Coping: It is not always wise to forgive and forget

Punishing ourselves with the idea that we ‘should’ be able to forgive is nonsense

I think that forgiveness – in certain contexts at least – is overrated. Philosophically, it is made more complex by being (like a lot of moral concepts in this part of the world) traditionally entangled with Christian values.

Forgiveness, from the perspective of the Christian tradition, is always an indicator of a magnanimous person, and is modelled after God’s divine forgiveness.

But I’m not God, and neither are you. We are not much like him – or it, or her – at all, and it’s not clear that forgiving because it’s what God would do is a good idea. A policy of blanket forgiveness regardless of how any person might behave toward you may be pious, but it’s also naive and can invite unworthy individuals to take advantage.

Forgiveness is generally posited as a solution to resentment, which might be described as a sort of self-regarding anger. We are aggrieved by the actions of another person or people, and our offence is usually based on what we believe to be the intentions and feelings behind those actions. But intuiting the intent of others can be problematic.

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We can forget the importance of assigning the full responsibility for another person’s behaviour on them, and presume that when they behave in an unjustified way toward us, that this is in some way a reflection on us. We feel injured – morally speaking – by this, and hold a grudge.

Ugly mirror

If a colleague steals your idea at work, you might wonder what it is about you that led them to think they could do it. You might conclude that they don’t take you seriously, or that they think you won’t stand up for yourself. When you look at them, you see a version of yourself reflected back that you don’t like – you see yourself as you believe they see you, and you feel angry.

Really forgiving a person involves setting aside your anger – which is frankly unwise if the person seems likely to commit the offence again, or isn’t sorry – and continuing to pursue whatever relationship you had with them before.

“Forgiveness” that involves never seeing someone again, or “coming to terms” with the way they have wronged you, isn’t forgiveness at all in the classic sense we all recognise. It is a form of acceptance, which is healthy – sometimes more so than forgiveness given to an undeserving person.

With time, reactive emotions can ease away, and we can find that the anger has left us; this generally only happens, however, when we have physical distance from the wrongdoer.

Justified anger

Both Plato and Aristotle generally associate forgiveness with magnanimity. Rather than seeing it as loving and compassionate, as the Christian tradition does, they see it as consistent with a virtuous life. However, Aristotle does recognise the place of morally apposite anger. Sometimes, anger is a rational response to someone's actions.

Excessive anger is not, and of course no one else’s bad behaviour justifies us harming them simply because we are angry. In other words, for Aristotle, anger that is untamed by rationality is certainly not a virtue, but a virtuous person “is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought”.

I far prefer Aristotle’s attitude to feeling wronged than the one (“forgive and forget”) we more frequently encounter. Forgiveness must be given freely, to a contrite and deserving person.

Forgiving because it’s what a higher being might do doesn’t bring us closer to that being; it’s an attempt to show the wrongdoer and the world how magnanimous we are, which is in itself a petty act of resentment.

It is perfectly acceptable to be angry in the understanding that pointing that anger at a wrongdoer who doesn’t care or isn’t sorry takes energy and isn’t productive. Once the anger surpasses reason, and begins to hurt us, we need to reconsider how we are dealing with it.

Punishing ourselves with the idea that we “should” be able to forgive is nonsense. When we are truly and unjustly morally injured by others, we owe a debt of magnanimity only to ourselves – to stop considering the wrongdoer, and do what is necessary to heal the injury ourselves.