On forgiveness

“Forgotten is forgiven.” F. Scott Fitzgerald said that. I think there’s certainly some wisdom there if you consider that to forgive can be very troublesome for some people. I’m not talking about minor infractions of the social contract- those we can forgive and forget rather easily- the person taking up two parking spots, the person with fourteen items in the express checkout lane. But how do we forgive big trespasses- insults to our integrity, challenges to dearly held beliefs, a lack of respect? The Lord’s Prayer asks us to forgive those who trespass against us while asking forgiveness for our own trespasses (though I grew up saying it as debts/debtors, so for a long time I thought this was somehow a passage on financial advice). In all seriousness though, it’s a tough row to hoe for many of us. And the prayer doesn’t really cover the forgetting of trespasses. If I’m not mistaken, the trespasses part of Lord’s Prayer is taken from or inspired by the following passage from Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

I cannot believe that. Forgiveness has to be a transaction between people. If we’re only forgiving so that God lifts the velvet rope on Club Heaven for us, are we truly forgiving and being forgiven?

Let me explain… Granting forgiveness can be difficult. I was reading up on mindfulness and forgiveness and came across what I think is a good explanation, that forgiving someone requires giving up control:

Withholding forgiveness is often based in an unconscious attempt to keep us safe and control the world around us. It’s readily apparent, however, that this only presents an illusion of safety and control. Not forgiving someone will not ensure you won’t be hurt again, and forgiving someone won’t ensure you will be. People are unfolding events, not things.

I’d add that this idea of control impacts asking for forgiveness as well. Asking for forgiveness requires serious self examination. We don’t like admitting we’re wrong, and even when we do there’s an urge to spin it as a misunderstanding, someone taking our words the wrong way, reading too much into our actions. It becomes about context. I’m guilty of it.

Truly seeking forgiveness surely requires us to not only look at our words and deeds, but within ourselves for what prompted those words and deeds. It’s one thing to admit to saying something hurtful, quite another to look at why we say or do hurtful things. To ask for forgiveness is to admit we might have lost control. Allow me to repeat: forgiveness is a transaction between people. I think it has to be. Both parties need to give up control to one another. And because that’s such a hard thing to do, sometimes it takes time. As an atheist I want to forgive and be forgiven because I know my time is limited here. I want to make the most of it. I don’t want to carry around that baggage for the next fifty years. So it might take a few hours, it might take days or weeks, but I know that I can only hold onto control, or the illusion of it for so long before I’m ready to give it up to the person I’ve wronged or who has wronged me. But if we’re only forgiving one another because we believe that’s how we’ll be saved in “the next life,” we aren’t really giving up that control. We’re begging off of that responsibility and clinging to another type of control, that we can control what happens to us after death. It isn’t about a transaction between people here and now.

So let me return to this idea of “forgotten is forgiven.” When we talk about cooling down, needing to sleep on it, etc. what we’re really talking about is getting ourselves to the point of being comfortable giving up control. It’s Frankly, it’s easier to give up control when we don’t dwell on the issue, when we allow ourselves to be distracted by the other obligations and minutiae of our lives. We forget the pain of the moment, the details of the offense fade and what bothered us so deeply at the time seems less important. And it’s not forgetting that we were wrong or that we’ve been wronged- it’s about forgetting the pride that make us grip tighter and tighter to control or the perception of control. Getting away from the heat of the moment makes it easier to look at our trespasses in a colder, more rational way. Pride gives way to reflection. And upon reflection without pride, we can let go.

My father and I were talking a little bit about this today on a car ride up to a business appointment about two hour away from our office and he gave me another way to look at the issue of forgiveness. The term he used was “psychological reciprocity,” and that forgiveness requires us to look at an emotional ledger. On one side are the emotional withdrawals we make in relationships, when we do or say negative things towards one another. On the other side are emotional deposits, when we are kind and act for the benefit of the other party. Withholding forgiveness or not asking for forgiveness is like going on a spending spree where you run the risk of becoming overdrawn. To seek forgiveness or to give it means stopping the spending spree and making some emotional deposits. Sometimes we’re not ready or able to make those deposits even after we’ve stopped spending. We need to wait for the next paycheck- in other words, we need some time to cool off in order to make the next deposit.

It’s a challenging subject that’s been on my mind lately. What do you think?

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