It’s OK If You Can’t Forgive

When ten Amish girls were shot in their one-room school in 2006, the story of their murder was quickly supplanted by the story of their families forgiving the murderer. The families’ ability to forgive was super-human, perhaps even supernatural. The rest of us looked on in awe, wishing we could be so virtuous.

In October of 2019, the brother of Botham Jean, an innocent African-American gunned down by a white police officer in his own apartment, forgave her in court and asked to give her a hug. She sobbed in his arms, bitterly sorry for what she had done.

Botham Jean’s brother, Brandt, forgives Amber Guyger

To forgive has several meanings but the one that applies here is to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense. You might let justice run its course in courts of law, as Brandt Jean did, but you let go of your negative emotions.

That sounds healthy, both for the one offended and the offender, right? Maybe, but I think we’re missing something. What if you’re not there yet? What if you’ve tried to forgive but you just can’t?

The message of this post is to go easy on yourself.

First, your anger may be entirely appropriate, based on the magnitude of the offense. If you flip your wig when you’re cut off in traffic then I’d say you need to chill out, but I confess to feeling ambivalent about parents who forgive their children’s murderers. Somebody should feel angry about that and if not the parents, then who?

Second (and I speak from experience), there’s a danger you’ll beat yourself up over your inability to forgive. In addition to feeling horrible about what happened, you’ll add to your misery because you feel you’re a horrible person.

You shouldn’t feel horrible because you didn’t do something that’s optional. There are people who live in radical poverty, choosing to give as much of their income as possible to the poor. We all admire them but we don’t feel guilty because we live in a safe neighborhood, wear new clothes, and eat nutritious food. The situation is similar with radical forgiveness. If you can manage it, more power to you. If not, go easy on yourself.

Some will reply that we do not have a right to be angry, for we are guilty of many offenses ourselves. This argument misses the mark in at least two ways.

Most obviously, the sort of offense I’m talking about here is not the sort of offense you have probably committed. I’m talking about truly egregious acts: murder, infidelity, and the like. Chances are good that you have not, in fact, done wrong on that level.

Even if you have, the second problem is that just as two wrongs don’t make a right, one person’s wrong does not give another person a free pass to commit a second wrong, even against that first person. You still have two wrongs, and each person is entitled to be angry about the one they suffered, if they so choose.

Keep in mind that I’m not urging anyone to hold onto their anger. I’m only saying to cut yourself a break if you can’t let it go yet.

Perhaps you’ll even feel good about yourself if you channel that anger into something productive, such as working to make the world the sort of place where the offense happens less often.

Postscript:

This post’s topic came to my mind when I recently saw an article about an upcoming book on the philosophy of forgiveness called The Failures of Forgiveness. According to the article, the book “recasts standardized notions that forgiveness is ‘letting go of negative feelings and behavior.’ Instead, [author Myisha Cherry] shows how we can ‘change our personal and social relationships with forgiveness’ by relying on an approach that’s ‘philosophically grounded and psychologically supported.'” That’s intriguing, isn’t it? Too bad it’s not scheduled to be published until 2023.

In the meantime, you may be interested in Professor Cherry’s PhD thesis, The Nature and Appropriateness of Forgiveness Requests. I have not read the whole thing yet, but on page 154 she makes the following point, to which I say amen:

…because not all acts are [merely] slights and the wrongdoing that I am most concerned about in this dissertation involves white violence that results in death, no one has the standing to [morally command someone to forgive]. Demands in the command sense are when we tell others to forgive by appealing to authority and not to moral reasons. I argued that they show a lack of respect for morality and the victim and therefore no one has the standing to make these requests.

The Nature and Appropriateness of Forgiveness Requests, page 154

Dr. Cherry also co-edited a book, The Moral Psychology of Anger that may be worthwhile.

