What Is Forgiveness?

What is forgiveness?

A lot of people would have you believe forgiveness is religious. But it can’t be, can it? Any nonreligious person can do any of the things religion claims as their own. If that weren’t true, I’d be busy murdering everyone who offended my delicate sensibilities and sacrificing newborns on an altar in my basement.

I don’t have a basement, but you get the point. I don’t believe “morality” is religious; it’s human nature.

But even knowing or accepting that, the question remains: how do we forgive?

I read everything I could find about forgiveness. I even read a book co-written by Desmond Tutu, someone who knows a thing or two about forgiveness. But nothing I read anywhere gave me clear steps. None said, “Here’s how you forgive someone. Ready?”

That’s because there aren’t any steps. To forgive someone, you just forgive them. In your head. In your heart or emotions. And in your actions, too, I suppose, where it’s appropriate. But telling yourself you forgive someone is one thing; feeling like you’ve actually forgiven them can be a more convoluted process.

All this thinking about forgiveness was sparked by something I heard Marc Maron say on his WTF podcast. He was relaying something a Buddhist friend had said to him: “If you want to feel a little better, forgive a little. If you want to feel a lot better, forgive a lot. If you want to be free, forgive everything.”

I don’t know who originally said that, but it’s pretty deep, and it got to me. I hadn’t been thinking about forgiveness, but I’m always thinking about freedom. Personal freedom was impossible for most of my life, so freedom is a subject that’s close to me.

I wrote about the cruel way my father disowned me when I came out to him, and I said to myself—and others—that I would never forgive him, even if he “came around” and deigned to speak to me again. Him saying he didn’t need me or need to know me or whatever he said (I didn’t read his letter a second time) was a big loss for me, and it left a painful, messy hole that turned out to be bigger than I was willing to admit.

When I heard the forgiveness thing, it occurred to me that I would never be free of his rejection until I forgave him. Not forget what he did, but forgive him for doing it. I don’t think the two are related. I’ll never forget; I can’t. And really, you don’t need to forget to forgive (and let’s be real, there are some things we shouldn’t forget).

But I can forgive. I can try to, anyway.

I read that forgiveness often involves emotional reappraisal: reframing the meaning of something that’s happened to change its emotional impact. I can dig that. But I didn’t reframe; I just took on forgiveness as a unilateral thing. It was my decision, regardless of what I think about why my father did what he did.

Because the truth is, I will never understand why he rejected his child or why I lost friends when I came out. I’ll never understand the ‘why’ of a lot of things. So if I want to be free, if I want to be happy, I can’t let those things drag me down. I have to forgive.

I’m working on it.



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