The False Promise of Forgiveness
People often come to my office wishing to forgive someone, but feeling unsettled because despite their efforts, it hasn’t happened, and they are frustrated and confused. Their distress over forgiveness often brings to mind my favorite quote on the subject:
My frame of mind is most peaceful. My wishes are: a modest hut, a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, milk and butter – very fresh, flowers in front of my window, beautiful trees outside my door and if the good Lord wishes to make me completely happy, he lets me have the joy of seeing hanged on those trees about six or seven of my enemies. Deeply moved, I shall forgive them before they die, all the wrong they inflicted upon me in their lifetime. Yes, one must forgive one’s enemies, but not until they are hanged. (Heinrich Heine, Thoughts and Notions.)
I like this quote because it reflects the absurdity of forgiveness.
The dictionary definition of forgiveness (of the emotional kind) is “to stop feeling anger toward someone.” Thus, forgiveness is neither a feeling nor a thing in itself. It is simply the absence of anger.
Anger is often viewed as an obstacle to the attainment of happiness, which is frequently (and perhaps undeniably) identified as the ultimate goal. Forgiveness is an attractive notion because it is offered as a method of purging anger, thus, paving the way to the achievement of happiness. The idea of forgiveness has inundated self-help libraries, spiritual teachings, and provocative quotations about “letting go” and “just loving”. However, these messages pose several problems:
(1) They extoll forgiveness as virtuous and imply that anger is bad. Yet, anger is vital to our survival. It signals potential danger and motivates us to act. We need anger to function effectively in the world, and the consequences of denying or ignoring it can be tragic, such as allowing ourselves or a loved one to be placed or kept in harm’s way. Anger is only negative when it cannot be managed appropriately and manifests in destructive behavior.
(2) These messages misinterpret forgiveness as something to be done, which leaves people hunting around for ways to achieve something they can’t define. We are told forgiveness can be attained through prayer, yoga, meditation, gratitude, positive thoughts, etc. And if we are still angry after doing these things then we simply need to do them more. While these activities can be helpful in managing anger, they they will not make it go away.
(3) The messages of forgiveness exacerbate anger. Encouraging us to dispose of our anger while ignoring the underlying reasons for it suggests that we are wrong to feel it, and would be better off replacing it with more positive feelings. However, the mind cannot extinguish rage by dousing it with gratitude or compassion. It is a recipe for failure, and can leave us feeling defective, guilty, and ashamed,which makes us angrier. Moreover, the pressure to deny or hide our anger can overwhelm our self-esteem, creating a breeding ground for depression and anxiety.
The true solution to the problem of forgiveness is to acknowledge, understand and process our unresolved anger. If we can be honest about feeling angry, dignified in the way we handle it, and unafraid of the consequences, then our anger won’t threaten our sense of well-being. Moreover, we will be able to use it to our advantage in interpreting environmental cues, enhancing our self-knowledge and improving our social acuity. When we can manage our anger with confidence, we naturally feel better and stronger, because we are. The more we develop that strong, honest part of us, the less use we will have for the illusion of forgiveness.