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Is forgiveness overrated?
April 4, 2013 8:29 PM   Subscribe

"At one time, knowing that some actions are beneath the valley of the forgivable—the Holocaust, murder, rape, animal cruelty—gave our existence a little structure." In which fashiony-type Simon Doonan rails thoughtfully and rather humorously against our culture's insistence on forgiveness for everything.
posted by Jess the Mess (69 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's a weird sort of prejudice in this article. He's assuming it's our culture that's telling everyone to forgive all sorts of trespass, but his one example is some new age preacher at a funeral.

The rest of his examples are basically victims of family of victims who have stated in public that they forgive the perpetrator. Did they do that because of societal or cultural pressure? Who knows. As he also mentions in the article, Yoko Ono, who should by all rights be one of the "squishy" people he seems to despise, has said she doesn't forgive Mark David Chapman.

So maybe these people just came to the conclusion that they wanted and needed to forgive? He's (semi-humorously) promoting the holding of grudges as a good thing, but has he ever held a grudge for something really serious, like rape or murder? I haven't, but I've talked to people who have, and it doesn't seem that it's a very easy thing to live with. In some cases, it becomes all-consuming.

Forgiving is about letting go. It's not about doing a favor for the person you're forgiving, it's about resolving your own feelings.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:44 PM on April 4, 2013 [49 favorites]


Forgiving is about letting go. It's not about doing a favor for the person you're forgiving, it's about resolving your own feelings.

This is a very wise observation.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:48 PM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't have a ton of sympathy for the Catholic Church, but one thing they have right -- for absolution, you need contrition.

What is contrition? To the Catholic Church, full contrition is complete and utter remorse for the sins one has committed. Without some contrition, there can be no absolution. With perfect contrition, the sacrament of penance is not needed -- perfect contrition is enough to earn God's forgiveness. *

I don't require perfect contrition. I do require understanding that one has committed harm. It's why I automatically reject apologies with the word "if" in them. If you do not know you have committed harm, any apology you make is, for all intents, fake. And in too many cases, the reason for the "if" is so that you can refuse to acknowledge that you've done wrong.

For forgiveness, you must...

1) Know that you have done wrong.
2) Admit to yourself, and others, that you have done wrong.
3) Unreservedly apologize to others, and yourself, for the wrong you have done.
4) Show how you will strive to not commit that wrong again.

..and then you will be forgiven.

We all fuck up. I get that. I've fucked up more than once, and though I wish fervently it wasn't true, I know I will fuck up again.

But if you are not willing to admit that you have, in fact, fucked up, any apology you make is a flat out lie. And, to be honest, the fact that our culture lets people get away with that lie is possibly the greatest flaw our culture has.

It's not about doing a favor for the person you're forgiving, it's about resolving your own feelings.

Forgiveness is completely about doing a favor for that person. You are saying "I have earned retribution for the sin you have committed, but I am permanently forgoing that retribution".

Forgiveness is *renunciation* of any possible penalty of trespass. If you truly forgive, there is no resentment, no anger, no indignation, no possible debt. Someone has wrong you, and you grant them the favor of insisting that they make no payment to right that wrong.

If you "forgive' someone and still are pissed off at them and won't deal with them, you have quite literately failed at forgiveness.

*N.B. I am not a Catholic. But I'm pretty sure I have this bit of Catholic theology correct -- mainly because I agreed with the idea behind it.
posted by eriko at 8:55 PM on April 4, 2013 [43 favorites]


For forgiveness, you must...

1) Know that you have done wrong.
2) Admit to yourself, and others, that you have done wrong.
3) Unreservedly apologize to others, and yourself, for the wrong you have done.
4) Show how you will strive to not commit that wrong again.

..and then you will be forgiven.


..by god. People can forgive you whether you're sorry or not. It's up to them.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:13 PM on April 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


...has he ever held a grudge for something really serious, like rape or murder? I haven't, but I've talked to people who have, and it doesn't seem that it's a very easy thing to live with

As Ursula le Guin puts it, 'hate eats the hater'.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:17 PM on April 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Forgiveness seems to me something that our "lock 'em up and throw away the key" culture conspicuously lacks.
posted by yoink at 9:47 PM on April 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


..by god. People can forgive you whether you're sorry or not. It's up to them.

I believe that the forgiveness eriko speaks of is God's, and God being God (assuming God is at all) I'm pretty sure He/She/It/They would know whether or not you ...

1) Know that you have done wrong.
2) Admit to yourself, and others, that you have done wrong.
3) Unreservedly apologize to others, and yourself, for the wrong you have done.
4) Show how you will strive to not commit that wrong again.


Meanwhile, in the shabby realm of imperfect humans, I believe that this is pretty damned accurate:

Forgiving is about letting go. It's not about doing a favor for the person you're forgiving, it's about resolving your own feelings.

At least, that's how it's worked out for me. To which I would add, being human, I find forgiveness very complex in that many times I've consciously forgiven someone, then some time later, discovered I'm still poisoned toward them with all manner of hurt and recrimination.
posted by philip-random at 9:55 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


The problem, as I see it, is that people expect that forgiveness should automatically be extended following the expression of contrition. If I have done wrong to someone, I can be sorry for what I did but forgiveness is entirely at the discretion of the person wronged.

In the case of the Steubenville rapists, the individual forgiveness extended by the victim's mother to one of the rapists is immaterial; what those young men did was illegal and the punishment meted out by the courts should have no bearing on any forgiveness extended by the victim or her family. The victim never asked that the charges be withdrawn, so it seems that while the acts have been forgiven, the crimes have not.
posted by KingEdRa at 10:04 PM on April 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Almost 15 years ago a good friend of mine was murdered. The attacker offed himself shortly after committing the crime, so there was no opportunity for justice.

The desire for blood is almost like an instinct in us; I can almost taste the metal in his words. We just aren't programmed to forgive.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:05 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


yoink: "Forgiveness seems to me something that our "lock 'em up and throw away the key" culture conspicuously lacks"

Yeah, actually, that was my other reaction, it seems weird to complain about (American) culture being so forgiveness-oriented, when it (to me, at least) seems very revenge-oriented.

In general, I associate the whole "culture/society is way too soft and squishy, people should man up" thing with a certain type of anti-PC right-wing cultural warrior, although I think it's a bit more tongue in cheek in this case.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:06 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Each emotion is like a muscle. The ones you practice grow stronger. If you can bare a great weight, then it will help you carry the smaller ones, but no one will blame you for not baring the great one either. Forgiveness is a very personal decision and I find this critique somewhat tasteless in its judgement of individuals who have made that decision.

"In days gone by it was only the Man Upstairs who could pardon and absolve [...] then by all means turn the other cheek [...]"

The New Testament is pretty clear on this one: "But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6:15) ... No qualifications that I can see there. Heck, the Old Testament is pretty clear on this one. Buddhism seems pretty big on forgiveness, too. Islam is pro-forgiveness. I'm having a lot of trouble thinking of a religious or ethical system that is against forgiveness. I'm pretty sure that New Age tutti-fruitism didn't invent forgiveness.

Having someone in authority tell you how you should feel or act during a time of grief can be its own smaller kind of trauma so I can appreciate how that comment has stuck around for the author.

For our browsing, here's the American Psychological Association's sampling of research on forgiveness: http://www.apa.org/international/resources/forgiveness.pdf. They're also pro.

