Continuing yesterday’s thoughts on apologies, my understanding of forgiveness has changed over time too. Someone once asked me what it meant to forgive someone, and suddenly a clear answer leapt into my mind. I don’t know that it really represents the fullness of understanding, but hopefully it’s food for thought.
I answered, “there are two kinds of forgiveness,” and went on to explain how it seemed to me. The first type of forgiveness is absolution of wrongdoing. Wiping the record clean; pardoning someone of the consequences of their actions. And it seems to me that this isn’t in any person’s power to do. The reason depends upon your worldview: are you religious, in a conventional sense? If you are, then the wrongdoing is not between two people, but between the perpetrator and God, and thus God alone can forgive. If you’re not religious in that way, you might understand it as simply the reality of the way things are for the other person, which isn’t something you can change for them.
The second type of forgiveness is something you do for yourself when you’ve been harmed. It’s a release of resentments and ill will towards the person who hurt you. With a little thought, it’s fairly obvious that holding a grudge harms the grudge-holder, not the target of the grudge. It’s like drinking poison and thinking that your enemy will fall ill. When you forgive, you free yourself, you release yourself from the strongest prison ever built. It’s also something you can do without the other person’s participation or even knowledge. It isn’t conditioned upon their repentance or apology.
It’s been said that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, and that’s true, but it’s the subject of another essay.
Personally, I held a lot of resentment over a period of many years. I worked with someone to write them down and go through them one by one, examining the nature of them, my part in what had happened, and what I could do about it. It surprised me that there were very few occasions requiring me to forgive someone—other than myself, that is. In most cases, examining my resentments taught me that I was in the wrong, and I needed to make amends, which is a subject I hope to write about next.
In some cases I had no part in what’d happened, and in those instances I simply needed to forgive so I could free myself to live more fully. Going through this exercise with a person I trusted changed my point of view upon myself and the world, and set me on a path of healing that has continued ever since.