I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately.
Between the instability of the last year and the drama taking place in the world right now, I’ve been fascinated by how we choose to forgive the injuries, wrongdoings, and mistakes that life inevitably throws our way.
I’ve also been fascinated by the reasons we have for not forgiving other people — reasons that always involve some pretty intense emotions, from anger to sadness, resentment to self-pity.
“To err is human; to forgive, divine,” wrote Alexander Pope. He might have added “really friggin’ hard” and “super complicated” to that list. Because as much as we know that forgiveness is often the noble thing to do, it’s also one of the hardest decisions to make. And the more intense life gets, the harder it becomes to forgive.
In this piece, we’ll be talking about what true forgiveness looks like, why it matters, and why it can be so challenging to embrace.
We’ll then explore four foundational principles for forgiveness that I’ve come to learn through years of conflict, and that I now use as a manual for acceptance and resolution.
But first, we have to talk about…
Why Forgiveness Is So Hard
Forgiveness is a hidden superpower.
Without it, we’re stuck with all the resentments, grievances, and disappointments that we naturally accumulate as we move through life.
With forgiveness, we’re still in touch with all those feelings — we might even experience those feelings more acutely — but we’re free of them.
That’s the power of forgiveness: to both acknowledge and be liberated from the suffering that life inflicts on us. That’s what Alexander Pope meant by “divine.”
But to really understand why forgiveness matters, we have to consider its alternative.
Many people think that the alternative to forgiveness is punishment: We either choose to forgive someone for what they’ve done, or we return the favor with some sort of retribution.
But punishment isn’t really the opposite of forgiveness. After all, we can punish someone without forgiving them, or punish them in order to forgive them. People do this all the time. Governments do it every day.
If forgiveness is a process of release — of letting go of something — then the opposite of forgiveness is a decision to hold — to hold onto something.
In other words, we can either forgive someone for what they’ve done, or we can cling to it, hold onto to it, and keep the injury alive.
Why would we keep it alive?
Because as long as an act of wrongdoing is kept alive, we can continue to nurture whatever feelings we have about it: anger, sadness, disappointment, disillusionment, and so on.
But if we truly forgive, then we’re forced to give up those feelings. We have to relinquish them. Even if those feelings are deeply personal. Even if they’re justified.
And giving up those feelings can be quite scary. Even when they’re unpleasant. Even when we insist that we want to be free of them!
Whether we want to admit it or not, those feelings are actually very precious to us. They might be ugly, they might be toxic, they might be miserable — but they’re ours.
They’re also the scaffolding of our identity. By refusing to forgive someone, we get to cast ourselves as victims, as underdogs, as injured parties. Most important, we get to preserve our status in the conflict — usually, as the person who’s “right.”
That’s why forgiveness is so hard to embrace.
If we hold onto our grievances, then we protect our suffering, along with our status and identity.
If we release our grievances, then we free ourselves from those ugly feelings, but at a significant cost: our status and identity.
We can’t be injured and free. We can’t be wronged and happy. We have to choose.
And for many people, the cost of that choice is just too high. Whether they consciously realize it or not, they choose their unhappiness over their freedom. They decide not to forgive, and instead double down on their anger, their sadness, their resentment. That way, they get to continue being “right,” by continuing to be the one who was wronged. And they’ll protect that status at whatever cost, including their own happiness.
The Rationality of Acceptance
An old proverb says that resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
This is, in effect, what we do when we refuse to forgive. We hang onto our grievances, thinking that our feelings will either balance out the injury or act as a kind of punishment. In reality, we only keep the suffering alive for ourselves. We are the ones we end up punishing.
Once you see the absurdity of that stance, it’s hard not to embrace forgiveness.
In a world where sh*t happens, where people inevitably wrong us (and we wrong them), where accidents happen, where mistakes take place, where we become casualties of one another’s decisions, and where we cannot reverse those injuries once they take place, we pretty much have to forgive. It’s the only rational choice. The alternative is to take that poison, and wait for the other person to die.
But forgiveness is always easy in the abstract. Once we find ourselves dealing with an actual injury, it suddenly becomes much harder to forgive.
If that injury is significant — the termination of a job, a messy break-up, the death of a loved one — then forgiveness can even seem impossible. And many people would say that it is impossible. There seem to be events so traumatic, wounds so deep, that they’re literally unforgivable.
This is where the term “forgiveness” starts to break down.
Because buried in the term “forgiveness” is a sense that we can “make it right.” That by forgiving someone, we absolve them of responsibility, release any hostile feelings toward them, heal all of our wounds, forget the event took place, and move on with our lives.
In some cases, that might very well be possible. A minor car accident, for example. Or a heated argument with a colleague. Or a falling out with a friend.
But in more serious cases, we can never really repair what’s been broken or lost. We can’t walk back the hurtful decision we made. We can’t get back the job we lost. We can’t bring back the person who died.
And so the idea of forgiving ourselves, or our boss, or the cruelty of life seems absurd. At best, we can only accept that these things happen — which is exactly the point.