I just don't see how the backlash to the "forgiveness movement" has any ground to stand on unless you prioritize the values of aggression and anger and you do not care to mitigate the physical effects that those emotions have on the body's health, let alone the mind's health and let alone the propensity of these emotions to create cycles of violence within society.

Aggressively pursuing remedies to injustice is a great thing, but if you fuel that pursuit with only anger, you will literally, physically burn out. The author doesn't even seem to be stoking his anger for any sake other than working out? Like, on a treadmill? What's up with that? Heck dude, at least spend that energy writing a letter to your congressperson or something.
posted by Skwirl at 10:07 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


There was a shallow quality to this article, I don't believe that the author has been in that terrible position to HAVE to find the route to forgiveness.

In 1990 my 20 year old son died while riding his motorcycle. A young man, under the influence of pot, pulled out in front of my son's bike. Sean died at the scene of the accident.

The process of coming to forgive that person was long and hard. But, eventually, in order to survive, it was necessary to forgive, otherwise it would have eaten my soul until there was nothing left.

His dislike for "spray tans, blown-out hair..", sorry, not in the same league.
posted by HuronBob at 10:21 PM on April 4, 2013 [16 favorites]


I liked this article quite a lot - it really spoke to me. Like the author, I also tend to hold grudges - to me, "resolving my feelings" means seeing my enemies getting hurt to the same extent that they hurt me. Until I experience that moment, I'm simply lacking a feeling of closure, no matter how much I might try to forgive. Obviously there are some exceptions to this (for example, I have a strict rule about never carrying grudges towards close friends, family, or ex-lovers, even if they do annoy the hell out of me sometimes). I can totally understand why many people might only achieve closure through forgiveness but it seems very close-minded and ignorant to assume that just because forgiveness is the method of closure that works best for you that it is also the best method of closure for everybody.

I also disagree with sayings like "hate eats the hater." For me, holding a grudge is simply putting an item on a mental checklist, like doing the laundry or buying gifts for my friends around the holidays. I suppose that if you're the type to brood and obsess angrily about people that you hate, it could easily become an unhealthy thought process that leads to a ton of stress. But that same thing could be true of anything that one might brood and obsess over, wouldn't you say? If you treat a grudge as just another chore that you'll cross off your list when you have some free time and are bored, it's totally not that big of a deal.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:21 PM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


I personally think forgiveness is overrated. And no, since you ask, I am not at all forgiving. I believe in moving past it by either dropping the person involved or putting the event behind me.

I do believe in atonement, though, for my own wrongs. And to me, that is about recognizing my wrong, being sincerely sorry, and working never to repeat the harm -- not about winning forgiveness.
posted by bearwife at 10:27 PM on April 4, 2013 [9 favorites]


I also disagree with sayings like "hate eats the hater." For me, holding a grudge is simply putting an item on a mental checklist, like doing the laundry or buying gifts for my friends around the holidays.

Words have meanings. I don't know what you're talking about, but it's a not a grudge.

Also, putting grudges on the same list as your Christmas gifts seems like a recipe for disaster.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:32 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Two things.

First, as to this: ..by god. People can forgive you whether you're sorry or not. It's up to them.

This is actually true of God as well. He's God. He can do whatever he wants. But if God does not extend unilateral forgiveness to everyone--and most Christian traditions believe that he does not--why should we?

But second, and I think more importantly, this starts to get at something important. This whole conversation seems to conflate two if not three different things. There needs to be a discussion about (1) who is doing the forgiving, and (2) the relationship between forgiveness and atonement.

As to the first, the fact that one forgives another in one's individual capacity doesn't actually have all that much to do with whether society should do the same thing. When a person commits a crime, say murder, there are two kinds of injured parties. There's the victim and his family/friends. But there's also society in the form of the state. Christians would add a third party, God, but the first two are enough to illustrate the point. The fact that the individuals affected by a crime may forgive the criminal actually has little bearing on the injury the criminal has cause to the state. The individuals affected by a crime have their own direct injury to their persons/property, but the state has an injury to its sovereignty.

And if this "We just aren't programmed to forgive." is true of individuals, it's even more true of the state. Failing to punish crime in each and every instance rapidly erodes a state's sovereign power, producing an increase in lawlessness. Just look at the War on Drugs and the collapse of effective policing in the inner city to see what I'm talking about. The result is that the state doesn't really have the capacity to forgive, and pretending that it does does bad things to the integrity of the state. Indeed, if one is at all persuaded by Kant's ethical arguments, a society which does not punish crime cannot be a just society.

So the author seems to be ignoring the fact that even if one individual, forgives someone, that has nothing to do with whether the state, or even other individuals (not to mention God) ought to do the same.

But the other thing has to do with the relationship between forgiveness and atonement. The basic question is this: how can we afford to forgive people? If we are talking about a situation where forgiveness is on the table, we are talking about a situation where someone has done us a wrong. We are diminished by their actions. The reason it can be so hard to forgive is that unless some atonement is made for that wrong, doing anything but seeking vengeance leaves us to eat that injury on our own. This is perhaps most easily seen in the financial context. If I steal $1,000 from you, and you forgive me, what happens to the $1,000? If I return the $1,000 to you, forgiving me seems only right, as the injury has been (mostly) made whole. But if I don't, and you forgive me anyway, you're probably going to have to eat that loss. Forgiveness can be costly. If you can afford that loss, hey, good for you, but is it right to require forgiveness of people who can't?

But extend that concept a bit. What if we suffer moral and emotional injury in much the same way? Injuring someone else infringes not only on their physical well-being, but their integrity and dignity as a person. Injuring someone else says, in effect, that the victim is not as good as, not worth as much as, the assailant, and forgiving the assailant without some recompense being made certainly feels like stipulating to that assertion. Can you afford to make those concessions over, and over again? Does there not come some point beyond which one's ability to absorb that kind of moral injury is exhausted?

Well here's the thing: in the Christian tradition, God is capable of forgiving anyone for anything because atonement has been made. He paid for it himself with the sacrifice of Jesus.* Not disputing the "accuracy" of the theology here, just explaining the theory. In Christianity, divine forgiveness is not God simply ignoring sin or saying that it doesn't matter. It's a recognition that full atonement has been made, so holding on to the grudge would be unjust.

Further, Christian theology teaches that we can forgive others, not because what they've done to us doesn't matter, but because God can supply recompense for the injury they've caused. This is a really important part of Christian doctrine. All that language about God supplying our needs? This is significantly where that works itself out. Again, not trying to argue that it's true, just explain the perspective. We are indeed not "programmed to forgive," but God supplies that ability as part of the benefits of being united to Christ. This is why forgiveness is seen as an obligation in the Christian tradition. Not only have we been forgiven, but we have been given the resources to forgive others, so failing to do so really jumps out as problematic. Regardless, in the Christian tradition, one individual forgiving another does not entail any kind of concession that the wrong was de minimis or not really a wrong at all. Indeed, it probably requires full recognition of the seriousness of the wrong.**

But say you aren't a Christian. Fair enough. Plenty of people aren't. I think you're still left with the question of where you're going to get the resources to forgive others. This gets back to the first problem. Sure, maybe you can absorb the hits life throws at you. Maybe you've got those resources. But then again, maybe you don't. In that case, the only real way of forgiving someone is to accept the diminution of your person, which can be extraordinarily costly both financially and personally. Saying that the offense wasn't all that serious winds up doing precisely that, so it's not really an alternative.

