When I wonder if I should forgive or long to be forgiven for something I’ve done or suffered, there are a whole suite of things I might be wondering about or longing for. Consequently, there’s a certain ambiguity in most discussions of forgiveness that I have and hear that sometimes lead to our talking past one another. This week’s debut of WBUR’s Dear Sugar Radio got me thinking about this again. You don’t have to have listened to follow this post, but probably you should, just on account of it’s nice. In it, two thoughtful people try to help another thoughtful person decide about whether or not she ought to forgive her father. In what follows I just try to help myself understand what it is we’re asking about when we ask questions like that. And, also, obviously, whether or not I am entitled to smite my many enemies. Here’s what I have so far:
One thing I might be wondering when I wonder whether or not to forgive (one thing the advice-seeker is certainly wondering) is whether or not it’s still reasonable to be angry. I might want to let go of what I take to be a destructive emotion, or to know that I am no longer such an emotion’s object. Anger is so exhausting. It’s hard on the body. It makes one feel too big and then too small. There are lots of reasons for wanting not to be angry anymore.
A second type of thing I might be wondering about or longing for is the repair of a relationship. I might be wishing we were friends again, or that our friendship were what it once was. I might be wondering if it makes sense to trust you as I used to, or meet you for a drink, or invite you to my wedding. What I might be wondering is: Given what you did, does it make sense to try to work things out? Is it consistent with my values? With self-respect? With my abiding love? One thing I’m wondering is if I should just accept that the relationship is forever something different now and less, even let it go entirely, or if I should make some attempt at repair.
Right off the bat we have two senses of “forgive” which will often enough come apart. I’m sure it’s true that sometimes you should let go of your anger toward a person who has violated your trust even if it would be crazy to trust them again. I’m equally sure there are times when it makes sense to be angry with someone, given what they did, even though the relationship can ultimately be repaired. In these cases — and in all cases, I think — “Should I forgive her?” is a question to which there is no single answer. It depends on what you mean by “forgive.”
A third dimension of forgiveness as we tend to deploy that concept is as something more like acknowledgement or understanding. When I ask myself “Should I forgive her?” one thing I might be wondering is whether or not the thing I can’t seem to forgive was, in the end, understandable. And, on the flip side, when I long for forgiveness, one thing I might be wanting is that the person I hurt should come to better understand my reasons for having done the hurting thing.
This third dimension of forgiveness is itself really several. What I might want you to see and understand is that, though what I did caused you some harm, it was, all things considered, the right thing for me to have done. To have done otherwise would be to have behaved dishonestly, to have failed to meet my commitments to others, to have lived a life of drugery instead of the higher life of passion and artistic engagement. The details here will depend on how one thinks a life should be lived, and what sorts of responsibilities particular relationships involve, but the question wrestled with is the same: It hurt, but was it really wrong?
This longing for forgiveness-as-understanding in this sense is often the deeply felt wish that a person we’ve hurt could only see things from another point of view — ours; society’s; eternity’s; god’s. In this kind of case one may be so sorry to have been the source of another’s pain, though one can’t, in all honesty, claim to feel that the rift-causing act was wrongly undertaken. It’s an interesting question whether what you’re doing is really forgiving or longing for forgiveness, exactly, if it’s just about moving past pain and not about atoning for or letting go of a wrong. There’s a philosophical puzzle here that’s tracked by a felt one. We can feel this, in its worst version, in our instinctive dislike of the the “I’m sorry if you took it the wrong way” apology. But there are nicer, more understandable versions, too. A person can be genuinely haunted and torn up about pain she’s caused even when she knows it was the right thing to do. She can judge another person’s anger or rejection to be understandable, even while feeling that what she did was in some sense the correct thing, and she can, consistent with all this, still long for repair and the foreswearing of anger. Whether or not, on reflection, we think this is really a desire for forgiveness per se or just something like it, it’s certainly one of the things we care about and call out by that name.
The longing for forgiveness-as-understanding can take another form, too: The longing to be understood as human, and flawed, and capable of enormous error and misjudgment, and still yet worthy of love, acceptance, communion. In this case, I understand what I did as being wrong. I didn’t just hurt you, I fucked up. I was dishonest. I was disrespectful. Whatever. But my error was human. I behaved cruelly, but I’m not cruel. Or, I was cruel then, but I hope you can understand why a person like me, having been through what I have, would reacted in that way. This might be predicated on the thought that the wrong I did is something any fallible human might have done in such a circumstance, or something that I, given who I am, couldn’t have helped. But I know, still, that it was wrong, and I’m sorry, and I wish I had done otherwise— had been someone better, who could have. And yet I hope, still, to be seen even by those I have wronged as worthy of various kinds of trust and inclusion. I want to be worth even all the trouble I’ve caused. I want to be worth it to you.
So one complexity about talking forgiveness is build right into the idea itself. The concept of forgiveness is one that bears a certain relationship to, on the one hand, concepts like grace and mercy, which aren’t (as SA says in the podcast) “transactional.” These are gifts we can hope for and of which we try, in some sense, to make ourselves worthy, but they are never either deserved or undeserved. Forgiveness as a gift. Forgiveness as a blessing. A miracle almost. Or alternately/also something of which all human beings are worthy as such. Either way, though, it’s something that occurs outside of and above the logic of causation and reciprocity, and raises us above them.
Our idea of forgiveness stands, too, in important relation to concepts like expiation, atonement, repair and reintegration. These have a different kind of logic. They aren’t the kinds of things it always makes sense to offer without thought or condition. Basic human respect should be accorded to all persons, but trust, sustained attention, certain forms of love — these we don’t typically owe anyone, and are appropriately sensitive to facts about what the person in question is like and what they’ve done. You don’t necessarily do the unrepentant liar any favors by placing your trust in her. And whether or not we ought or must forgive in this sense is also, I think, sensitive to the kind of relationship at stake. I will owe my children a sustained attention that I don’t owe even my closest friends, and, likewise, if I have a falling out with a friend, I may not owe him the kind of herculean effort involved in repairing the relationship that I would owe to a daughter of mine. It will depend on facts about that relationship, the people in it, and the world in which they find themselves.
There are things we seem to have on our minds when we talk about forgiveness that aren’t the kinds of things we necessarily owe to someone just because they’re human, and even if they’re wonderful. We are, among other things, rational creatures and also finite ones. Some things we rightly do only for good reason. And, ultimately, we have the time and attention required to do so few of all the things we have good reason to. Life as we know it doesn’t afford us the resources to attend to everything worthy of our attention, or to repair all the reparable things. And so forgiveness in some of its dimensions must be conditional and discretionary. But the fact that it’s not always appropriate or possible to forgive every wrong in every sense is consistent, I think, with our finding the peace that we seek in forgiveness and forgiving. As so often happens, the peace we want from repair we find instead in acceptance.
In conclusion, may my many enemies be summarily mowed down by the flaming sword of justice.
Jk. I forgive you.