What is Forgiveness?

Words are funny things. Ask a bunch of English native speakers what the word, “capricious” means, and even among those who routinely use the word correctly, you aren’t going to get many who are confident in their response. Yet simpler words, used everyday by most everyone, we never question our definitions of. Love. Happy. Freedom. Everyone thinks we have a real handle on what we are talking about with these. But these supposedly simple words are describing big concepts. We wander through life assuming that people share our definitions of concepts we hold dear, when the state of the world (and perhaps our relationships) should make it very obvious that they don’t.

Take “freedom,” for example. One person’s notion of freedom is often another’s oppression. The people who most often talk about Freedom as an important principle are usually the ones most invested in limiting the freedoms of people of different faiths, lifestyles, and political affiliations. For them, freedom is more of a feudal arrangement; existing as a privilege of the dominant. Such is life, it seems.

So, what of forgiveness, then? The concept is bandied about a great deal in Christian thinking and positivity circle jerks. We hear the mothers of murder victims telling their child’s killer at sentencing that they forgive them. Surely, though, their brand of forgiveness is a guilt injection of weaponized dogma. A way for an otherwise powerless person to gain some agency and strike out at the one who hurt them so terribly. And why not? That’s their right.

Stepping back from this extreme of the spectrum, it still is useful to examine what people mean when they talk about forgiving. Really, there are three kinds of forgiveness that we might be dealing with. The first is the guilt attack referenced earlier. The second is an internal process to control our perception. The third is action and behavior towards the object of the forgiveness.

In the second, internal, case, we deal with forgiveness in more philosophical terms. It relates to how we process the hurt and trauma we have suffered at the hands of others. It is letting go of the anger that keeps us in that place of hurt. In this the people and philosophies that espouse forgiveness are correct: letting go of the hurt and anger, forgiving those that hurt us, gives us a way to move past anger and pain. It can release us from the past.

This is an internal journey that really has nothing to do with the person that hurt us. We can forgive a person who is dead; who we will never see again. Their inclusion in the process is not necessary.

The third kind of forgiveness is when we choose to include that person. We tell them they are forgiven, and may or may not continue on in some kind of relationship with them. Just because we forgive someone does not mean we necessarily want them back in our lives.

For me, there are people in my past who I have fallen out with. They fucked me over or were generally insufferable and one day stepped just a bit too far over the line. I was angry with them for a while, but that’s all gone now. The anger is gone and when I think about them it’s general recollections or wondering what they’re up to and hoping they are doing well.

So, is this forgiveness? Or is there an important distinction where I make an act out of it by telling them my feelings?

This creates a problem, since these are not people I want to have anything to do with. It’s over. I don’t have time to spare for people I love who haven’t fucked up with me. Building bridges with those who have isn’t in the cards. So I don’t feel that it is appropriate to contact them out of the blue and say:

“Hey, it’s all forgiven. I hope you’re happy. Yeah, I’m good too. No, sorry, I don’t want to be your friend anymore. But good luck!”

That’s not right. So I guess I just sit here thinking happy thoughts about them while they go about thinking I’m a prick who really holds a grudge (which I probably am). That’s maybe kinder than telling them they’re not someone I want in my life anymore.

Hallmark ought to make a card: “I think you’re probably still a cunt, but when I think about you these days it doesn’t fuck up my day. No hard feelings. Please don’t contact me.”

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