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How to Really Forgive Someone: Is It Possible?

A psychologist, a bishop and a filmmaker discuss why we need not forgive and forget but we should forgive and remember

By Akiko Busch | August 2, 2013
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Akiko Busch writes about design, culture and the natural world for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, was published by Yale University Press in April 2013.

Forgiveness is a complicated subject, as we were recently reminded when two disgraced New York politicians announced their campaigns. Former governor Eliot Spitzer, running for state comptroller, asked voters to forgive his past penchant for prostitutes, while shamed ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner continues to plead with constituents to overlook his lewd photos, sexting and subsequent lies.
 
These comeback endeavors met with mixed feelings, ranging from skepticism to outrage to an attitude of forgive and forget.
 
It is the latter reaction that puzzles me most.

Why is forgiveness so often linked with forgetting? Is it some reflexive cheek-turning that Christians believe is a virtue? Does it have to do with some societal instinct for denial? Or is it our accelerated culture and 24/7 news cycle that force us to move on at all costs?
 
I would make an argument for forgiving and remembering.

Recast this way, the emphasis shifts from holding a grudge or hanging on to slights to using the ability we develop to confront transgression. It also entails considering the full complement of experience, actions and words that might explain the motives behind an act then fully absorbing its meaning. Only then can one find a way to move on.
 
(MORE: The Art of Apologizing)
 
Learning to Reframe the Story
 
Anyone who has raised a child should have this ability, since acceptance is part of a parent’s job description. It can be a relatively easy thing to absolve a broken platter, muddy floor or spilled food. But the behavior that may lie behind the act — carelessness, thoughtlessness or selfishness — calls for different measures, whether empathy, discipline or tougher demands.
 
Unlike with such small childhood offenses, a different manner of accounting comes into play with larger issues that involve betrayal, violation of a public trust or greater, more profound gestures of hurt, be it a cumulative emotional injury or acts of raw, physical violence. Colin Tipping, the founder of a program he calls Radical Forgiveness, suggests that one important avenue to pardon is storytelling.
 
"It is a way of bringing all the feelings associated with the content of the story to the surface so they can be seen and confronted," says Tipping. "It is a way of validating one’s feelings in the sense that it gives us a context and a justification for having them. It allows us to work through the emotions that do come up, using compassion, empathy, understanding and mercy, all of which we can extend to ourselves as well as others."
 
We can tell the story to ourselves, Tipping continues, "but it is more powerful if we tell it to someone else, so long as they have the right ‘listening’ for it and can validate it for us and be there with us when the feelings arise. I believe the telling of the story and feeling the feelings fully is essential to the process of healing our fears and expanding into love."
 
Tipping believes forgiveness begins with relearning the story of the offense — that is, reconsidering it with an understanding of the circumstances from which it came. But that’s only the beginning. Eventually, he suggests, one can also become aware of its greater “spiritual purpose.” Or at least accept the possibility that such a meaning exists.
 
I suspect many of us have some familiarity with this process. I witnessed it in a friend who noticed that the anger she felt toward her father — who had abandoned the family when she was a child — diminished when she was in her 30s.
 
Only after she had faced financial adversity of her own could she empathize with his account of the professional insecurity and financial shame that led him to leave his wife and kids. And she came to believe that her eventual fiscal acumen as an adult was the positive effect of a nearly primal sense of economic vulnerability she had experienced as a child and her desire to overcome it.
 
(MORE: Estranged Parents and Adult Children: A Silent Epidemic)
 
The Path to Reconciliation and Redemption
 
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa came to understand what a powerful tool storytelling can be as head of his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its directive: Get the victims and perpetrators of apartheid to confront each other. Its premise: The narrative exchange was the only means by which the country could begin to heal.
 
Tutu has come to believe that forgiveness emerges from a transformative dialogue between the person hurt and the person inflicting pain. “To forgive is not just to be altruistic,” he has said. “It is the best form of self-interest.” His words are reprinted on the site for the Forgiveness Project, a U.K.-based international initiative that collects the testimony from crime victims and their perpetrators. The underlying premise is that when stories are told, reconciliation and redemption can follow.
 
On the site, we hear about a Canadian woman who has given absolution to her husband’s murderer; a Palestinian father who has forgiven the Israeli soldier guilty of shooting his young daughter; a Polish woman who pardons a Nazi doctor who used her for medical research at Auschwitz. Story upon story upon story, they construct a radiant message board for human charity.
 
Part of how genuine forgiveness works is by taking us outside of ourselves. In the process it enriches and expands our comprehension and acceptance of human beings and their behavior. “Healing comes through understanding,” Tutu says. It comes from listening to stories, assigning them to memory, retaining them forever. Forgiveness is a spiritual exercise that has to do with many things, but forgetting is not among them.
 
(MORE: How to Make Peace With Your Sibling)

Overcoming Anger and Desire for Revenge
 
Helen Whitney, a writer and documentary filmmaker, expands on that theme in the introduction to her book, Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate. “Forgiveness is not a question of forgetting the wrong done,” she writes. “If you’ve forgotten what was done, there is nothing to forgive. Forgiveness involves refusing to allow yourself to give in to anger and the desire for revenge.”
 
In her PBS film Forgiveness Whitney explores the subject in an effort to, as she says, “complicate it.” Whether it is a radical activist’s efforts to atone for a political murder, Rwandans’ efforts to legislate forgiveness for genocide, Germany’s efforts toward restitution after the Holocaust or a family’s divided feelings toward a mother who left her children, how we learn to exonerate wrong is a passage of conscience.
 
Each of these cases demonstrates that forgiveness, whether requested or given, is a matter not of negating, denying or assigning the iniquity to oblivion, but of confronting it and absorbing it fully. And all require an interior discourse.
 
In the course of that dialogue, when the weight of guilt is lifted from the abuser, so too is the burden of victimhood lifted from the abused. But above all, Whitney says, it takes time. Quick, easy, careless forgiveness can both degrade the power of the offense and diminish the profound and positive force of absolution.
 
The psychologist, the bishop and the filmmaker have all discovered that the human ability to inflict pain can be matched — and trumped — by a capacity for charity. If this can hold true with acts of extreme hatred, political atrocity and genocide, surely it has application in less extreme circumstances. Whether it is a politician, partner, friend or child, it is possible to extend grace and to grant full and unconditional pardon without denying poor choices, egregious judgment and painful actions.  
 
“Forgiveness can purify memory,” Whitney says, quoting Pope John Paul II. That seems to be key. It makes sense, then, to believe that remembering — as opposed to forgetting — is vital to the process of absolution. It requires remembering your own experience, the nature of the offense, the character of the offender. And then, above all, remembering the humanity that binds us together.

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