“Forgive and forget” is a maxim that will be familiar to nearly everyone who has grown up in an English-speaking country. After all, the English-speaking countries are historically Christian and forgiveness is one of the central rules of Christianity. In fact, both Christianity and modern culture have a huge culture of forgiveness, and this is both a good thing and a bad thing.
Actually, let’s deal with the “forget” part of “forgive and forget”. It’s bullshit. In the majority of situations, remembering keeps us safe. Remembering tells us who has treated us well in the past and who has not. There’s nothing even in the Bible about forgetting as part of forgiving – the phrase “forgive and forget” seems to be untraceable further back than the sixteenth century. So, forget “forget”.
I would never argue that forgiveness itself is a bad thing. Regret, restitution and forgiveness, when genuine, can really strengthen a relationship and heal people.
But not always.
The accepted forgiveness narrative goes like this: Someone does you wrong. You are hurt and angry. The person refuses to apologise or even admit they did anything wrong. You continue to feel hurt and angry. You become bitter. Your life is ruined. Or, you forgive them despite all this, which allows you to heal, move on with your life, and be at peace.
And it sounds really lovely. Pretty logical, too. Sadly, it’s nonsense.
Forgiveness simply means to give up resentment towards, or to pardon, an offender, and that is not always necessary or healthy.
Let’s take a personal example. My father is an abuser. It’s eleven years since I had a conversation with him, but the things he did are still affecting me severely. He has never taken responsibility for his actions and never attempted to make restitution; in fact he has denied that his abuse was his own fault.
According to the forgiveness narrative, this would be the time for me to forgive him and move on to my better life. But here’s the thing, or rather, a few things.
I still resent my father and the things he did to me and my family. I am angry, and I am resentful, and I am bitter. And, you know what? I think that’s okay. In fact, I think it’s right and proper.
In a way, my father is continuing to abuse me. His lack of any attempt to take responsibility, to make restitution, is one of the reasons that I continue to suffer the effects of his behaviour. By failing to do these things he is, in effect, saying that it wasn’t his fault, that it was ok that he abused me, that his actions were and are acceptable. And I am definitely not going to forgive someone who is continuing to abuse me.
And, you know what else? My life is not ruined. That forgiveness narrative I described above is not correct. I tried for at least ten years to forgive my father, and I never managed it. And this made me feel like a lesser person. Guilty. Wrong. Bad. Weak. Now that I’m not trying to forgive him; now that I’m allowing myself to hate him, I actually feel a lot better. My life is better and I am happier.
There are other good things about unforgiveness. Anger against injustice is an excellent thing. In fact, it’s usually one of the main things that drives social justice movements. Then there is the fact that for many people, being allowed to feel hate, anger and bitterness against the people who hurt them is therapeutic and helps them heal. If a person is unable to escape a situation, forgiving a perpetrator may encourage them to transgress again. Nobody should be under any obligation to forgive anyone else, or to feel bad if they can’t.
The fact is that it is entirely possible to live a happy, productive, satisfactory, peaceful life while refusing to forgive a person who has hurt you. The two are not mutually exclusive, and any narrative that says it is is dangerous and propagates cruelty. I myself am simultaneously becoming more happy and more firm in my lack of forgiveness for my father.
Here are a few links to other articles that deal with the benefits of unforgiveness: