To me, proclaiming, “I forgive you,” is all about power—-power over the other by basically condemning the other.  After all, what you are doing in this proclamation of forgiving is to point out the other’s flaws.  What do you think?

If your philosophy is based on Machiavelli or post-modernism in which the assumption is that there are no universal truths,  then you will be viewing forgiveness through the lens of power. If  your philosophy is based on classical realism, such as Aristotle, then you will be viewing forgiveness through a moral virtue lens, with the assumption that genuine forgiving is morally good, done for others in a selfless way. The Machiavellian project, within the study of forgiveness, is dangerous because it could lead a person to falsely abandoning the quest for forgiving and shedding of hatred.  After all, if forgiving is abandoned, what is the alternative to expunging hatred?

My point is this: The philosophy with which you begin contemplation on what forgiveness is and its value for you and others has profound implications for how you view this important virtue.  So, as Socrates warned us, the unexamined life is not worth living.  We need to examine very carefully what are our initial assumptions about forgiveness, including being aware of what philosophical model we are bringing to bear on this reflection, prior to judging forgiving as good or bad.

For additional information, see All You Need is Love.

They say, “Forgive and forget,” but I just can’t blot out of my memory what happened to me.  Does this mean that I am not forgiving the person?

The term forget has more than one meaning.  It can mean not being able to remember what happened.  It can mean to not dwell on what happened.  It can mean that as we look back, we remember in new ways.  When we forgive, we can remember and this is all right.  As an analogy, if you have ever had a sports injury, you can look back; you do not forget in a literal sense the time of a challenging physical injury.  Yet, when you look back at the sports injury, you do not feel the pain in the same way as you did when the event happened.  I think it is the same with forgiveness.  We can look back, but we remember in new ways, without the acute pain being there for us now.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

Take the Long Perspective When It Is Difficult to Forgive

Think about one time in your childhood when you had what seemed to be a serious disagreement with a friend. At the time, did it seem like this breach would last forever? Did it? How long did it take to either reconcile or to find a new friend? Time has a way of changing our circumstances. This is not to advocate a kind of passive approach to life here—such as, “Oh, I’ll just wait it out and not bother to exert any effort.” That is not the point. The point is to take a long perspective so that you can see beyond the next hill to a place that is more settled and the pain is not so great. You already saw in your childhood that conflicts end. And the consequences of those conflicts (feeling sad or angry) also end. Why should that same process of change not also apply now? Try to see your circumstance, as realistically as you can, one month from now. Try to see your circumstance six months from now. Try to see yourself two years from now. Will you be the same person? Will you respond to injustices in the exact same way as you did three months ago? Probably not. You will likely be able to meet challenges with greater strength and wisdom as you continue on the forgiveness journey.

Enright, Robert. 8 Keys to Forgiveness (8 Keys to Mental Health) . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

I suffer from chronic anxiety. Will this alter how I go through the forgiveness process relative to those who are not suffering in this way?

Sometimes our anxiety comes from not feeling safe. Sometimes our not feeling safe emerges when others treat us unfairly. In other words, you may be expecting poor treatment from others now, even those who usually are fair.

A first step may be to think of one person who may have hurt you and at whom you still harbor resentment. You can forgive through the exact same pathway as described, for example, in the book, Forgiveness Is a Choice. With anger lessened, anxiety can diminish. Of course, this will vary for each person. We have to be gentle with ourselves as we learn to forgive, to give up anger, and to know with some confidence that we can meet the next interpersonal challenge with forgiveness, helping us to meet these challenges with less anxiety than in the past.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.

I was hurt in a 5-year relationship and now I am hesitant to get into any other relationship. Does this lack of courage on my part suggest that I have not forgiven the one who hurt me?

The issue here seems to be one of a lack of trust. You may or may not have forgiven the one with whom you were in a relationship for the 5 years. Even if you have completely forgiven, you still may lack trust and this is not a sign of unforgiveness. It is a sign that you know hurt is possible when you commit to others. Forgiveness can help with taking the risk and at the same time your using common sense in the new relationship, along with sincere acts of trustworthiness by the other, should help to slowly create a trust with the new person.

Learn more at Forgiveness for Couples.

What would you say to someone who is too stubborn to feel compassion toward the one who hurt him/her?

We would say this, “Your feeling compassion may take time. So, your feeling today that you do not want or need compassion is not necessarily your final word on the matter. If you refuse to examine at all the possibility of developing compassion, even over time, then you have to be careful that your own anger does not end up hurting you.”

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness. 

I thought I had completely forgiven my ‘ex’ and last night I had a dream that reawakened all of my anger. I had forgiven, maybe, a year ago. Now here I am again fuming. Do you have a suggestion for me to really get over this and forgive permanently?

We have to realize that forgiveness, as the late Lewis Smedes said, is an imperfect enterprise for imperfect people. It is common to have forgiven and then to be triggered by something unexpected, whether it is a dream or meeting the person for the first time, as examples. Because you already know the path of forgiveness, I recommend that you get your backpack on again, and your hiking shoes, and travel the forgiveness road once again. This time it may be quicker with deeper results. And please do not be discouraged if and when you have another trigger for your anger in the months or years ahead. Go on the forgiveness journey once again.

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness.

I am finding no excuses for what my husband has done to me. When I try to forgive, it is very difficult for me to cultivate any sense of empathy toward him. What would you suggest to help me forgive?

You need not find any excuses for your husband’s behavior if you are to forgive him. Forgiveness is not based on finding excuses, but instead is based on seeing his worth, not because of what he did, but in spite of this. Further, try to see his inner world. Is he wounded in any way? Confused? Do you see a human being rather than someone who is less than human? These kinds of perspectives can increase empathy and foster forgiveness.

Learn more at Forgiveness for Couples.

I hear colleagues tell me that it is child abuse to impose the education of forgiveness on unsuspecting students. How would you answer such a charge?

Good philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom. Good education is the same. Part of being wise is to know how to control one’s anger, to reduce resentment, and to forge healthy relationships in the home and in the community. Forgiveness, seen in scientific studies, is one effective way of reducing resentment and fostering better behavior and relationships. If we then deprive a child of this part of wisdom, are we somehow aiding that child’s development or stifling it? Teaching about forgiveness is far from child abuse. Deliberately withholding knowledge of forgiveness is educational deprivation, which should happen to no child.

For additional information, see Your Kids Are Smarter Than You Think.

Is there any advantage in forgiving and reconciling compared with forgiving and not reconciling? If I forgive but do not reconcile, will this weaken my ability to forgive in the future?

There is no general rule regarding forgiving and not reconciling. In other words, your not reconciling with someone who is not remorseful or who is unrepentant (when acting very unjustly against you) should not weaken your ability to forgive in the future. In contrast, if you refuse to reconcile with someone who in fact has remorse, has repented and, where possible, has given recompense, then you need to examine your own inner world. Perhaps you have excessive mistrust or resentment and these can get in the way of future forgiving.

Learn more at Forgiving is not. . .