Forgiving and Forgetting

It was Elizabeth the First who said to the Earl of Nottingham, “God may forgive you, I never can.” And it was Alexander Pope who wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” It would seem that, in that age, an age not idealistic or naive about the realities of human behavior, forgiveness — though a strong favorite in the lexicon of religious virtues — was thought to be more within the province of God than within the capabilities of mere mortals.

It is clear, in fact, that, in the age of Elizabeth and Pope, precious little was forgiven. Heads were lopped off for minor infractions — such as being an annoyance to someone who had the power to lop off heads. One caught stealing a loaf of bread was drawn and quartered, his head posted on a pike at the gates. A gentleman slighted did you the honor of dispatching you with sword or pistol in the foggy early morning ritual of dueling. The church imprisoned, tortured, and exiled its heretics and detractors — again, leaving forgiveness mostly up to God.

Traditional Christian theology, rooted in the Christ-myth of atonement, made it easy for human beings to assume that, regardless of what they did, it would be God who, ultimately, did the damning or forgiving. God, according to the doctrine of divine atonement, had performed the supreme act of forgiveness on behalf on a sinful and undeserving humanity, by sending his only Son to earth to die in atonement for humanity’s sins. By believing in Christ as the savior and, in faith, accepting his sacrifice, the Christian is “saved” from the consequence of sin and God “forgets” the sin.

Forgiveness is a basic principle, not only of the Christian faith, but of almost all religions. The demand to forgive and be forgiven seems imbedded in our consciousness — as if there is a shared understanding that the race of humanity could not survive an endlessly accumulating burden of guilt. It is one of those generally accepted “oughts,” to forgive. We are supposed to do it. The problem is that we most often fall short of the shoulds and oughts of existence and, consequently, suffer guilt for our failure. We are commanded from all sides to “love one another,” but we know that we make many exceptions and qualifications to the rule. And we are commanded to forgive and forget but we know we do not always forgive and forget.

We might have less difficulty with the universal shoulds and oughts if we had more of a shared understanding of what might reasonably be asked of us and of what we might reasonably give–and withhold. What does it mean to forgive? What is it that needs forgiving?

What most often needs forgiving is the covenant we break with each other. The “breach of contract.” Human beings live with each other — human beings are only able to live with each other — by contracts and covenants, either actual or implied. Our agreements may not be contracts in the formal sense, though that certainly becomes more and more part of our living together. Formal or not, we live together by actual or implied ways of saying, “I will do this, if you will do that,” or, “I will be this, if you will be that.” In the Hebrew faith, the Hebrews became the people of God through the Great Covenant, “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.” “I shall be this, if you will be that.” “I will do this, if you will do that.” That is the nature of contract and covenant.

In all aspects of life lived with other persons we live by covenant, by contract and promise. The relationship of parent to child assumes, implies the promise, the covenant, that the parent will love, care for, and protect the child and the child will, in turn, love, honor and respect the parent. In marriage, the promise of mutual love and fidelity is assumed, though, in fact, it is becoming common that promises and understandings are actually committed to formal contract before the wedding ceremony takes place.

I once co-led a workshop at Rutgers University in which we helped students formulate “non-negotiables” in relationships — values, preferences, choices they would not give up for the sake of a relationship with another. We did this because we knew young adults were “giving away the farm” for the sake of romance, sacrificing who they were and what they valued.

In friendship — in any human relationship — the promise is, in effect, that there will be a dependable, consistent, and mutual response of one to the other. When promises are broken, when the contracts and covenants by which we live with one another are breached, then persons are separated from each other, bonds are broken. The need to forgive or be forgiven then arises as the need to restore connection, to restore relatedness.

To forgive, then, means to “restore.”

The broken covenant, the broken relationship, may be restored, put back into place, by forgiveness. I say “may be.” We often expect more of forgiveness than it can sometimes offer or accomplish. We often simply can not do what we think we are supposed to be doing when we attempt to forgive or be forgiven. Forgiving is very, very difficult. The author of wonderful Christian stories and essays, C.S. Lewis, said, “If you are going to practice forgiveness, start with something less than the Gestapo.”

One of the reasons forgiving is so difficult is that it is often linked with forgetting. It is often said, “forgive and forget,” as if forgiving and forgetting were the same. They are not. We cannot simply will ourselves to forget. Forgetting is not a conscious act. We cannot will ourselves to forget that a covenant has been broken. We certainly cannot will ourselves to forget that an act of another or of others has hurt us, caused us separation and loss. It also works (or doesn’t work) the other way around. By forgiving people, we do not cause them to forget that they have caused us hurt. If you have hurt someone and that person has said, “forget it,” you know that you do not forget it.

Earlier in my ministry, I was trained and licensed as a marital therapist. In that role, I often encountered that which has been the source for story and drama since the first stories were told — The Affair. When two people have committed themselves to each other, whether legally, by marriage, the social contract, or by covenant, spoken or assumed, and one or the other enters in a relationship with another, the covenant of fidelity is broken. There is then great agony, anger, and confusion. There is then a great deal to be sorted out, often much more to be sorted out than one might think. There is a tendency to reduce the situation of infidelity to a basic guilt-based formula of victim and perpetrator. Sometimes, it just isn’t that simple. If we think of marriage and family as a play, the affair is often a highly ineffective way of acting out a conflict by using a stand-in.