4 responses to “It’s OK If You Can’t Forgive

  1. Nice essay. I’ve heard the term “sacred outrage” to describe the type of anger that appears in the face of gross injustice or violence. It is important for that emotion to be given space and time to serve its purpose. Forcing forgiveness before this energy of sacred outrage has had its hearing would certainly short circuit the process that is trying to unfold.

  2. Zachary Spencer

    You say that you’re “talking about truly egregious acts: murder, infidelity, and the like,” and that people should give themselves a break if they haven’t been able to let go.

    The examples of the Amish parents and the case of Amber Guyger are remarkable situations demonstrating the shocking resilience and strength of the victims’ relatives, but do you think those gestures came from a place of feeling pressured to forgive? Having never experienced anything remotely approaching that level of loss, I can only pretend to know what my mindset would be. Do you think society pressures people to express forgiveness in situations like those? I think I’ve always assumed it did the exact opposite.

    I can only relate to grief and anger on a plain below what you specifically address here, and on this level I can absolutely understand the internal struggle of somebody trying to force themselves to forgive when they don’t actually feel what they’re pressuring themselves to express.

    To Sue’s point, I think “sacred outrage” can absolutely be applied when we are forced to confront “gross injustice or violence,” but (and maybe this applies to most people) I think my personal struggles with forgiveness have involved feeling a sense of sacred outrage is justified on a lower-tier level where it really doesn’t apply. What starts as severe disappointment, wounded pride, or anger at an insane world can quickly morph into a level of rage that isn’t healthy for me or anyone else.

    What I’m getting at is this, do you believe the same “give yourself a break” approach should be applied to the other “second tier” difficult situations we all commonly find ourselves in, or only to the “primary tier” of wrongs that you mentioned above?

    If forgiveness is ultimately mandatory in order to really recover from a wound, is there a genuine advantage to delaying forgiveness until we’re totally fine with it? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found time doesn’t always fix even smaller wounds in every situation. Maybe the initial step of verbal forgiveness is what’s required to start down the path towards true forgiveness, and maybe that applies to every tier of offense?

    In my experience, anger ends up being a breeding ground for grief, and grief quickly grows into a simmering pot of rage that only exacerbates the original hurt until it grows into a mountain that appears to be insurmountable.

    • >> [In] the case of the Amish parents and the case of Amber Guyger…do you think those gestures came from a place of feeling pressured to forgive?

      I doubt they were directly pressured to forgive. However, there may have been pressure to adopt or continue the belief system that included this radical forgiveness. That’s certainly true in the case of the Amish: if an adult leaves the faith, they may be shunned, losing their entire family. I have no information on how Amber Guyger’s victim’s brother came to his position on forgiveness.

      >> Do you think society pressures people to express forgiveness in situations like those?

      Society as a whole, no, but the people close to these radical forgivers, maybe.

      >> …do you believe the same “give yourself a break” approach should be applied to the other “second tier” difficult situations we all commonly find ourselves in, or only to the “primary tier” of wrongs that you mentioned above?

      You mentioned severe disappointment and wounded pride as (I think) examples of what would be in the second tier. Those sorts of offenses often come from someone close to us. In that case, the hurt feelings or anger would be a cue to confront the other person and try to work it out. Forgiveness will probably be part of that process but it’s important not to short-circuit the process by forgiving and then telling yourself that it’s all dealt with now, when it’s not. Psychologist Jordan Peterson says that he has many clients who are too agreeable and carry a tremendous burden of resentment as a result of letting themselves be walked all over because they think that’s the right thing to do.

      You also mentioned anger at an insane world. If it’s anger at the world in general, then let it go or at least do something constructive to change the world. It makes no sense to be angry at the world in general.

      >> If forgiveness is ultimately mandatory in order to really recover from a wound, is there a genuine advantage to delaying forgiveness until we’re totally fine with it?

      I would say to forgive as soon as you’re able, if it’s appropriate. My point was not to beat yourself up if you’re not there yet.

  3. Pingback: What Is Forgiveness? | Path of the Beagle

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