And even if you have the resources, does that give you the right to say that anyone else should do the same? You don't know them. You don't know where they're coming from. Isn't suggesting that other people should simply eat repeated hits on their dignity without any kind of recompense pretty condescending? Doesn't it wind up saying that the things which were done to them don't matter? That they aren't so bad after all? And who are we to say that about things someone else has suffered?

And even within the Christian tradition, there's long been a recognition that though God can take care of injuries to himself and injuries to other individuals, the state doesn't really enter into it. So in the medieval period, back when there was pretty much a union of church and state, you'd see attempts being made to ensure that the accused was okay with God and okay with his victims on the way to the chopping block. The atonement of Christ will satisfy one's debt to God, and the Holy Spirit can work out one's debts to others, but there's no real provision for one's debt to the state. There can still be social consequences for an action which is theologically and individually forgiven.

All of which to say that forgiveness is a really complicated subject, and the linked article doesn't really do it justice. There are a whole ton of intuitions running around here, and they interact with some really important philosophical and theological concepts.

*This is, of course, only one concept of atonement in Christianity, a doctrine absolutely central to the Christian faith. There has, as one might imagine, been disagreement over precisely what atonement is and how it works. What I'm describing here is sometimes called the "penal substitution" theory, which has been the dominant theory, or at least a really major one, for at least 1,700 years if not the entire life of the church. But suffice it to say that all of the other theories of atonement work basically the same way I'm talking about here except for the so-called "moral influence" theory, which is currently popular in the liberal tradition. But as that theory has mostly been taught in conjunction with one of the other theories, I'm comfortable talking this way in what is fundamentally a non-theological discussion. Again, not really the point of the argument here.

**Indeed, until one has really realized the extent of the wrong, is real forgiveness even possible? I know I've found that I've sometimes had to forgive people in stages as I've slowly discovered the extent of the injury they've caused me. I can't be the only one.
posted by valkyryn at 11:03 PM on April 4, 2013 [23 favorites]


What's that law of journalism I saw a few days ago that says, "if a headline ends in a question mark, the answer is always 'No?'"

Of course forgiveness isn't overrated. That's dumb. Boom. Roasted.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:46 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


is Obama the Anti-Christ after all?
posted by philip-random at 12:17 AM on April 5, 2013


This is actually true of God as well. He's God. He can do whatever he wants. But if God does not extend unilateral forgiveness to everyone--and most Christian traditions believe that he does not--why should we?

This is exactly backwards. I know that you're writing from the perspective of a particular tradition, but there's a lot to be gained from the insight that what you believe about God is simply a reflection of your own values.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:43 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Forgiving is about letting go. It's not about doing a favor for the person you're forgiving, it's about resolving your own feelings.

I have always felt that there was a gulf between "not actively holding a grudge and stewing forever" and "forgiving". You can let go of your anger but not forgive someone for what they did, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

I find the idea that God can forgive someone for wrongs committed against another person (and not for wrongs committed against God) offensive, but then I'm not Christian.
posted by jeather at 2:14 AM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


As Ursula le Guin puts it, 'hate eats the hater'.

Hey, don't judge my weight loss program!
posted by telstar at 2:29 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whatever people who have suffered terribly as a result of people's actions want to do so that they can live with themselves and with the consequences of those actions is fine by me, providing it's within the law. If forgiveness is the way they do that, who are those outside their suffering to judge them? If never forgiving is that, then that's also fine. It seems curiously vicious to them to insist they must act in a way that suits your own perspective.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:35 AM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


there's a lot to be gained from the insight that what you believe about God is simply a reflection of your own values.

Yeah, not having that conversation here.
posted by valkyryn at 3:16 AM on April 5, 2013


Forgiving is about letting go. It's not about doing a favor for the person you're forgiving, it's about resolving your own feelings.

Great, great thought. Very fundamental.

My initial response to the article was that it comes to the point of individuals versus society. Forgiveness is psychologically beneficial to individuals. Without forgiveness, there is a corrosive sense of having been wronged that will interfere with subsequent decisions and experiences. We cannot undo the wrongs that occur to us. Someone can not be unmurdered, nor unraped, nor unmolested. The reality is that we exist as individuals in the presence of other individuals, and their decisions and actions affect us both positively and negatively. Perfect safety can only be found in complete isolation, and complete isolation is relatively untenable for most people. To hold on to the wrongs of the past are not be present in the moment. There are a myriad of reasons why it is hard to let go of past injustices, but the reality is that forgiveness is necessary for fundamental psychological integrity of individuals.

That being said, forgiveness does not oppose the concept of justice, and justice is a concept best applied by society. When an aggressor rapes another person, they have not only violated 1) the victim's individual rights, but also 2) society's laws. In the first case, an apology may well suffice and be the best possible mitigation. In the second case, there are justice systems to punish / modify the offending behaviour. When playing the game Civilisation, 'code of laws' was provided as a 'technology', which is an interesting point. The idea that justice is to be executed by society as a body is a form of technology, for it interrupts the fundamental retribution cycle – an eye for an eye so to speak. (We'll all go blind...)

Individuals should focus exclusively on forgiveness – "I forgive you for what you have done to me". Society should focus on punishment – "You are being punished for what you have done to another person." The two are not mutually exclusive, rather the two are completely integral.
posted by nickrussell at 3:39 AM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Forgiveness is completely about doing a favor for that person.

I disagree.
If I forgive someone and don't tell hirm, how am I doing hirm a favour? S/he doesn't even know.
I'm doing myself a favour, by letting go of my bad feelings. There are so many things you can hold that feel better than holding a grudge.

Sure, forgiving someone can also be a favour to the other person. But if I can really manage it *) it's always going to be a favour to myself.

*) which is definitely not always in the cards
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:00 AM on April 5, 2013


Forgiving is about letting go. It's not about doing a favor for the person you're forgiving, it's about resolving your own feelings.

Surely this is true, but parts of this road have two lanes. Having been raised Catholic I can attest to the great relief one feels when exiting the confessional with absolution from God and a clean slate. (After saying two dozen pro forma prayers as contrition.) The Catholics pile on the guilt, but hand out get out of hell free cards like candy. When you're a Catholic there is a tremendous satisfaction that comes from receiving forgiveness and being jake with Jesus. You don't even have to be really sorry. If you confess just to get the slate wiped - so called imperfect contrition - that's technically good enough. It's like He can't enter that evidence into future judgement against you.

Forgiveness like this is decidedly in favor of the evil doer.
posted by three blind mice at 4:27 AM on April 5, 2013


One of the things that -- in my experience -- aids in forgiveness is for the aggrieving party to acknowledge that they did wrong and communicate in words and deeds that they will not behave in a manner that hurts the person from whom they seek forgiveness.

Whenever I read about forgiveness, I think about my mother's sister, who has had a drug problem for as long as I can remember. My mom moved my younger brother and me into her parents' house in the middle of my freshman year of high school, and for a variety of reasons I won't get into here, I became the designated troublemaker. L. would go out of her way to be kind to me when she was sober...but when she went on a bender, she would meddle in my relationships with my grandparents and my mother, read my journal, listen in on my phone conversations, and tell my mother that I was a bad kid and was going to get myself in trouble. This took the attention off her drug problem. (She also expected me to cover for her when she was doing drug runs, and at one point when she'd hooked up with one of my mother's ex-boyfriends.)

L. claims she's sober now. On numerous occasions she's given me money and expensive gifts to try and win me back, but not once has she ever acknowledged the bad that she's done. My mother has told her about what she did, and if she ever said "I did some things that caused you pain when you were a kid, like X, Y, and Z, and I am sorry," and then behaved in a way that would show me that I can trust her, I would forgive her. The closest thing to an apology that I've ever gotten from her has been "gee, I'm sorry if I hurt you". Most of the time she just says "You're getting too old to still be angry with me, and I bet you don't even remember why you hate me!"

For me, holding a grudge against L. (if you want to call it that) is a form of protection. I know that the second I forgive her she'll ignore my boundaries, worm her way back into my life, and find some way to stab me in the back. I don't think about her every day and I don't see this as a huge millstone. I just see this as keeping myself safe.
posted by pxe2000 at 4:31 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


The distinction people (like the guy who wrote this article) miss is between submission and surrender. Forgiveness needs to be the latter to "work." The former is at best a negotiation and often just being passive aggressive.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:34 AM on April 5, 2013


Forgiveness seems to me something that our "lock 'em up and throw away the key" culture conspicuously lacks.

Yeah, I'm like, "is this guy Canadian or Irish or something?" Here in America we haven't even decided to forgive people for being poor.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:37 AM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


The author of this piece is a very mean-spirited person. I suppose I should forgive him for that, but it's easier to just ignore him, so I will do that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:46 AM on April 5, 2013


A wildly unsettling, but fascinating documentary: Forgiving Dr. Mengele The subject is Eva Mozes Kor, one of Mengele's experimental subjects as a child, who decided that the only way to have a life beyond being a victim was to forgive Mengele and move on. It seems to work rather well for her.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 4:54 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The concept and practice of forgiveness in American (and European) society is Judaeo-Christian. In Orthodox Judaism the desire for revenge after a serious wrong is recognized and there are structures, legal, personal, ritualistic-religious, to deal with whether or not it should be exercised or attempts should be made to transmute it. Christianity has taken a somewhat different path with an emphasis on love. Many contemporary people who have been terribly wronged are not really looking so much to forgive as to come to terms with the occurrence of a tragedy in their lives.
posted by malach_sadriel at 5:27 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I should have been more clear about what I meant by "society" in my description. I meant the popular psychological and spiritual culture, not really American or Western culture, in general, which, I agree is very unforgiving.
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:27 AM on April 5, 2013


There's a similarly-themed book by Simon Wiesenthal, also a Holocaust survivor, The Sunflower. The book's description covers it well:
While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal was taken one day from his work detail to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. Haunted by the crimes in which he had participated, the soldier wanted to confess to--and obtain absolution from--a Jew. Faced with the choice between compassion and justice, silence and truth, Wiesenthal said nothing. But even years after the way had ended, he wondered: Had he done the right thing? What would you have done in his place?

In this important book, fifty-three distinguished men and women respond to Wiesenthal's questions. They are theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, and victims of attempted genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, China and Tibet. Their responses, as varied as their experiences of the world, remind us that Wiesenthal's questions are not limited to events of the past. Often surprising and always thought provoking, The Sunflower will challenge you to define your beliefs about justice, compassion, and human responsibility.
And recently, Slate's advice columnist (Dear Prudence), Emily Yoffe, wrote a piece that touches quite a lot on forgiveness: The Debt: When terrible, abusive parents come crawling back, what do their grown children owe them? This paragraph points out the psychological costs of forgiveness-for-the-sake-of-reconnection:
Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.
Everyone is different; everyone's situations that may bring up the question of forgiveness are different. And so forgiveness should probably mean different things in different situations. I like Yoffe's piece because she gives concrete examples, some of them very well-known people (Lincoln, Warren Buffett, Bruce Springsteen) showing a range of responses.

So maybe society just needs to forgive different ideas of forgiveness. (Forgive people who forgive in ways different than the ones you think you would choose.)
posted by fraula at 5:29 AM on April 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


I don't see any reason anyone ever has to or should forgive anyone who has wronged them. Obsession over something is always bad, and should be addressed. But it doesn't matter at all if you can't soften your heart towards a wrongdoer. I don't know why anyone would pressure someone to forgive rape or murder or horrible things like that. The people doing the pressuring are cruel.
posted by agregoli at 6:19 AM on April 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


The reason I posted this piece (apart from the first paragraph making me laugh out loud) is that it addresses part of a phenomenon that I've become increasingly disturbed by; namely, the push to deny and suppress any kind of negative expression, from labor grievances to personal emotions. The only other person I've really seen talk about this is Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Bright-sided.

To be clear, I think forgiveness is a wonderful thing. But by forgiveness, I mean honest, heartfelt forgiveness. The kind that a person comes to or not on their own. Not "forgiveness" that is pushed on people as being some kind of spiritual high road. This is especially egregious when directed toward someone who has been personally violated, lost a loved one or had some other grave offense committed against then. Who is anyone to tell them how they should feel? It's placing a great burden of responsibility, with a good measure of judgement in the case of non-compliance, on the shoulders of the victim. And I wonder how many people out there have been advised to forgive by their spiritual leaders, Oprah guests, self help books, etc. when they weren't yet ready and are walking around with tamped down unresolved emotions eating away at them.

Simplistic platitudes such as "You have to forgive to move on" are unhelpful at best. Giving people the time, space and support to work through ALL of their emotions in a healthful manner seems like a much more compassionate route. And at the end of that, if the person who has been hurt decides to forgive, it is a gift, and the beauty of a gift is that it is never required, to retain one's status as a good person or anything else.

I think jeather has a good point too. It is completely possible to come to terms with something, to move on with your life, without forgiving the person who wronged you.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:33 AM on April 5, 2013 [15 favorites]


I was just coming in to recommend The Sunflower, as Fraula just did. I'll expound upon it instead - I first read it at the recommendation of a friend, who kept it after he got it for a college course on the Holocaust. Then I picked up my own copy a few years later, after visiting the Holocaust museum in DC. I think I only got about 50 yards outside the exit before sitting down to read it again, wanting to consider what it was saying afresh after seeing what I'd just seen. And, I've talked in here before about rereading it over and over in the weeks following 9/11.

What has always struck me is the range of opinions on forgiveness - there are the cut-and-dried "yes you should always forgive, always" positions, and there are the "fuck no there are some unforgiveable things" positions. And there are a staggering range of opinions in between. It all makes for a fantastically nuanced examination of the concept of forgiveness. But one thing that nearly everyone agreed upon - forgiveness is not easy. But sometimes it can help everyone move forward together.

I was raised Catholic, and already knew something about forgiveness - but from the point of view of the penitent. This book made me consider forgiveness from the point of view of the one who was wronged. It gave me permission to not forgive people if I wasn't ready to (and there are probably a couple people I am not ready to yet), while reminding me that forgiveness doesn't necessarily mean you just pretend the offense never happened.

In short - read it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:33 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


"If you "forgive' someone and still are pissed off at them and won't deal with them, you have quite literately failed at forgiveness. "

I have to add one thing to this, though. There are people I have forgiven, but I will never, never let them back into my life because they have proven themselves to be dangerous. I can feel compassion for them, and wish them well and surround them with white light in my mind . . . but I do not owe it to them to continue a relationship of any sort. I just have to keep my side of the street clean.

Also, threeblindmice -- "Getting Jake With Jesus" just HAS to be the title of my next novel. Thanks.
posted by jfwlucy at 6:54 AM on April 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


I have seen a lot of victims of what the author would call serious crimes (rape and sexual abuse, especially) face a lot of pressure from friends, family, and clergy to forgive as a first step in healing.

