To err is human; to forgive, divine. – from “Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope
It’s become a proverb in our culture. We know it, but one wonders how well we practice the second half given how accomplished everyone is at the first.
Merriam-Webster defines forgiveness as ceasing to feel resentment. Accordingly, if one merely says to another, “I forgive you,” does that mean all is right as rain between them? Yes, if forgiveness were a one-way street. But by itself, one-way forgiveness cannot heal a breach.
That leads to a deeper question: What is true forgiveness? Couched that way, it implies there’s more to forgiving than uttering, “I forgive you.” It entails, requires, even demands a proactive effort to heal the wound. It means moving past victimization, which is really tough. (More on that in a future piece.)
In the Catholic tradition, Pope Paul VI in 1973 redubbed the ritual/sacrament of Penance—confession—to Reconciliation. Without delving into the rationale or theology behind it, it means Catholics must be reconciled, brought back into good graces, with the one they ultimately offend: God.
But what about a person who is wounded by an act? Everyone offends, and everyone is offended. They’re part of our human DNA.
In my novel Sisyphus Wins, Daniel is encouraging Jonathan to forgive his brother, but Jonathan is resolute in refusing to do so. “It’s not up to me to forgive him,” he says. “He has to forgive himself.”
“The second part is true,” Daniel replies. “He has to forgive himself. Nevertheless, you have the power to let go of him. That’s what forgiveness ultimately is—breaking the power two people have over one another. He wounded you badly with what he wrote, and that act gave you power over him. But ironically, by holding on to your anger, he has regained power over you. To break that, you have to let go, to forgive. It is then up to him. It will be up to him if he wants to allow his anger and fear and ignorance to control him so much that he’ll go to his grave with it.”
Eckhart Tolle points out forgiveness is not only a reactive process, it is also about living in the past. And those insisting on remaining mired there, as Jonathan does, cannot be truly present.
When Jonathan finally realizes that disempowering his feelings of resentment and victimization leads to positive empowerment, he’s able to move forward not only to say, “I forgive you,” but to do something that visibly demonstrates reconciliation between him and his brother.
Reconciliation is forgiveness to the nth power. It means extending one’s hand to the person he has offended or was offended by.
A couple caveats:
While that’s not always wise or possible given the nature or circumstances of the offense, the larger point remains.
Then there’s the question about what one should do if the one he’s offended chooses not to be open to reconciliation. In the end, since the only person one can control is himself, perhaps he be a bit puckish like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.” (V.i.440-455)