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Looking At Forgiveness

(Column appeared on March 18, 2010, in The Montclair Times)

“To forgive is divine.”

Or is it?

Is forgiveness something we all must aspire to? Does it make us better people? Does it mean we are kinder, more compassionate, or more evolved spiritually or psychologically than if we do not forgive? And, most compellingly, are there some things which can not or should not be forgiven?

As a psychotherapist, through the years I’ve worked with many good people who have had terrible things happen to them. Sometimes, such things are caused by fate or accident. There is no one at fault, no one to blame. Other times, those things are caused by human cruelty, insensitivity, cold-blooded manipulation or even common thoughtlessness. Should the victims of these acts be expected to forgive? Is there something wrong or lacking in them if they can not or will not forgive? Or are they being victimized twice by Society's expectation that it is “better” to forgive?

My interest in doing this article was sparked by a patient who had been deeply betrayed by someone whom she had trusted without reservation. She was a kind and giving person and a devoted Christian who believed everything embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus, including the tenets of compassion and forgiveness. She was profoundly hurt by what had happened but was not consumed by anger or bitterness. She had no desire for revenge. She wanted only to go on with her life – and there was much in her life which gave her joy and satisfaction.

But she could not forgive. Her principles, her personal faith and certain people close to her dictated that she should forgive, or at least attempt to forgive. But she could not.

Was there something lacking in her, she wondered? She had always thought of herself as a compassionate, good person. Did this mean she was not?

It was this conflict - as well as the original betrayal - which had brought her to me. In this case, the concept of forgiveness was intensifying her burden, rather than lessening it. And this made me wonder, about the nature and the purpose of forgiveness. Are there certain prerequisites for forgiveness: does someone need to show remorse, ask for forgiveness, or be worthy of forgiveness to be forgiven?

Is the act of forgiveness meant more for the perpetrator or the victim?

And what exactly is forgiveness: an action, a process, or a state of mind?

The dictionary definition of forgiveness is “to excuse a fault or offense; to pardon; to stop feeling anger or resentment against; to absolve from payment.”

In our society, forgiveness is often equated with such words as kind, generous, compassionate and virtuous, while to be unforgiving is often equated with being bitter, resentful and ungenerous. Who among us would want to be defined by words from the latter group? But words cannot fully define the complexity of this concept.

Many Jews believe that atonement and restitution are prerequisites for forgiveness. Many Christians believe that forgiveness is offered to us from God, in the person of Jesus.

There is, however, universal agreement among persons of all faiths, nonbelievers, and certainly, mental health professionals, that however horrible the crime, whatever atrocity has been perpetrated on an innocent victim, bitterness and hatred cannot be allowed to consume a person's soul and psyche.

Healing needs to occur, but must healing involve forgiveness, or can it be achieved by finding a productive channel for righteous anger which helps others and, ultimately, one’s self?

This is the first of a series of articles. Janice Cohn welcomes readers’ thoughts and experiences on the subject. 

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