I think forgiveness is a good thing, but it's not a first step. Working through anger, shame, and grief need to come first. You can't forgive someone for something you haven't yet let yourself experience, and the pressure to do so is another way in which we try to silence victims.

I also have seen this pressure affect female victims more than male, though I've worked more often with women than men so my sample may be skewed, and I think there's a way it connects to our society's fear and discouragement of women's anger. Better to sweep the crime under the rug than let women get angry.
posted by jaguar at 7:05 AM on April 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'm not seeing where anybody's defined what "forgive" means... and the comments don't read as though people are using the same definition. In some cases, individual comments don't read like their writers have internally consistent definitions.
posted by Hizonner at 7:12 AM on April 5, 2013


Forgiveness is a tool. Grudges and anger are a tool, too, as a form of asserting the worth of our feelings. We need both in order to successfully navigate the world.

There's a practical, selfish side of forgiveness--it allows one to move on--but part of it is also a recognition that "there but for the grace of god go I". (I say that as an atheist.) If I were born to abusive parents, or with severe mental illness, or to a Nazi family, "I" may well have committed atrocious crimes. It's a recognition that yes, we all have responsibility for our actions, but so much of our personality is shaped by events outside our control. We can condemn offenses without putting the perpetrator into a bucket labelled Inhuman.

With the current state of the penal system in America, I'm not too worried about forgiveness being the problematic sentiment in our culture.
posted by daveliepmann at 7:19 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really hate the way forgiveness is used as an additional stick to beat people who have been victimized. It's not enough to have been treated badly with no effective recourse - you have to accept that bad treatment with a good grace.

That's bullshit.

Genuine forgiveness is possible. But people have the right not to forgive, or to forgive in their own time frame. If you can't forgive someone you shouldn't have to struggle with guilt about being such a bad person you can't forgive the person who hurt you on top of the original injury. All this societal glurge about forgiveness accomplishes is to additionally injure people who are already hurting while giving the aggressor absolution for their offense.

There are people in this world whom I will never forgive because they are unforgivable. It doesn't injure me in the slightest - I've washed my hands of them. What does irritate me is the idea that because I refuse to paper over their behavior I'm the bad person. If that stains my soul or whatever, as this little cultural narrative would have it, oh wells I'll add it to my list of reasons why I'm a terrible excuse for a human being and move on with life.
posted by winna at 7:28 AM on April 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


winna, "washing your hands of them" sounds like forgiveness to me. What does forgiving a debt mean? It means acknowledging that A) you're owed something, B) you're not going to get it, and C) you're going to stop trying to get it. It doesn't mean you're going to pretend it never happened and lend that person more money.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 7:44 AM on April 5, 2013


McCoy, it sounds to me like forgetting about the wrong and the person who did it. Out of mind. Not that one forgives their horrific behavior.
posted by agregoli at 7:48 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


There are people in this world whom I will never forgive because they are unforgivable. It doesn't injure me in the slightest - I've washed my hands of them.

Actually, there is a school of thought that your washing your hands of them is a form of forgiveness. Although, I definitely agree that the glurgy "embrace the person who wronged you becuase that's such a noble thing to do" perception does whomp people over the head a lot. And a few of the advocates for forgiveness are advocating more the "wash your hands of them" kind, but everyone else is hearing the sacchrine kind.

Back to THE SUNFLOWER again - Archbishop Desmond Tutu was one of the advocates for forgiveness, and was pointing to the South African Resolution Commission in the days immediately following apartheid as his example; at the end of these hearings, the nation would pretty much close the book on that chapter and move forward. However, in order for that to happen, the former leaders had to come clean about the shit they'd actually done. It wasn't a papering-over at all - it was an exposing. And while the perpetrators did have the right to appeal for amnesty for their crimes, only about 8% of them actually received it - but all of them had to fess up. And that, Tutu said, was part of what gave the situation its power - these guys finally came clean and admitted that "okay, yes, I did these awful things and that was wrong of me to do that." Many of those people went on to be punished as a result. But the victims finally received an acknowledgement that "they know they done me wrong," and could finally move on.

I've said before that I forgave Osama bin Laden for 9/11, but I do not mean I wanted him to be free to go on and live his life all happy tra la la. I wanted him to face legal restitution for what he'd done, in international court, should he ever be caught. I just....washed my hands of him and turned my energy to my own life and my own recovery.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:48 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I forgive people regardless of what they have done because the other choice is to kill them and I don't want to be a killer.
posted by srboisvert at 7:54 AM on April 5, 2013


Washing my hands of them means I don't have anything to do with them, nothing more. If the fervent desire that someone would die in a gutter every time they come to mind can be considered part of forgiveness just because I no longer associate with the person, then I have obviously misunderstood the term all my life.

What does forgiving a debt mean? It means acknowledging that A) you're owed something, B) you're not going to get it, and C) you're going to stop trying to get it.

The idea that under your paradigm people who have been victimized in a widely-enough publicized way are expected to broadcast personal acknowledgement of their own impotence in public to the offender(s) makes the whole idea even more revolting than it was before.
posted by winna at 7:59 AM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


The problem, as I see it, is that people expect that forgiveness should automatically be extended following the expression of contrition.

I don't even think contrition is the right word for what we're getting at-- the right word is repentance. Plenty of people are sorry for what they did and how the consequences of their actions were quite devastating, but "repentance", that is, turning yourself around (or at least wanting to) in order to live completely differently is a much less common act on the part of those seeking forgiveness.

Part of it is that we ourselves don't often have it in our hands to "forgive" anything tangible. Forgiveness means that you could have extracted more out of someone who wronged you, but you simply choose not to. So in that sense, forgiving/letting go is just about you, emotionally. You have every right to hold an emotional grudge and spit every time someone says the name of that person in your presence, but you can simply choose to let it go. We don't actually have the ability to forgive those who have committed crimes against us outside of this emotional letting go of our grudges, because the legal system, not us, is the institution that deals with the punishment and incarceration of criminals. We don't have debtor prisons that creditors can send those who have stiffed them, to: we have a bankruptcy process that closes out accounts: the legal system is doing the forgiving and extraction of unpaid debts. So what we're left with is the emotional/grudge-holding/social aspect of what we can extract from people and what we're willing to forgive.
posted by deanc at 8:07 AM on April 5, 2013


Three months ago, I went for a walk in my neighborhood at night. When I was about a quarter mile from home, someone sneaked up behind me, punched me in the teeth, and ran away. I lost a tooth, bled a lot, and was pretty sore for a week.

It was hard to eat for awhile, but that faded more quickly than the mental scars. I no longer felt safe in my neighborhood, and I began to fret about the safety of my apartment. I felt lucky that he didn't take my wallet, but that was almost worse: I can understand violence for money. But at random, with no explanation, no words exchanged, a punch and run? It still boggles my mind.

In the aftermath, I was mildly shocked by the anger expressed by other people in my life. Partially I felt lucky that I wasn't kicked to death or missing a jawbone, but I also felt some compassion for the guy.

It just so happened that I was reading "Back to School" by Mike Rose, which outlines the numerous failures of the US' education system, especially for remedial and vocational students. I realized that this guy who assaulted me was probably raised in this neighborhood, which until recently was laden with blight. Thus it's likely the underfunded school system did not engage his interests, may have humiliated him, and otherwise dashed what hope he had. It goes deeper than that, but in short, the system (government, school, business) had failed this guy. If I pushed hard for his arrest and prosecution, he would probably be thrown in jail and carry the burden of "CRIMINAL" forever and ever. And the cycle perpetuates.

