Sunday, December 27, 2015


Lately, there has been a lot of misuse of the term "forgiveness." People say things like "I am forgiving for my own sake, so that I can know peace. But I want nothing to do with the person I forgive, and no benefit need come to the wrongdoer from my forgiveness."

While it is true that a catharsis can occur when we forgive, forgiveness is not something we can do without focusing on the other person. By its very nature, forgiveness cannot be all about us. It has to involve our true feelings for and about another.

Just as revenge is different from karma, forgiveness, the most extreme  alternative to revenge, is different from writing someone off and shunning them. Yet today, people conflate all the non-revenge reactions together, as if to fail to take revenge is the same as forgiveness.

All of these are legitimate reactions to being wronged:

  • Revenge
  • Retribution
  • Payment and release
  • A lawsuit
  • Shunning
  • The Cold Shoulder
  • The Silent Treatment
  • Forgiveness

There are degrees of anger that we feel for a wrong committed against us. There are degrees of reaction that are possible. All of these are acceptable. Just because you have been wronged, that does not mean you must seek revenge. Just because you have been wronged, that does not mean you must forgive. 

While both revenge and forgiveness are the most extreme reactions possible -- and each of them offers a greater emotional catharsis and release than the less extreme possibilities in the middle -- they are certainly not the only choices available, 

Most of the time we will choose neither revenge nor forgiveness for serious wrongs committed against us. Revenge can be too costly. We might be too entangled with a person in  our business or family life to be able to take full retribution, a lawsuit drags on forever, but still we cannot forgive. So most times, we just have to let it go. We move on. We stop feeling angry, we lose the need to act on the feeling, but still we do not forgive. Letting it go does not mean forgiveness. And we are fooling no one if we call it that.

In the video embedded below, I discuss what forgiveness is and why people try to fake it. 

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  1. I think it is fine if someone someone wants to forgive someone for a wrong, but I have felt uncomfortable lately when people demand public apologies. Usually the person will only say they are sorry due to social pressure, and that is not real. People should not demand apologies, but be should be able to accept if someone says they are sorry. I have had people say things to me in the past, but as the years go by I try to think about it this way: do I want to go out to lunch with that person tomorrow. Do I want to call that person on the phone and discuss something important? If the answer is no, it is perhaps because they are not that important. I like how you point out people can tell each other candidly they do not accept an apology, or will not forgive, and still be civil.

    1. Hi, Julia. I agree that coerced public apologies are usually fake and involve no genuine contrition. In order to work, both the apology and the forgiveness need to be spontaneous and come from the heart. And yes, it is possible to remain civil while candidly not forgiving. I think one of the reasons some people engage in fake apologies and fake forgiveness is because they fear it will mean out and out war if they don't and the downfall of all civilization. But it does not have to be that way. Anger and resentment need not always be acted on. Entertaining a thought or feeling an emotion does not imply we are unable to govern our actions.