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Myths of Forgiveness: What Forgiving Others Is Not
To understand what forgiveness is and how the process of forgiveness works, it helps to understand what forgiveness is not. Persistent myths distort our understanding of what forgiveness is and what it entails. These myths block many people from forgiving. Some of the most common myths are described in the following paragraphs.
To Forgive, We Have to Forget the Offending Behavior
ďI will never forget what he did to me. I will never forget the beatings,Ē Martina says, and she is right. She will remember them for a lifetime. But that does not mean that she cannot forgive her former husband. Forgetting is not part of forgiving. With forgiveness, we let go of the past in order to reclaim the present, but we do not forget that past. The memories remain, but their power to hurt us does not. It is gone.
To Forgive Is to Excuse the Offending Behavior
Forgiveness does not in any way excuse or condone the inappropriate actions that created our regret. If Matt were to discuss his fatherís incestuous behavior toward him as a boy, he would continue to use the same adjectives that rightfully condemn it for the awful series of acts that it was. He does not say that his fatherís actions were acceptable then or excusable now. In fact, he still abhors them. Yet he forgave his father. He forgave him for only one reason: to be free of him. Through forgiveness Matt could let go of the hatred of his father, accept that his father had had some good qualities, and make peace with that part of his life, as horrible as it had been.
When We Forgive, We No Longer Hold the Person Accountable for the Offending Behavior
Accountability remains after we grant forgiveness to a perpetrator. Accountability never ends. We can forgive people and still believe they
should be held responsible for their actions, including being sentenced to prison. We can forgive and still ask for a divorce or sue for damages. Forgiveness never implies that accountability has been waived. When their teenage daughter was raped and killed, Ralph and Edith forgave her killer. They did that for their sakes, not his. They still agreed with the jury that the young killer should spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. Their forgiveness was real, but so was their satisfaction that he had been held accountable for his crime.
When We Forgive, We Are Implying That the Offender Is Innocent, Less Guilty, or Somehow off the Hook
Forgiveness does not imply a lack of guilt. In fact, the opposite is true. There is no need to forgive the innocent. Only the guilty need our forgiveness. But we grant that forgiveness for ourselves, not for them. Gretl forgave her brother for looting the family business and driving it into bankruptcy, which wiped out most of her assets. She forgave him not because he was innocent but because he wasnít. Her forgiving action did not make him less guilty; it acknowledged and confirmed his guilt. But it freed her from debilitating anger and hatred and allowed her to refocus on rebuilding her assets and enjoying her life.
We are not letting people off the hook when we forgive them, although they may think we are. It is true that in some cases, our forgiveness may lessen another personís suffering and regret to some degree, but only if he or she cares. Many people against whom we hold resentments care little or nothing about what we think of them, much less whether we forgive them. In fact, our torment may actually please them. As a result, the offending party may not be suffering at all because of our lack of forgiveness. The only certainty is that we are suffering from our refusal to forgive. Whether the other parties care enough about us to suffer from a lack of forgiveness cannot be known to us. But it doesnít matter, because the degree of their suffering cannot possibly compare to ours when we refuse to forgive. Withholding forgiveness is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.
STEP EIGHT: FORGIVING OTHERS
To Forgive, We Have to Reconcile with the Offender
To reconcile with someone is to reestablish a relationship with that person. Reconciliation does not have to be part of forgiving. It can be, but only if we choose to make it so. When Sam went off to Vietnam, his wife moved another man into their house. She lived with him for the two years Sam was in Southeast Asia. When Sam returned from active duty, she immediately filed for divorce and moved out of the house, taking her live-in lover with her. Sam was devastated, then enraged. Although he finally forgave his ex-wife, he had no desire to reconcile with her. Fortunately, he didnít have to as part of the process of forgiving.
Min, on the other hand, did experience a reconciliation. Following a bitter dispute over the estate of their parents, Min and her sister had not spoken for more than a decade. Minís anger at her sisterís behavior made communication impossible. When Min developed cancer, she forgave her sister as part of her new perspective on life. A reconciliation ensued, and they returned to the happier days of their youth. With forgiveness, reconciliation may take place, but it is not a requirement and will not come about unless we want it.