That said, I was still angry. While I entertained Stalin-esque fantasies of bulldozing an entire neighborhood, I was more upset at the system as a whole. A fist to the mouth sucks, but it's nothing compared to feeling stuck in a crumbling neighborhood with no jobs, no way out, and no idea of where to begin looking. The logical extreme of "he might know people who have been abused by police or killed by gunfire" made me feel like a whiny baby for considering moving to a suburb or a neighborhood with an American Apparel.

My anger towards social injustice feels impotent; it's much easier to be mad at the dude who hit you and wish pain upon him until kingdom come. But that rage is so self-righteous and consumptive. "Why did a bad thing happen to ME? That guy deserves some shit too!" It also has no end goal. Maybe "I'll be mad until he gets punched" is a goal, but, again, that feels selfish. It doesn't address anything larger than my pre-Copernican headspace in which I reside at the center.

In a way, my assault was motivation. I can't fix the schools, I can't redistribute all the wealth, and I doubt I could reach my attacker, physically or emotionally. I'd love to sit down, ask why, and listen to his story, but that's a self-indulgent fantasy. But maybe I can volunteer somewhere, help a kid with homework, coach soccer, and be an indiscernable part of a force that pushes him or her toward something rewarding, stable, or even just away from violence.

I'm not sure if I've forgiven my attacker. It's easy to say I have, but if I saw him in a dark alley I'd probably change my tune. I certainly want to; the directionless anger and anxiety ate me up and cost me a good deal of sleep. It still does on some nights. But I believe that holding a grudge will cause me to sink deeper into myself and won't help solve anything.

A grudge against a misdeed that causes real, major pain is a complicated thing, or it has been for me at least. It feels selfish and bitter to hold on to that and withhold empathy for someone who may not be as lucky as me. The examples given by the author seem to be artificially generated slights against something petty and distant, such that he cannot change it and it does not affect him deeply. It reads like a man whose schtick is ranting about things that offend his sense of aesthetics. I'm not sure how TV anchors qualify as grudge-worthy, but that facile upset is not for me.

I think forgiveness is something worth striving for. It means that it's possible to recover from a mistake and do better. But I also think anger and mistrust should be listened to and processed. Maybe that's your impetus to do something great or change who you are.

It's complicated, but my experience reminded me that I shouldn't stand idly while I could do something to help. That's not true of every grudge or slight, but I wish more people thought "how can I make the world a better place?"
posted by Turkey Glue at 8:12 AM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Here's where people who expect forgiveness make me so mad. I was raised with catholicism. Turn the other cheek. Forgive. Judge not lest ye be judged. Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.

I believed in absolute forgiveness and complete lack of judgement. So when I started being sexually abused by a really troubled person and he said he wanted to kill himself for the horrible things he did, it made perfect sense for me to simply... forgive. Over and over.

Then after being impregnated, placing the child for adoption so she may be spared his abusive issues, and completely losing my sanity and being hospitalized in the aftermath of all that trauma, I finally started talking about what had been happening.

I was surprised to learn that everyone seemed to simultaneously feel that I needed to be forgiving MORE, that I had a dissociative disorder because I was HOLDING A GRUDGE and that if I just stopped holding a grudge I would no longer be in pain. Meanwhile I had sat with this man every fucking day while he sobbed and FORGAVE HIM EVERY TIME, begged him to forgive himself and find will to live because I did NOT WANT TO SEE HIM DIE OR SUFFER.

The experience destroyed me in a way I can not describe in with language. Forgiveness bears no relation to that destruction. If it did I would have- like I tried to do from the beginning, simply chosen not to be in pain over the harm done for the convenience of the abusers conscience.

What's more I have discovered that this same culture that seems to think I need to be forgiving someone who could sexually abuse someone until they are insane... mercilessly holds me accountable for "forgiving" and "moving on" and "not holding a grudge because I will be harming myself like big bad grudge holding jerk".

For fucks sake, you want me to forgive this man who destroyed me, left my mental and physical health in shatters for years, left ME at the mercy of shaming and social outcast because of my "sins" of having ever gone near him and ironically I am also shamed for having forgiven him, for HAVING TURNED THE OTHER CHEEK.

If this society wants us to be so forgiving of people who destroy their fellow human beings, let them have mercy and forgiveness in caring for those who have been destroyed and how they struggle and suffer for years to come. Forgive THAT.

Ironically society seems more interested in forgiving the brutal acts done to people than in actually spending the time and money and inclusive efforts on supporting and understanding the people destroyed by such acts.
posted by xarnop at 8:33 AM on April 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


And what's more the shaming and insulting of people who get abused and forgive and turn the other cheek is such a bullshit activity in relation to the idea that there is such a strong movement relating to wanting these jerkfucks to be forgiven.

Like oh if a mother forgives her child's father for slapping her she's EVIL, a terrible enabler, gross nasty abuser herself.

But the man who did it? Well if he says he's really sorry he deserves second chances and forgiveness from society! It's only the family who is disgusting and codependant for forgiving and giving second chances, society can forgive and accept and give more chances and it's noble and beautiful!

It's all such a mindfuck.
posted by xarnop at 8:37 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


If this society wants us to be so forgiving of people who destroy their fellow human beings, let them have mercy and forgiveness in caring for those who have been destroyed and how they struggle and suffer for years to come. Forgive THAT.

I agree with you completely and also agree that the people that have been urging you to forgive this guy deserve a smack upside the back of the head. I would also cheerfully volunteer to issue said smacking.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:54 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Years of abuse at the hands of my family, and I feel neither the need nor the obligation to forgive them. I do not hang on to hate, although sometimes I am angry - but anger doesn't define me as a person. I'm also not someone who holds grudges. I generally let things slide and move on. I do practice forgiveness almost daily towards others and myself.

And yet, my life is not poorer for not forgiving my parents for what was done to me. I am no more bitter or resentful than I might have been otherwise. I am, I believe, a mostly contented person who deals with things that happened to her as they arise. They arise less frequently year after year.

I'm not saying I will never forgive them, but I don't feel the urge or need to do so. They are, happily, out of my life entirely. I do not need to see them, consider their feelings or care. I do not wish them well nor do I wish them ill. I give them little thought.

And here I am, content with life and finding beauty in it, and all without having to forgive horrible people. My freedom from anger has come from learning to love myself and practicing kindness.
posted by custardfairy at 9:09 AM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


We just aren't programmed to forgive.

I disagree. I think we are very much programmed to forgive, especially in the case of loved ones, and even sometimes to our detriment. That's part of what bugs me about the forgiveness movement. We don't need to told to forgive by our supposed moral and spiritual superiors. Forgiveness comes to us naturally and if it's going to come, it can only come from within.
posted by Jess the Mess at 9:10 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


xarnop, you have my deepest sympathies.
posted by custardfairy at 9:18 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess I have levels of forgiveness. I'm not to bad at the "letting go" level. That's the one where I stop feeling like I need to personally exact vengeance to restore balance. At that level, though, I don't feel any guilt either about protecting myself from a recurrence of the harm.

A single instance can be forgiven, but that person is now excluded from an opportunity to do it again. I mean, if someone spits acid around like a sprinkler and is sorry they burned me, well, ok, they're sorry and I can accept an apology. But if they're still dripping acid, that forgiveness doesn't mean that I'm not allowed to stand out of range thereafter. I'd be pretty annoyed if someone berated me for not "forgiving" someone in that sort of situation.