The authentic anger which arises when one person in covenant turns to another comes from the pain of that broken covenant. To say that someone has been unfaithful, is to say that someone has been unfaithful to the covenant. The greatest pain in our relationships with others, with friends, children, parents, partners, is caused by that breaking of trust. The question to be dealt with is then whether or not the broken covenant can be restored or a new covenant created.

In many situations, there is a desire for forgiveness and a desire to forgive — a mutual desire for restoration. What most often gets in the way of restoration — of forgiving and being forgiven — is the inability to forget. Trust is broken, resulting in pain and anger. There is both a desire to ease the pain, and an impulse, arising out of the anger, to punish — which merely perpetuates the pain. There is an assumption that, for all to be forgiven, all must be forgotten.

When persons wish to restore the broken relationship, ways must be found to create a new covenant. Happily, it has been my experience that, for many, the new covenant is often better, more mature, than the former covenant. The more experience we gain, the better the covenants we make with each other. Serial marriages and unions are caused by the inability to learn from experience. But how do we forgive if it is too much to ask that we forget?

We must first understand that it is not necessary to forget in order to forgive. What is necessary is to remove from the other the consequences of what the other has done. This is a useful understanding because it gives us something we can actually do, something that, unlike forgetting, is actually within our power to do– and it makes clear what the real limitations on forgiveness are.

There are consequences of some acts that we could not remove from others if we wanted to. For example, we cannot, by forgiving someone who has broken trust in a relationship remove from that person the consequences he or she has brought upon himself or herself. If one suffers anguish because he or she has broken faith and caused pain, that is that person’s anguish, caused by that person’s act, and no amount of forgiveness will remove it. In terms of limitation, then, we should not expect to ease the pain of another’s guilt by simply saying, “I forgive you.” By the same token, we should not expect our own pain to be taken away when someone says to us, “I forgive you.”

Defining forgiveness as the removal of consequences limits the number and kinds of things which can be forgiven or which should be forgiven. Should we forgive Buchenwald and My Lai? Should we have released the perpetrators of these horrors from the consequences of their acts? And what would happen to us all if we did? To some extent, the limits of forgiveness define our human-ness.

The consequences of broken covenant are often beyond our control to either apply or remove. Trust, for example, once shattered, cannot always be restored by an act of will. There are times in relationship — between parent and child, partners, friends, groups and nations, when we know that the breach of faith, the broken covenant, has irreparably shattered and fragmented what has bound us. And, no matter how we might try and no matter how much we might desire it, that fragmentation may be something we cannot repair. “God may forgive you, I never can.” We humans have our limitations.

To forgive, then, is not a simple act. If someone steps on your foot and you say “That’s O.K. Forget it,” that means, you forgive — you will not apply consequences, such as a broken arch, to the foot-treader. But, if someone steps on your soul, treads on your love, trust and faith, that is not “O.K.” and forgiveness, the removal of consequence comes hard and slowly, if at all.

The attempt to forgive is the attempt to restore, to put back the shattered pieces in some new way that will incorporate — not forget — fact of the broken covenant. Restoring a broken relationship is like putting together the shards of a broken pot. What we have when we have finished the long task, is not the same pot we had before. It is a different pot. It can be seen where the pot was broken. But, cracks and all, it may have the appearance and virtue of experience. A repaired vessel may hold more than it did before.

Forgiving is not a simple act done in the moment but an ongoing effort done in process, over time. It must first be decided whether or not the broken relationship, which is the first consequence of the broken promise, is something we can, or should, restore. Again, some actions should not be forgiven. There are times when our own freedom to grow can only be achieved by deciding that forgiveness is not possible. Children of abusive parents, for example, can sometimes only get on with their lives after they decide that what happened to them is not “past and forgotten.”

By way of review:

If we choose to forgive, to attempt to restore, we must then decide what consequences of the broken covenant we can remove and which we cannot. A common consequence of the hurtful act, for example, is punishment. If we are hurt, we cannot always say, “That’s alright.” Often, it isn’t alright. But, if we wish, we can try not to respond out of our pain in a punishing way. Sometimes we say, “That’s alright, and then forever act as if we had said, “I’ll get you s.o.b. if it’s the last thing I ever do.” As Emerson once said, “Your actions are so loud, I cannot hear what you are saying.”

If forgiveness is the removal of consequences, not all things can be forgiven. Not all things should be forgiven. We should not expect forgiveness to remove all pain. And forgiveness is not a momentary act. Forgiveness is a process attempting to restore a relationship, to renew a covenant.

And so this is what I think saying “I forgive you” means: “I do not wish my life to remain separated from your life. I want us to restore our relationship, to make a new covenant, to grow toward a new place of faith and trust.”

We are complex and incomplete beings. We are, in ourselves — and beneath our facades and roles — fragile, carefully carried, easily broken. We are easily hurt. It is easy to hurt.

Therefore our relationships with each other — with parent, with child, with lover, with friend — are of fragile bonds. We are often as clumsy with each other as we are with ourselves. We often demand of others the impossible — that they give us what we lack.

The best of lives and relationships get broken, if not shattered. To seek forgiveness, to forgive, is to begin the process of restoration, to repair and redeem. It is the finest, the most precarious of arts.