Forgiveness. It’s a loaded word. But it’s also an abused word. We talk about it and throw it around like it’s day old bread. Okay, maybe not exactly day old bread. (Who throws day old bread around?) We say people should forgive and I agree, they should. We say forgiveness makes us stronger, happier, and more empowered. We’re the bigger person when we forgive and we are the humbled person when we are forgiven. It’s good, it’s great, it’s wonderful. But forgiveness can be confusing, difficult, and flat-out frustrating to understand and to do.
We all make mistakes so we are all in need of forgiveness. And seeking forgiveness is often seen as a more vulnerable position to be in. At least, as opposed to the person that forgiveness is being sought from. But I think whatever side one is on in the proverbial table of forgiveness, who we are is being exposed in a way that makes us vulnerable. And as much as we would like to turn that vulnerability to strength and humility, our human need for the act of forgiveness often clashes with a desire for retribution. Even when we are the ones in need of forgiveness, sometimes it feels like we should face some prerequisite before pardon is granted to us.
The people closest to us have the power to hurt us the most. And we have the power to hurt them the most too. When we are hurt by others, it is very easy to see our wounds that need to be attended to. When we hurt others, we do not always see so clearly. Many of us do not like to be the ones in need of someone else’s forgiveness because it would mean acknowledging that we have done wrong. It is not that we like to be the ones in pain either; the ones with the supposed power to forgive. Both positions have different burdens but the latter one seems to afford more power to whoever holds it.
But what is forgiveness? Is it simply absolving someone of their wrongdoings? It is it showing mercy and compassion to another human being because of his or her imperfection? And do we have to forget to truly forgive? The latter question is very important because as a child I remember a homily during mass. It was of a story about a priest and a man and the man claimed to have conversed with God. So the priest questions him by demanding that the man tell him what God says the priest’s greatest sin is. The man says, “God doesn’t remember.” That homily was about forgiveness.
I do think there is an element of forgetting that has to occur when you truly forgive someone. Even though it’s very popular to forgive, we do not often hold forgetting to the same standard. But I think we should to the extent that we forget the hurt that has been caused.. Forgetting is not being naive to the world but it is believing that you and I don’t have to remember our hurts committed by others in a way that prevents us from loving them again. And that can be hard but I don’t think forgiveness is possible without love anyway. I think if we find it difficult to forgive, it is often because we are finding it difficult to give love authentically.
Of course, as we all have been told or maybe even experienced, the burden of not forgiving someone is felt more by us than that person. Holding something against someone just leaves us with a burden that we need not have in a life where there will be plenty of burdens that we have to carry. And the truth is, sometimes we have to forgive people even when they don’t ask for it. Because we are the ones that have to live with ourselves at the end of the day. And the weight of an unforgiving heart is a weight to rid one’s self of at any and all times.
But maybe above all, the hardest but least-talked about form of forgiveness is the humility and courage to forgive one’s self. We hurt ourselves by our choices in what we say and do and don’t do. But we also hurt ourselves when we hurt other people. And it is tempting to hold onto feelings that we are undeserving because of our wrongdoings. And it is tempting to be consumed by feelings of unworthiness. But no matter how much we forgive others and are forgiven by others, if we don’t learn to forgive ourselves and in so doing love ourselves, we may find that the forgiveness we give and receive is meaningless.
When we forgive, we are clearing the scoreboard. When we are forgiven, someone is clearing our scoreboard. It’s tough to clear the scoreboard. But the only thing that’s probably tougher than clearing it is keeping it going. Because keeping score only makes us miserable; it makes us unable to forget and to trust and love. And if we’re unable to love, we might able to live but we will never be able to live well.