The essence of forgiveness is acceptance.
The other things we associate with forgiveness — healing, retribution, justice, moving on — are separate concepts. Maybe they’re available to us, maybe they’re not, and in all likelihood they work differently for different people in different contexts. But at the heart of forgiveness is the simple act of acceptance.
What does acceptance actually mean, in practical terms?
It means letting go of the belief that life — in whatever form life has taken — should have played out differently.
It means releasing our attachment to the attitudes and emotions that come with that belief: anger, resentment, resistance, bargaining, envy, and self-pity.
It means recognizing that the alternative — to keep an injury alive and refuse to accept it — is ultimately insane.
Acceptance means to stop wishing that things were different from what they are.
It’s one of the simplest concepts in the world. It’s also one of the hardest.
But once you see that it’s the only meaningful option we have — a realization that can take people years to understand, and eludes some people forever — you realize that there’s really no choice at all.
But acceptance doesn’t mean that we aren’t entitled to our emotions and experiences.
In fact, true acceptance means embracing those emotions and experiences, and allowing them to exist for as long as they need before we move on.
How can we let go of the worst that life has to offer? How can we excuse the inexcusable? It seems impossible. It seems unfair. It seems cruel. And maybe it is.
But the truth is, we don’t have to “forgive” it. We only have to accept it. We only have to recognize that things could not have played out differently from the way they did.
Because they didn’t.
That’s what the writer G.K. Chesterton captured in his thoughts on forgiveness. “To love means loving the unlovable,” he wrote. “To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable.”
Ultimately, that’s all we can do. Fortunately for us, it’s all we have to do.
With that in mind, let’s move into four core principles of forgiveness and acceptance.
Forgiveness is a process, not a choice.
There’s a movement in modern self-help to turn forgiveness into a reflexive practice. The moment someone does something wrong, the thinking goes, we should immediately forgive it and move on. After all, we’re trying to arrive at that decision eventually, anyway. Why not skip the drama and jump straight to acceptance?
It’s not a bad idea, but it’s flawed. And taken too far, it can actually prevent us from going through the meaningful process of truly resolving an injury.
As we’ve discussed, the emotions that attend an injury — anger, sadness, etc. — are the most difficult part of forgiveness. When we skip over those feelings and jump straight to forgiveness, we deprive ourselves of the important process of parsing those emotions for the data they contain.
Why are we so angry at this person? How could someone have made us feel so disappointed? When exactly did our resentment creep up? Why did this particular wrongdoing stir up so many emotions?
These are really meaningful questions. We owe it to ourselves to investigate them so we can better understand ourselves and the world.
We also owe it to the other person in question for two reasons.
First, when we treat forgiveness as a process, we signal to the other person that the event or injury in question mattered.
When we quickly jump to forgiveness — even when our intentions are good — we often end up signaling to other people that their behavior is okay. We can then subconsciously invite the same behavior again, because we didn’t make it clear that it affected us so profoundly. Working through the process isn’t just important for us — it’s important for other people, too. It tells the world about your values, your standards, and your boundaries. It tells the world what you will and will not tolerate.
Second, when we take the time to work through an injury, our forgiveness means so much more.
When we work through forgiveness, we’re not just checking off a box called “acceptance” in our heads and pushing on. We’re owning our feelings, recognizing our own role in the dynamic, and making a conscious decision to forgive the other person in light of them. That process is what gives forgiveness its meaning.
But this doesn’t mean that meaningful forgiveness can’t happen quickly.
The more you forgive, the more you’ll realize how powerful forgiveness is, and the more you’ll want to commit to forgiveness over resentment. For some people, this process happens more quickly. And every scenario is different. Small injuries are easier to forgive. Larger ones take longer to accept. As long as that forgiveness is thoughtful, organic, and meaningful, then there’s no reason to prolong it.
Ultimately, forgiveness is a way of life.
As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” This, from a man whose life was dedicated to confronting the unforgivable.
At the end of the day, acceptance isn’t something we do only when the unacceptable pops up. It’s a stance — a practice — that makes every aspect of life easier, friendlier, and more meaningful. We shouldn’t just treat it as a switch we turn on or off when the occasion arises. It’s really a lens on the world.
Let go of being right.
As we touched upon, the trade-off in forgiveness is between being injured and being happy, between insisting that things should be otherwise and knowing that they can only be as they are.
To put it another way, we can either be “right” or we can be free.
This doesn’t mean that what happened was fair, appropriate, or deserved. It doesn’t mean that you were wrong to be upset, or that the other party was justified in behaving a certain way.
It simply means that acceptance becomes more important than status. It means that moving on becomes more important than nurturing an identity.
Looking back on an injury, you might still see yourself as right. That driver who hit your car shouldn’t have run that red light. That cousin who mocked you at dinner was being cruel. That boss who neglected your contributions was unfair. Life is full of injustices, big and small, and we’re often legitimate victims.
