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  • Writer's pictureUriel

When and How to Forgive?

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

Apologizing is easier than forgiving, and for good reasons.

Am I a bad person or do I simply apologize too much? Either way, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, I say “I’m sorry” quite a bit, but hardly hear, to my ear, “please forgive me.” This is really a shame, for if you were to ask for my forgiveness, let me tell you: I will most likely give it to you. But should I?

Etymology suggests that I should be more careful about it. “Forgiveness” comes from the Latin “perdonare” – per “thoroughly” and donare “to give” – that is, “to give completely, without reservation.” What are we giving so wholly when we’re forgiving? Or perhaps we’re actually giving in, or giving up, or letting go, and what, if anything, are we getting in return?

Maurycy GottliebJews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878
Maurycy Gottlieb, Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878

I’ve been thinking about these questions on Yom Kippur. According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah (which makes the Jewish “happy new year” greeting a bit, shall we say, anxious…). God then waits for ten long days for his chosen people to eat plenty of apples (original sin anyone?) and atone, before sealing their verdict on Yom Kippur.

Now, atonement, or rather its preamble, apology, has always been more popular than forgiveness. We could easily fill this all-too-long piece (my apologies!) with singers chanting “I’m sorry,” and illustrations of apologetic politics. Still, few visit the heart of forgiveness. In our epoch of social media, we’re given ample advice on “when and how to apologize?” But when and how should we forgive?

You can only forgive a (wrong) choice.

Let’s first dispel some common misconceptions. Forgiveness neither rights the wrong, nor absolves the wrongdoing as unintentional. It makes no sense to ask for, or offer, forgiveness for something you think is actually not that bad. Forgiving an accidental wrongdoing is likewise senseless. Only a chosen act can be morally wrong. Forgiving a lion for killing the gazelle is pointless because, for the lion (and the gazelle), there’s no choice in the matter. It’s different with human predators. You can only forgive a (wrong) choice. Bad faith undermines not just freedom, but forgiveness too.

Should forgiveness be dialogical? Supposedly, you forgive those who asked you to. People, however, often refuse to apologize for their wrongdoing, blaming others, or circumstance – their genes, parents, society, culture, drugs, alcohol, and their cat. Some go a step further. “Look what you made me do,” they’d say, if I’ve done any wrong, you are responsible, you should be feeling guilty, indeed apologize, for my actions. And of course, many of us do. Gaslighted or not, we take the blame for others, carrying the moral burden for them.

Forgiving the guiltless wrongdoers, we should be ashamed of ourselves

Forgiving someone who believes they had “no choice” is mostly forgiving ourselves – for failing to make them take responsibility for their own actions. We treat them as clueless kids. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” we say, but not unto God but to ourselves. They don’t feel guilty, so we feel guilty for them. Supposedly, since we failed at making them responsible people, and should take the blame. Whether driven by a savior complex, or a Jewish Polish mother (believe me, a Jewish Iraqi mother is just as effective!), we may find ourselves becoming someone else’s “useful idiots.”

“Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” That’s brutal (count me among the fools for love, once, twice and thrice…), but it may be true. Forgiving the guiltless wrongdoers, we should be ashamed of ourselves – and can only ask ourselves for forgiveness. I wish such indulgence could help wrongdoers become more responsible, but I doubt it. By supposedly giving it all, we effectively give in – and give up on them, on the fully free humans that they can become.

Let go of the past, so you can have a better future?

Whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, we often forgive just to let go – to release ourselves of hard memories, bitterness, resentment, anger, even a wishful revenge. We want to open a new chapter, or at least a new page. Yes, they wronged us; yes, it was their choice – but now we want to move on. After all, forgiveness has a Janus face; anchored in the present, forgiveness constantly, concomitantly, looks at both the past and the future. Let go of the past, we say to ourselves, so you can have a better future (sometimes together, with our offenders). “Forgive but not forget” is how we often square the circle.

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie)
Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie)

Easier said than done. In 1896/7, Oscar Wilde, imprisoned for homosexuality, wrote a long letter to “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas). In this Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis, (“Letter: In Prison and in Chains”), Wilde offered his distanced lover an unrequited forgiveness. “I don’t write this letter to put bitterness into your heart, but to pluck it out of mine. For my own sake I must forgive you” he explained, entwining his love pains with his prison experience, “The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks one’s heart—hearts are made to be broken—but that it turns one’s heart to stone.” Wilde’s take on human nature is harsh, but not hopeless: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation… Most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live…”

But why and how can we love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable? Jacques Derrida’s answer is striking: “Forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness… where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible.”

When everything is taken from you, what can you give, let alone forgive?

Few things are more impossible, unforgivable, than the holocaust. In The Sunflower, depicting his experiences in a concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal tells of Karl, a dying Nazi soldier, who wanted to confess to–and if possible, receive absolution from–a Jew, for his crimes against Jews, including the murder of a family with a small child. Summoned to Karl’s deathbed, Wiesenthal listened to the officer’s confession and plea, and left the room in silence.

When everything is taken from you, what can you give, let alone forgive? Nothing perhaps, as God taught the self-absorbed Elijah: “And after the fire – still sound of silence.”

From that divine lesson my mind wanders to the biblical story that’s read on Yom Kippur, the story of Jonah. An unwilling prophet if ever there was one, Jonah did all he can to escape his mission, that is, to face the sinful people of Nineveh and foretell their impending doom, so they can repent and receive God’s forgiveness.

John Martin - Repentance of Nineveh - 1958
John Martin - Repentance of Nineveh, 1829

Jonah did not want to appear as a false prophet, predicting doom to behold redemption. He wanted to see the sinners die, not delivered. But compelled by God to deliver the message, Jonah saw them forgiven. Jonah furiously escaped again, to the desert, where God put a vine plant to shade his head – only to take it away the next day and ask the ever-enraged Jonah if his fury is justified. “Yes, to death,” Jonah replied, revealing the darkness in his heart: holier than thou, Jonah only truly cared about himself. Better get my shade than see 120-thousand people saved.

Forgiving, we actively choose compassion when it’s most needed, and hardest to give.

Forgiveness involves both compassion, which animals too possess, and human freedom. But forgiveness goes beyond – to combine both: actively choosing compassion when it’s most needed, and hardest to give.

When we forgive, we can be thankful – grateful for the other admitting guilt, for feeling remorse; grateful for them taking responsibility and trying to make amends. Perhaps, at that moment of atonement, we can somehow also see ourselves doing wrong, and hope that we too could then ask for, and receive, forgiveness.

In “giving thoroughly,” we are indeed “giving up” – on our upper moral hand. Forgiveness levels the moral field; it invites us to be playful, and occasionally err. Among forgiving people, we know that if, or rather when, we stumble, even into a pit of our own making, someone will be there not (only) to point a finger, but to lend a hand – helping us to get up, so we too can give back, thoroughly, inscribing our own fate in that Book of Life, and love, together.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Tree of Forgiveness, 1882
Edward Burne-Jones, The Tree of Forgiveness, 1882

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