What does it mean to forgive? The way I see it, it doesn’t mean anything. In fact, I find the concept of forgiveness something extraneous, confusing and downright meaningless.
The widely used notion of forgiveness comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Here we have a god of great wrathfulness and vengeance. The law tells you do x, and don’t do y. If you don’t do x, or you do y, you have sinned. Sinning against this god puts you in line for horrible punishment. So what do you do? You ask forgiveness. Asking forgiveness means asking the all-powerful god to let you off the hook, wiping your slate clean and freeing you from your impending punishment.
It seems to me that secular society borrrows the same model, but replaces the god-figure with the other. I do wrong to you; you judge me as bad and evil and horrible. You may even seek vengeance. Therefore I ask forgiveness. You can now judge me clean and good again, and my errors are washed away from both of us. You don’t have to be nasty to me, and I can once again return to being good to you.
Alternatively, what happens is a kind of mushed-up version of the god-as-judge and other-as-judge. I ask forgiveness because I want you AND god to let me off the hook. What a mess.
I know I am oversimplifying the tradition of forgiveness, to the point of caricature, but for me it is all located in a false dichotomy of good judgement/bad judgement. I do not ever feel like I have the power to forgive any more than I have the power to judge or punish or reward anyone, or to take responsibility for defining them as ok or not ok by so doing.
I sincerely believe forgiveness is an utterly meaningless concept, but pointing this out repeatedly draws objections along the lines of: “But if you don’t forgive, you can never let go.” I disagree. If you don’t let go, you don’t let go. If you don’t accept things as they are, perhaps you can not let go. Before I talk about alternatives, though, I need to clarify that I’m not advocating NOT-forgiving as an action either. When I reject forgiveness, I am not suggesting we holding tightly to anger and judgement, or bearing grudges. It’s not forgiveness (positive judgement) versus grudge-bearing (negative judgement). No. I am saying this either-or judgement model is flawed. There is an alternative.
I far prefer the model of acceptance and detachment. If I have hurt you, I must accept my own actions and their consequences. I must also accept what they have shown about me, what I am capable of. You too must accept what has happened, because it cannot be changed, and you probably have to live with some of the consequences of my actions.
Ideally, where there is real contrition, real engagement with reality past and present, we can acknowledge each other, acknowledge what has happened, acknowledge hurts caused and suffered. Perhaps, if we are to go forward with love and compassion we can learn from past errors and use them to strengthen our intentions to do no further harm.
But in many cases, this does not happen. Someone can inflict enormous harm, and then go forward blithely continuing to behave with the same mindlessness. An empty apology may land at your feet with a hollow thud, sometimes thrown at you with more viciousness than the original violation. What should you do with it? What happens when you find yourself going forward knowing that the mindless apologiser will, in all likelihood, continue to bring small-mindedness and pain into your life in the future? What role has forgiveness to play here? None, I think. Acceptance, compassion and constant attention to what is happening as it happens – these yield far more I think.