It is in pardoning that we are pardoned

I sometimes wonder what forgiveness actually means. But when I acknowledge my uncertainty, it sounds rather insensitive -stupid, almost. Forgiveness suggests -what?- indulgence, tolerance of a perceived or actual transgression. Leniency if not absolution. Often it also suggests, or expects, some sort of reciprocal reaction from the object of the largesse as well. It can be implicitly transactional.

And yet, is a win-win model always appropriate? Do I, the forgiver, have a right to expect reciprocity, or could I more correctly be perceived as simply virtue signalling? Let’s face it, I  may forgive, but the recipient might not think they need to be forgiven –they committed no infraction for which they need to apologize. So is forgiveness an act that might further intrench the perceived misdemeanor? Further vilify the offender? You see why I am confused.

Of course, there is the probability that by deciding to forgive, I cleanse myself of anger, of need for retribution, and allow myself to put the insult or injury behind me; it is as much for my benefit as anything else. Usually, I would imagine, forgiveness is an emotional purification -something that feels personally liberating; a secondary ingredient, although by no means necessary, is a hoped-for beneficial effect on the offending party. But, after chancing upon an essay by William Park, a writer and editor based in London, I suspect I have been naïve.

As Shakespeare wrote in one of his lesser known plays, ‘Nothing emboldens sin as much as mercy’. It would seem that forgiveness is not conditional upon an apology, or vice versa -indeed, neither is necessarily an impetus for the other. And yet, the purging effect of either of them, even unrequited, can be restorative.

‘However, despite how seemingly near-universal forgiveness is, not all acts are created equal… An act of forgiveness in one culture might mean something completely different in the other – it might actually make tensions worse.’

‘Western countries like the US or the UK tend to have more individualistic cultures, which means Western people often put personal gain before helping the wider group… Other countries, like those in Asia and Africa, are more inclined to put the group first – these are called collectivistic cultures. It is broadly true that individualists use forgiveness to relieve a burden, clear their conscience, or to feel they have done the right thing.  Collectivists by comparison, use forgiveness to preserve social harmony. For the latter, forgiveness might be offered even if that individual still feels resentment towards their transgressor, because it is their duty to keep the group happy.’

There are at least two types of forgiveness, apparently: decisional forgiveness in which the decision to forgive might be made ‘to forgive after weighing up whether it will keep the group happy’. The other type is emotional forgiveness – ‘where reconciliation is offered to satisfy an emotional need in the transgressed.’ 

The question to be asked, though, is whether the same healing benefit accrues to the person who is forgiving to appease the group even if he may not even agree with the decision. Well, Park observes that it is difficult for most of us to deal with the cognitive dissonance that acceding to the welfare of the group might entail: believing one thing and saying another.

Park also goes on to explain that the words used in different societies to forgive someone, are often also highly culturally weighted, and have different implications. But, in recognition of the importance of forgiveness, something called ‘The Reach intervention (Recall, Empathise, show Altruism, Commit and Hold onto forgiveness) is a commonly taught way of promoting forgiving qualities. It has been shown to work in both Western and Eastern cultures, though Reach works better when the transgressor and transgressed share a belief system.’ As one might expect (and hope) forgiveness, in one form or another, is highly valued if it is understood as sincere, thoughtful… and not rescinded.

Of course, the purpose of an essay -any essay, perhaps- is to enlighten the reader by selecting one viewpoint, one tree out of a forest of trees, and offer it for consideration. I have to admit that the author directed me to a trail I had not taken before.

As the protagonist in an ordinary life, there have been many situations in which I have felt regret for actions I had not intended, or found myself lost on unnecessarily troubled pathways of my own hewing; for many of these I have felt regret, and for others, frustration -but for most, I have sooner or later apologized. Guilt can be as cruel a lesson as was the initial transgression: a lesson weighted as much by Age, as the need to set things back in balance before the Final Act.

The point the author makes about the two different reasons for forgiveness -appeasement of the group or mollifying oneself- made me realize that I –we, actually- are all groups, all multitudes. I am a different person at work than I am at home, a different person among close friends than, say, sitting in a crowd at a hockey game. I am a collective, each with different roles, different expectations, and, dare I say, often differing ethics -dissimilar ways of demonstrating them, at least.

So is an apology different in these different milieux as well? In a sense, am I actually apologizing to some disparate faction of myself? And are there really two species of forgiveness too: one of which that needs to be self-directed…?

I realize how self-centered, and inconsiderate that sounds. As Mark Twain once said, ‘Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.’ And yet, it makes me realize just how important self-forgiveness becomes when my leaves begin to colour and drop around me as I age: the Great Reconciliation –me apologizing for the numerous missteps I have recognized over time, and the various mes I have assumed, having a chance to forgive me for them.

I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that I should only seek forgiveness from myself and expect redemption -as if the only fault were circumstances that made me act as I normally would not; forgiveness, like apology, must encompass all against whom there have been offences. It is not a private thing. But for a fair resolution to occur, both sides must understand that something important has happened. If sincere, neither forgiveness, nor apology, are little things.

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