Forgiveness may be a form of self-love, after all:
“Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself, to be at peace, to be happy and to be able to sleep at night. You don’t forgive because you are weak but because you are strong enough to realize that only by giving up on resentment will you be happy.” — Luminita D. Saviuc
So forgiving people, especially those you are close to, is something you can do for yourself, but can’t it also change your relationship with the person you forgive?
It is tempting to take a super logical, almost flowchart look at forgiveness. If someone has done something somehow damaging to you, then you can run your decision making through a sequence:
- Have they changed or made the behavior right? If yes, perhaps a return to how things were before is possible. If no, then maybe you get to move to step 2.
- Can you let go of and release whatever harm they gave, and in fact, may still be giving? If yes, then forgiveness is purely, as Saviuc says above, something you gift to yourself. If you can’t let go, then perhaps step 3 has come into play.
- If the harm they created, or are even still making, continues, then some practical things might be able to be done to compensate: if they lied and keep lying? Then find a way to try to move forward without believing them: they say the sky is blue, you check to be sure before making any plans based on it. But beyond practical compensations, which may not even be possible, what do you do? What do you need to do?
This is where the algorithmic approach, the pure logic of figuring out how to get back or somehow move forward from the damage, gets less linear. It certainly gets less immediately satisfying.
Perhaps forgiving someone doesn’t need to mean forgetting. If someone is reckless and their choices and behavior are breaking things, and people, then maybe they can be forgiven, but as step 3 above suggests, you can still remember they’re reckless and avoid letting it hurt you and those you care about. That brings us to a bit of sticky wicket, a new challenge: if someone is reckless and destructive in one area, maybe they aren’t in another; no one gains by throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Let’s make this concrete. Someone I have wanted to work professionally with for some time has made clear, largely through internet postings, that they hold some beliefs that might make working with them dangerous. This person’s views and decisions will very probably endanger anyone they work with. Do I avoid working with them now? Do I avoid interacting with them, even being their friend? Or do I forgive them this faulty judgment and still interact? And if I don’t block them out of my life, how do I simply push on as steps 2 and 3 suggest above?
If we aren’t machines and don’t need the comforting certainty of all-or-nothing thinking, what are we to do? How do we live in the grey areas and not just black and white? If I do work with this person, and let’s assume, I figure out first how to insulate their recklessness from ruining everything and everyone involved, do I also have to keep forgiving them through the whole process?
I think it would be easy, likely even, that I would feel that their dangerous thinking is costing extra time, money, and energy during the process. At every step, I may have to renew my willingness to forgive them for this extra time, money, and energy spent by their recklessness. This seems like something I’m signing up for if I choose to work with them, so it seems I should then be willing to forgive them every step of the way.
But there’s the insight. Everyone can cross you. It is even likely they will, even if it is in a small way. This work-related example feels like it lets me plan ahead. It feels like it lets me see it coming and keep it contained because it is a work thing and not my whole life.
But our whole life involves surprises. I may know the person from above is foolishly damaging, but aren’t we all? We all make mistakes. Isn’t it a certainty that since we are not other people, the stuff they do and stuff we do will, at best, ruffle each other’s feathers from time to time and, at worst, cause real hurt? That seems to be what forgiveness is perfectly suited for: forgiveness is how we heal what nothing else can heal. It is a release, so we are able to have people close. It is a recognition that our expectations and our valid hope not to be hurt are just that: our expectations and our hopes.
The universe, and everyone else in it, does not owe us the perfect granting of our hopes. Put another way; everything will not always meet our expectations. Even if we have been deeply fortunate that our expectations are so often met, there is a 100% chance that something will surprise us. And it is nearly certain that something at some point will surprise us in a very painful way. This is part of the human condition.
While pain may be inevitable, suffering is optional. I think one way to mend the harm, to squelch the pain, is through love. Bear with me; this is not some woo-woo sentiment. Love can be an almost concrete glue that can hold things together through hardship. Hamlet famously asks in his famous “to be or not to be” a speech, when he’s considering suicide, “for who would bear the whips and scorns of time,” if not for the uncertainty of what might be the afterlife. I suggest someone bears hardship because they find love in this life, not merely due to fear of what lies in the next.
Love might be romantic love, what the ancient Greeks called eros. But it might be something else. They also had 5 other words for love; they had 6 different options to describe love. Here they are (oversimplified because this is not a language lesson):
- Eros — romantic love
- Philia — deep friendship
- Ludus — playful love (perhaps between children)
- Agape — selfless love (extended to all people)
- Pragma — long-term love
- Philautia — love of self
And there are sub-types too, and there can also be wider interpretations. Perhaps selfless love can extend or become concrete through doing things that may help people you’ve never met, or even to a job or task itself that doesn’t just give passing emotional pleasure, but more deeply fulfills and animates our life.
Doesn’t love, in its many forms, both deep and shallow, make up for a lot of hardship? Maybe it even goes into deciding not to throw the chair you stubbed your toe on, because you both love how it holds you when you sit, and you don’t hold a grudge against the inanimate. This may seem ridiculous, and it might be ridiculous. On a basic human level, almost like when we were very young, can’t we love anything? Maybe a blanket, a doll, a favorite toy, or climbing a tree as well as people.
Don’t we take the loss of our blanket at the age of 3 hard, and also take a friend betraying us at the age of 20 hard as well? Isn’t our life better when we forgive the blanket and the friend, even as we remind ourselves both to double-check what the friend says and have our name sewn into the blanket to try to avoid getting hurt in the future? I think yes.
I think our ability to hold people and things close is only possible when we let ourselves be vulnerable to the joys and pain of being close. Vulnerability to either cannot be separated from the other. If we want joy, we have to risk its opposite. Love, of ourselves, of others, and their love of us, seems to be what can soften the “heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet puts it.
Does love soften the hurts enough? No, not always. But denying the underlying urge to love and be loved grants no avoidance of pain either. In fact, it may help guarantee it. But forgiveness, as the start of this touched on, can give a reprieve from holding the pain inside without end. Simple to say, but hardly easy.
Simply by being close to each other, we are bound to step on toes and bump into each other’s vulnerabilities and raw spots. And if we can’t forgive, both ourselves and others when that happens, then we end up farther apart, more alone. This intimate distance is grown by fear, fear of being hurt like we were or in a new way. Fear is the opposite of love. Fear and love do not coexist well. Forgiveness can let love survive harm and survive fear.
I must sadly admit, I don’t have the perfect answer to exactly how to follow the three steps half outlined above to forgive in all cases. I also don’t know if any one article can sort through all of what forgiving faults can be, should be, or we want it to be. But I do suspect that whether we get back to where we were before we got hurt or we go somewhere new, forgiveness is probably part of it. Forgiveness is part of how we find love, are loved, and love others. Forgiveness is how we let love endure, grow and overcome fear and pain. A life without finding or giving any love sounds like pain without end, hurt without healing, or darkness without joy.
David August is an award-winning actor, writer, director, and producer. He plays a role in the movie Dependent’s Day, and after its theatrical run, it’s now out on Amazon Prime. He has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC, on the TV show Ghost Town, and many others. Off-screen, he has worked at ad agencies, start-ups, production companies, and major studios, helping them tell stories their customers and clients adore. He has guest lectured at USC’s Marshall School of Business about the internet.