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.
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.
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.