Forgiveness of the level that erases the original offense does require the offender to show that they know that they did wrong, what they did wrong, and intend to take steps to stop doing wrong.

I think part of the difficulty of this is that people say forgiveness both to mean letting go of the anger and to mean total absolution, but they're not really the same thing.
posted by Karmakaze at 10:34 AM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also I think there is a certain amount of anger that friends and family members of survivors should have to protect the survivor from further abuse and quite simply affirm how much they didn't deserve what happened (and deserve to have been and in the future be protected from it). Like I may have forgiven people who have harmed me but man it stabs me to the core when my family accepts them and I have to have them in my life.

I don't know that society having this big compassionate response for people who harm others and re-integrating abusers into the same community is good for survivors who then have to, as valkrin mentions, eat it.

I kind of feel like, those who believe in forgiveness for people who cause this kind of damage? You pay the bills and wipe the tears and carry the suffering people left in the aftermath- you WATCH this pain, you listen to these sobs that don't end. You pay for the therapy and the housing and support with basic functioning when people are so mentally damaged by trauma they can barely function.

You pay their debt. And then see how you feel about forgiveness and absolution while the perpetrators go along their happy lives being re-integrated and forgiven and accepted and loved and this utopian forgiveness ideology that often comes up when we talk about these things in liberal communities where we (I think rightly) want to be able to forgive everything and love everyone. Those are GOOD concepts- in general- but that's way to simplistic and harmful to uphold when you're dealing with really horrific abuses and damages.
posted by xarnop at 12:38 PM on April 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


For me, forgiveness isn't something I can do. It's something that just happens once I've worked through all the other stuff- the anger, the grief, the hurt... In the end, I find I've forgiven them. It's almost the same for me as acceptance, which someone I know defined as "no longer trying to change the past."

This does not mean things are all hunky dory, and doesn't mean I'm interested in having toxic people in my life. Forgiveness and reconciliation have nothing to do with each other. I have reconciled with people I haven't forgiven and vice versa.

This quote: "They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged." is something that I keep hearing and yet... so many people in my sphere have parents from whom they died estranged and their only feeling is relief. They already spent years grieving The Relationship That Might Have Been if only abuse/rage/addiction/mental illness/whatever hadn't existed.

So now I just put it up there with "you're going to wish you had children someday!" and "you'll regret having sex when you're only a teenager in high school" as something that might be true for some people but isn't universally true by a long road.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:38 PM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Clinging to grudges is pathetic. It's one of those genuinely petty things people do that is the result of simply poor upbringing. It's one thing to enjoy feelings of anger and vengeance during an act of violence but after the moment of crisis has passed, after the immediate threat has been eliminated, to continue waging some forgotten war and reliving some imagined slight is just... a waste. I'm sure his dead friend is very happy that a few of his living friends are still -- what, occasionally irate? Really.

There has always been a strong desire in American culture to forgive any and all shortcomings. It is the land of second chances and this is something that's very, very unique to America. I can think of no other place where people so casually fail, fuck up, read a few chapters in the Bible, and then get up and get right back to it. This policy has upsides but it's also contributed to the shocking lack of accountability that prevails throughout the land. When an individual can start a war and oversee the waste of trillions of dollars, the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives, and can then wander off without so much as a symbolic punishment and any consequences then something important is lost. Forgiveness is deployed before the tragedy has been fully experienced, before recovery has truly occurred, and there is no chance to course correct, no chance to re-examine and re-evaluate, to do something truly new.

The article is dumb and perpetuates Iron Age notions about free will and it imagines that forgiveness is something that happens between individuals, as if two strangers in the wild would ever bother with such silliness and elaborate notions of forgiveness and justice. But it is disturbing how a deep, abiding conservatism in the cutlture now eagerly demands forgiveness of any and all failings -- from abandoning one's wife to exposing a CIA agent's cover -- all in a transparent effort to maintain the status quo.
posted by nixerman at 5:24 PM on April 5, 2013


But it is disturbing how a deep, abiding conservatism in the cutlture now eagerly demands forgiveness of any and all failings -- from abandoning one's wife to exposing a CIA agent's cover -- all in a transparent effort to maintain the status quo.

which gets us back to eriko's ...

For forgiveness, you must...

1) Know that you have done wrong.
2) Admit to yourself, and others, that you have done wrong.
3) Unreservedly apologize to others, and yourself, for the wrong you have done.
4) Show how you will strive to not commit that wrong again.


To which I would add (though it is implied), 5) "payment" of some sort of reparations ... whatever "payment" means.

My final thought in all of this, spurred by xarnop's comments, is that I do think we have to consider where the will to inflict truly "horrific abuses and damages" comes from. It's not as if I, normal guy, just wakes up one morning and decides, hmmm, today I'm going to do something really evil to somebody that will leave them damaged for life. Fact is, pretty much all abuse/damage comes from people who have themselves been abused/damaged, maybe not to the same degree as those who they will afflict, but nevertheless, this stuff doesn't come from a vacuum, but from somebody who, for whatever reason (usually stuff that happened to them when they were very young) has been drained of empathy, or certainly found themselves at a point where their will to perpetrate abuse has overwhelmed their empathy.
posted by philip-random at 10:55 AM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fact is, pretty much all abuse/damage comes from people who have themselves been abused/damaged, maybe not to the same degree as those who they will afflict, but nevertheless, this stuff doesn't come from a vacuum, but from somebody who, for whatever reason (usually stuff that happened to them when they were very young) has been drained of empathy, or certainly found themselves at a point where their will to perpetrate abuse has overwhelmed their empathy.

This is partly true. There was a study that came out saying that all the murderers, I think, that they interviewed on a certain Death Row had been physically abused as kids -- but subsequent studies showed that most convicted criminals lie about childhood abuse to gain sympathy. Also, the generally accepted figures are that one in six to ten boys is sexually abused as a child and one in ten-ish children are physically abused. That's a lot of victims (I'm leaving out female sexual abuse survivors, since they're not normally thought of as potential criminals), and the great majority of them do not then grow up to abuse or assault others.

Alice Miller talks about a lot of this in her work, and I agree with her take that we need to have every possible sympathy for children in abusive situations, even if those children are acting out and abusing others, and we need to do everything possible to hold adults responsible for abusing others, even if those adults were abused as children. Basically, sympathy and lenience and forgiveness until the child is old enough to take moral responsibility for his or her own actions, at which point it's zero-tolerance. (Obviously, teaching and rehabilitation and such should be offered to abused kids who are abusing others, and there should be accountability; it's not a coddling thing, but more a recognition that children may not know any better but adults sure as hell should.)
posted by jaguar at 11:10 AM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


but subsequent studies showed that most convicted criminals lie about childhood abuse to gain sympathy. Also, the generally accepted figures are that one in six to ten boys is sexually abused as a child and one in ten-ish children are physically abused. That's a lot of victims (I'm leaving out female sexual abuse survivors, since they're not normally thought of as potential criminals), and the great majority of them do not then grow up to abuse or assault others.

Brings to mind an interview with a child murderer I read years ago. Needless to say, it was chilling. But what has stuck with me was that he was very blunt about about NOT being abused a child, either physically or verbally. But he was utterly neglected. For whatever reason, his parents were cold fish, he got no affection from them, and as a only child, had no one else. So as he put it, he festered, spent lots of time alone, never really learned to socialize ... and ultimately grew to be a sufficiently alienated adult to do what he did.

and we need to do everything possible to hold adults responsible for abusing others, even if those adults were abused as children. Basically, sympathy and lenience and forgiveness until the child is old enough to take moral responsibility for his or her own actions, at which point it's zero-tolerance.

