Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Value of Forgiveness

Thank you to Mr. Sharpe for this morning's philosophical journey. While we may not agree on the usefulness or morality of the death penalty, we both obviously spend goodly amounts of time thinking about the questions which is crucial if we are ever to evolve as a species.
Note: These are very difficult questions, as all questions worth pursuing are. I know I have not answered them fully. No one really can, but the attempt is just as important as reaching the answers.
Before beginning, we should understand what we are talking about, so I will, as always, defer to my good friend
The two definitions of forgiveness I will use to help ground the discussion are:
a. to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.
b. to cease to feel resentment against: to forgive one's enemies.
When I use the word "victims," I mean people who have been on the receiving end of violence, as well as those loved ones who have been negatively impacted by it.
1. What is the value of forgiveness?
The value is interpreted by those who intend to forgive. From a Christian perspective, forgiveness is the divine act of following the words of Jesus Christ who commands forgiveness. From a Catholic perspective, forgiveness is intertwined with the act of confession and absolution. So in these contexts, forgiveness is seen as one path towards personal salvation and adherence to the word of God.
Another interpretation, one I've discussed in my comments, is the psychological benefit of forgiveness. Without putting offenses to rest, we cannot, as former victims or those offended against, entirely move on. We will find ourselves constantly delving back into negative feelings of resentment, animosity or even hatred. These sometimes all consuming feelings are personally and globally counter-productive if left to fester by themselves; however, they also can be useful tools in progress; i.e. people who do not want to feel this way will use the feelings to help sort out the events and their meanings in order to make sense of it all and move towards forgiveness.
2. Think, what does it truly mean to forgive?
True forgiveness takes time, and the more serious the affront, the longer time it takes; it also takes serious mental and spiritual energy that some people are unwilling to invest. Forgiveness is a painful process because we must move through the steps of the grieving process in order to fully forgive.
I would say the first definition of forgiveness is easier to achieve than the second. We might forgive the actual act, chalking it up to a series of unfortunate events or some other personal philosophy. Annihilating resentment is an entirely different process as resentment tends to come on more easily as a result of residual anger or emotional confusion.
Conditions like PTSD make forgiveness much more difficult because there is an automatic physical response to stimuli that remind victims of the traumatic event. So even when we think we have indeed forgiven, the triggers send us back to the moment of offense creating even more resentment because now, we must not only get past the horrific event all over again, we resent the person for throwing us back into that moment. As we know from our returning soldiers, PTSD is a serious condition that if left untreated can be deadly.
I do not believe we truly can or should "forgive and forget." If we forget, we cannot reference our pasts to move into our futures or use our experiences positively. While it is unhealthy to dwell on the past, it is equally unhealthy to deny what we have been through.
What does it take to forgive?
  • time
  • patience
  • prayer/reflection
  • support
  • some kind of therapy
  • understanding by those around us
  • ability and opportunity to mourn
  • other things personal to the victim
Most victims accept that something bad happened and that evil does exist in the world; but we also should recognize the need to do something useful with the experience in order to survive and grow. Victims should not be punished for being victims, nor should they be relegated to the attics of shame.
People who really want to forgive will do almost anything to do so. They might join advocacy groups, for example, to make sure victimization does not happen again. They might "go public" and tell their stories as part of a cathartic mourning. They might rant and rave for awhile and cry out, "You shouldn't have done this to me!" They might join support groups. They might write. And they cry. A lot.
If victims want to speak about their experiences, they should be allowed to in a safe setting. Assessing which situation is "safe" and which is not is difficult, especially if the victim cannot sort through his/her feelings. Judgment is muddied and they may choose the wrong outlets for their grieving. Victims often become victims again because they think they are revealing their experiences to "safe" people when in fact, they are setting themselves up to be victimized again by predators who see already weakened and easy targets.
This is difficult when "going public." Predators are everywhere, and while we never want to live always looking over our shoulders, we need to remember, even after the event and with loving support, that the world can still be an unkind place.
3. Does forgiveness not involve any moral consideration, at all?
Absolutely forgiveness involves moral consideration. I don't believe in blanket forgiveness. For example, it is not my right to forgive Hitler for his atrocities; that would be in the victims' and God's purview. I can feel sadness. I can try to make sense of it. I can grieve with survivors. But I cannot presume to forgive Hitler or his henchmen if I personally have not been his victim or a loved one of a victim. I cannot tell anyone how to resolve his/her own grief (though I can share my own processes if anyone wants to hear it and thinks it might be useful).
I don't judge people who cannot forgive. But I feel bad for them and for all of us because the inability to forgive is very painful. Even worse, though, is "fake forgiveness" which is a kind of denial. I would say anyone who blanketly states, "Oh yeah. I forgive Hitler," is denying the extent of the Holocaust and presuming forgiveness is easy. They take on what they have no right to take on. This is insulting to victims and their loved ones.
We can say, "Some people don't deserve to be forgiven," but I don't think that is useful either, especially if we are saying that and we have not been seriously offended by someone's actions. If we, as not true victims say this, we are only serving to propagate hatred and dissent. Why do it? Why invest that kind of resentment when some offenses really are easier to reconcile than others?
Christianity and other religions get a bad rap because their brand of forgiveness is often touted as simply, forgive and forget. Forgiveness is not that easy, and I think most who truly and deeply believe in the real philosophy would agree. We do not know the process the human Jesus took to forgive his enemies because Jesus reportedly died, rose, and left us with human beings like the apostles; we can only guess how Jesus himself would have handled forgiveness or spoken of it. Would Jesus have suffered from PTSD? Given his level of humanity and compassion, I bet he would have. The Bible doesn't exactly dive into Jesus' psyche or the grieving process as we know it. And while we might gather some wisdom from its pages, we need more internally and externally to learn to truly forgive.
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