Does Forgiveness Exist?

I'm on an email list with a group of university friends, and one of my friends recently sent an email to the list asking for everyone's forgiveness techniques. I was the first to respond, probably both because I spend all day in front of my computer, and because of my short answer: I don't forgive; I forget. I don't forgive and forget; I just forget. I have awful long-term memory.

I'm sure many people have done many mean things to me over my life, but I honestly can't think of one right now. I can think of people who I don't trust, and I'm sure there are reasons I don't trust those people, but I generally have no idea what the reasons are. So forgiveness is not an issue that really comes up for me.

While I don't remember events such as, say, 1990, I gather most people do. And when someone did something hurtful in 1990, that hurt still lingers until it is forgiven. But what does that mean, to forgive? says to forgive is to excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon. I'd like to suggest that this isn't possible, that we are only fooling ourselves when we claim to excuse someone else's offense, that we can't help but hold each other accountable for our errors.

In She loves me She loves me not, Shelley wrote of her cat Zoë:

I woke her up, but she forgave me.

Or did she? Can a cat ‘forgive’? Some people say that animals aren’t capable of sophisticated emotions, such as love or sorrow or, in this case, forgiveness.

I thought about this, and I think I am one of those people. And not just cats — I don't believe people are capable of forgiveness either. I believe people can and do love, and feel compassion, even for people who have done them wrong. But I just don't think this love can excuse the wrong.

I sometimes imagine life as a pool table. We make choices about our direction and speed. If we're smart, we can anticipate the outcome of our decisions. In life, of course, this anticipation is made more difficult because the other balls have minds of their own. But to understand why I doubt forgiveness, I think the metaphor is useful.

The notion of forgiveness here is analogous to a pool ball being struck by another, rolling along, and then suddenly stopping as if it hadn't been struck at all. Pool balls just can't do that, and I submit that neither can people.

I know the idea that forgiveness does not exist seems pessimistic at first, but it need not be. In place of forgiveness, I offer a substitute: reconciliation. To reconcile, says, is to reestablish a close relationship between, to settle or resolve, to bring (oneself) to accept. The reconciling pool ball says "okay, you struck me and now I'm rolling towards the bank, but I'm going to slow myself down now and stop before I bounce off and hit you." This I think people can do.

We can acknowledge the hurtful decisions of the past, and move on from there, but I don't think we can in good faith excuse them. Excusing them implies the decisions were not really made, that they weren't really choices, that there was some other cause. Forgiveness implies that we can do wrong and not be wrong, but I believe we are what we do. Our decisions form ourselves, even when we'd prefer they didn't.

In the comments to my post on endocrinology, Kyle wrote: If you haven't seen it already, you may find this story interesting: Temple Gradin NPR interview.

I just listened to it, and it was interesting. Temple is an autistic animal scientist. In the interview, she talks about the similarities she sees between the autistic and the animal mind. Throughout, when she talked about animals, I couldn't help but consider how everything she said relates to people as well.

When she talked about how dogs need to know the social hierarchy to get along, for example, I wondered about how the lack of social hierarchy online might be a cause of the superfluousness of flame wars. Perhaps, like the dogs Temple discusses, people online are too often just testing each other until someone comes out on top.

But one part in the interview made me think about forgiveness specifically, and I want to try to transcribe it here, replacing "horse" with "[person]":

Let's talk about fear memories...Let's say a person abused a [person] wearing a black hat, and the [person] was looking right at the black hat. Now the [person] is afraid of black hats...they make an association...

She goes on to talk about how she helps the horse get over its fears by introducing them slowly and demonstrating that the associations are wrong. This is not forgiveness. This is reconciliation. And I don't see any reason to believe that people are any different in this respect.

Like horses, we get hurt. Like horses, we associate that hurt with something (or more often someone). Like horses, we don't recognize when that association is no longer valid. Like horses, we don't just drop the association, because we can't. Our brains don't work like that. Instead, like horses, we form new associations. We reconcile.

You got me with the horse example (as one who spends a lot of "relationship time" with my own horse, and I'm a fan of Temple Grandin's work. I've never thought about forgiveness in this way... but there's a lot here that makes sense. It is always a matter of rewiring--forming new neural connections. I suppose part of that new wiring could include a new perception of why the person did what they did that's causing them to seek forgiveness. We might eventually see it in such a way that it was only our interpretation that made it something to forgive.
Some things -- perhaps many things -- aren't open to reinterpretation, only a matter of whether we'll give the other person another chance.
Nice post. My horse was never abused before I got her, but I sometimes do volunteer work at a "rescue horse" shelter. And there's a place here that uses formerly abused "horses that don't trust people" as therapy for troubled teens. In learning to help the horse regain trust, the teens start to learn and think more about their own ability to trust.
Thanks for the interesting comments, Kathy. Re: the teens and horses, I've heard we learn best by teaching.
I agree with this post. I have never believed in forgiveness. I still feel a spark of annoyance or anger at the memory of things that happened years and years ago. If God exists, only He can forgive. People can't.

Be number 4:

knows half of 8 is