Fair enough. We do need to protect ourselves from damaged people. But this discussion is about forgiveness and, since eriko's comments, contrition. So while I can on one level agree (obviously) that we need to isolate people who perpetrate horrible crimes/abuses, I can also see that the way forward is to try to get to a place where victims can find a way to genuinely forgive and perpetrators can find a way to be contrite.

Because the wounds in question are real and often as not, permanently disfiguring. The question is, do we allow them to just stay open and virulent, or do we seek to have them heal as best we can. My gut (backed up by a fair amount of science) tells me that, with regard to "horrific abuses and damages" the best healing involves forgiveness and contrition, if such is possible.
posted by philip-random at 12:04 PM on April 6, 2013


I don't know all the much about it, but you might be interested in the idea of restorative justice. To me, from what I understand, that makes sense -- the community comes together to decide what reparations are appropriate. But I don't know that the victim forgiving the perpetrator is a necessary part of that.
posted by jaguar at 6:32 PM on April 6, 2013


And here, Restorative justice and forgiveness
posted by jaguar at 6:35 PM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I can also see that the way forward is to try to get to a place where victims can find a way to genuinely forgive and perpetrators can find a way to be contrite."

Somehow I just totally disagree that healing is related to forgiveness or that forgiveness is the goal that society should be pushing victims toward to prove they are good victims or healing properly.

There's just something wrong and gross about that as a concept to me and I've come upon it quite regularly among "healers" and random people with opinions who feel they know better than I do how much I need to "forgive" and have compassion for someone who did horrible things to me.

It's like... dude I'm suffering horribly, I need help, I need people who understand that I have a dissociative disorder THAT DOES NOT GO AWAY NO MATTER HOW MUCH I FORGIVE and I really need people in helping professions and society at large to stop thinking that my healing has anything to do with forgive and being lovey dovey with the guy who did this. For fucks sakes I've wished him the best I hope he's happy, he had a horrible childhood I hope he gets better.

My forgiving his is not "the path to healing" nor does it determine how horrific my experience was or what damage exists now.

The LAST thing people who have gone through abuses like this need is to turn to family/friends/professionals for support and get lectured about the path to forgiveness and how much love they need to be having for abusers. This is a REALLY commons social trend and personally I find it horrible and wish it would go away. I am in favor of compassionate services for abusers and criminals but jeeze, leave the victims out of out it. If they want to forgive that's fine but this whole concept that victims who forgive are beautiful and wonderful and victims who are still in pain and just want to be left alone and have to be buddy buddy with horrible abusers are somehow pathetic grudge holders who are "making themselves ill" by not feeling magic rainbow love for people who tortured and sometimes permanently injured them for life---

It's not the ANGER THAT CAUSES THE INJURY. It's more often the PAIN leaves people finding it hard to feel all lovey dovey about the person who caused it. And victims/society being more loving and understanding towards perpetrators is NOT the "path to healing" or something survivors must do in order to heal the wounds. Nor is having ongoing alterations a sign a person is "causing their own suffering" by not forgiving enough which IS often heaped on victims by people who are annoyed by the level of suffering many survivors go through.
posted by xarnop at 12:44 PM on April 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also Kublar Ross is frequently quoted by lay people and some professionals as the "correct way" and her methods are not really "research based" but based on her own anecdata and her personal belief that people who are accepting are better to be around than those who aren't.

That's perfectly ok, no one likes to be around people who are in suffering but when your goal is to force a person to stop being in pain "because you care about them" you might want to think through what YOU are wanting vs what THEY are wanting.

Sometimes people just want the freedom to feel what they feel and be supported as they are rather than forced into the box of acceptance because it makes people around them more happy. If you want to ASK people in pain to stop being in pain for your convenience that's fair-- but remember you're asking them for a favor, you're not necessarily doing them a favor by trying to make them be accepting of horrible abuse or traumas of the past.
posted by xarnop at 12:56 PM on April 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


The experience destroyed me in a way I can not describe in with language. Forgiveness bears no relation to that destruction.

That's kind of what I was getting it. What a horrific experience. Any suggestion that you move towards forgiveness that does not deal with just how horrific that experience was, just how badly you had been treated, winds up minimizing it. Which makes it even worse. Because this. . .

I really need people in helping professions and society at large to stop thinking that my healing has anything to do with forgive and being lovey dovey with the guy who did this.

. . . and this. . .

It's not the ANGER THAT CAUSES THE INJURY.

. . . are absolutely right. I think the idea that forgiveness is a step on the path to healing may actually be backwards. It's not so much that we forgive so that we can heal, but maybe that we can only forgive once we have healed, or at least started to.

And that sort of suggestion also divorces forgiveness from punishment. Your forgiveness is only relevant to your own injury. You are not the only one injured here. These were more than likely criminal actions, and a society that fails to deal with that is not a just society. Individuals (may) forgive. The state does not, and indeed cannot. All this movement towards rehabilitation and restorative justice may have some utility, but eliminating retribution from our calculus winds up doing exactly one thing: minimizing the moral significance of lawlessness, just like asking you to forgive minimizes the significance of your injury.
posted by valkyryn at 7:03 AM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm suddenly reminded of a sermon I heard when I was seven, where the priest was addressing forgiveness. He told a joke with a woman who overheard her daughter kept telling her little brother "I forgive you," but then counting something. When inquired what was going on, the girl said that her brother had done something to her, but the Bible said that she was supposed to forgive him "seventy times seven" times. "I'm up to 49 times now," the girl said angrily, "but when I get done, he's gonna get it!"

Yeah, dippy joke, but the takeaway I got -- even as a kid -- was that yeah, that's kinda not the way forgiveness works. You have to mean it, and an empty "I forgive you" just because someone said you should isn't the same thing. And sometimes getting to the point when you do mean it can take a really long time - but that is okay.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:38 AM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know, I think that people often don't think through the consequences of promoting forgiveness of rapists and abusers- of teaching absolute forgiveness as the best response, of teaching non-judgement of others and "live and let live" and "judge not lest ye be judged" mentalities in a society.

If absolute forgiveness is the right response to being horribly wronged, then why should Rihanna not see Chris Brown as totally and completely forgiven? In fact, when choosing a friend or a mate, why should any of their past harmful behaviors be taken into account? And if they commit a current act of harm.... live and let live right? As long as they say sorry it's fine?

If they go to jail and then get out it's fine and they should be completely forgiven, slate clean? Ready to be accepted in society and relationships without discernment or judgement for their past actions?

People have this weird expectation that survivors are supposed to forgive but not REALLY forgive. I mean NO you can't actually DATE the person again, that's ennoblement.

How so? You mean giving someone who has committed abuse the opportunity to commit the abuse again is wrong? So... when societies let abusers be free in society...are they not doing the same wrong? When criminals and abusers know that they can expect to be forgiven and accepted after doing these kinds of wrongs- how is society not practicing the same sick dysfunctional enablement that happens in dysfunctional families where everyone is expected to forgive and continually accept the abuser?

Is going to jail what makes is ok vs not ok to practice this forgiveness or non-judgement? I.e. Rihanna's ok to accept him because he did his time but other people who continually forgive abusers are codependant sick unhealthy people? I'm just saying-- perhaps society should accept some accountability for the messages it teaches rather than heaping all the blame on people who follow those teachings to their detriment.
posted by xarnop at 4:09 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


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