In doing some blog searching today, I came across this quotation: “Forgiveness is not something good we give to the other person, but a gift we give to ourselves.” I have seen this numerous times in different places and it is not correct. Forgiveness has been seen as a moral virtue for thousands of years. Every moral virtue, without exception, is focused on giving goodness to others. Think about justice and kindness and generosity and love as just a handful of examples of moral virtues. When you are being fair, are you primarily being fair to yourself? Stopping at a stop light while you are driving a car is an example of being just or fair. Are you stopping your car for fairness to you or to the driver who is driving through the green light and could be injured by your lack of justice? When you are being kind, doesn’t there have to be another person to receive the kindness? That virtue is not exercised for the self. What about generosity? Don’t you have to reach out to another person to be generous? And love requires another to love. Yes, we should love ourselves, but in the context of extending love to others. We do not hold love tightly for the self.
The quotation above does not imply that one forgives for the self and for others, but exclusively for the self. The author of the quote unambiguously states that forgiveness “is not something good we give to the other person.” We supposedly hold it tightly for ourselves. How can this be a moral virtue if no other virtue you can name does likewise, save the goodness for self alone?
Either forgiveness is a moral virtue or it is not. If it is, then it’s goodness has to flow out from self to others for their good. A consequence of forgiving is stronger emotional health for the self, but this is a consequence and not an essence of what forgiveness is at its core.
The author of the quotation has confused the essence of what forgiveness is with one (and only one) consequence that happens (at least some of the time) when we forgive. Sometimes we feel better when we forgive. Scientific studies support this statement. We must be careful not to say then that forgiveness is—in its essence—a gift we give to ourselves.