But to cling to that victim status at the expense of moving on is a mistake we have to avoid. Because ironically, needing to be right often prevent us from living right. And living right means accepting what life throws at us — even when it’s “wrong.”
Understand the other person’s intentions.
As the old wisdom goes, we judge other people by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions.
The reason, of course, is that we only have access to our own intentions, and our intentions always make sense, even when our actions don’t. Because we can’t access other people’s intentions, we can only judge them by what they do, and what they do often makes no sense at all.
That disconnect is the reason we interpret our own decisions more charitably. It’s also why we find it harder to forgive other people’s mistakes.
Which gives us an interesting window into forgiveness.
If intentions help us understand why someone did something — and if knowing why someone did something helps us accept what they did — then taking the time to understand someone’s intentions makes forgiveness much easier.
Why did that driver run that red light? Could he have been trying to make an important meeting? Could he have been nervous about missing work? Did he think his decision wouldn’t harm anyone? Or was his mind somewhere else entirely?
Why did that cousin mock you at dinner? Was she trying to make herself feel better? Did your accomplishments make her uneasy? Was she trying to lighten the mood, but miscalculated? What life experiences led her to behave that way?
Why did your boss neglect your contributions? Did he have any reason to believe they were less important? Did he feel that overindulging your ideas would send the wrong signal to the team? Was he threatened by your performance? Did he want to make himself look better to his boss?
These questions are worth asking, because they penetrate beyond the injuries, and force us to consider the inner experience of the people who perpetrate them.
And once we appreciate why someone does something, it becomes much harder to hate them. With a little bit of empathy, we might not like what they did, but we can understand it. We might not approve of their behavior, but we can appreciate it.
With that realization comes acceptance: acceptance of the fact that if we were the other party, in those same circumstances, with the same motivations and life experience, we would have done the same thing.
Actions still matter, of course. But it’s the intention behind those actions that gives us a glimpse into someone’s character. When we understand their intentions, we understand their why. Oftentimes, we see ourselves in them. And once you make that shift, forgiveness becomes much, much easier.
Don’t forgive and forget.
Another old gem tell us to always “forgive and forget.” And based on what we’ve been talking about, this might seem profoundly true. After all, isn’t our insistence on remembering an injury part of what keeps it alive?
Absolutely. And in that sense, this proverb is spot on. Once we choose to forgive someone, we have to simultaneously make a choice to forget — that is, to stop reviving the experience of the wrongdoing in a way that keeps us suffering.
That’s what Rita Mae Brown meant when she said that one of the keys to happiness is a bad memory. There’s an old spiritual truth lurking behind that cheeky comment: without the memory, there’s no injury to remember in the first place — and therefore no additional suffering.
But forgiveness doesn’t mean that we should forget the fact that the injury occurred.
That is a different kind of memory — and a very important one. Because if we fail to remember the circumstances that harm us, we risk stumbling back into the relationships, circumstances, or patterns that invite the same kind of wrongdoing.
“Forgive your enemies,” said John F. Kennedy, “but never forget their names.” Word.
One of the most important lessons we can learn is how to preserve the memory of an injury without remembering the injury.
Or, put another way, to remember an event without mentally and emotionally recreating it.
How do we do that?
Through conscious effort, self-awareness, and discipline.
When we remember that someone has hurt us — as we should — it’s tempting to slip past the surface of the memory into the content of the memory. For example, we might be running on a treadmill at the gym, thinking back to an old relationship, and suddenly find ourselves mentally rehashing an argument with a significant other from three years ago. The memory slash fantasy happens so quickly that we often don’t even realize we’re doing it.
When we slip into that tendency, we continue bringing the old injury to life in our heads, which is the exact opposite of healing. We’re essentially picking at an emotional scab over and over in a way that activates the suffering we’re trying to heal.
That’s why we need to carefully observe our thoughts. Especially our memories. As soon as we catch ourselves reliving an old injury, we can catch ourselves in the act (so to speak), and make a mental decision — right then and there — to not revive the entire experience.
That conscious practice is the difference between memory and remembering, between keeping track of names and bringing those names back to life. “To be wronged is nothing,” wrote Confucius, “unless you continue to remember it.” True story.
So “forgive and forget” is a deceptive phrase. Its wisdom lies in what we consciously choose to forget. The experience of an old injury is what we want to release. The memory of it is what we want to preserve — but only to the extent that it protects us from experiencing it all over again.
When Forgiveness Ends
Forgiveness is profound. It’s also deceptively simple. It can elude us for years, only to creep up announced. It can feel refreshingly easy, only to slip away when we remember what went down. It can heal unfathomable wounds, release intractable resentments, and turn pain into love, wisdom, and maturity — if we can learn to accept them.
How do we know when we’ve truly forgiven someone? In short, when we no longer think about whether and how we should forgive them. That’s the simplest definition of acceptance. It’s also our end game in life.
Oprah Winfrey, echoing thousands of years of spiritual teaching, said that true forgiveness is when you can say, “Thank you for that experience.” But how can we thank the world for its injuries — especially when those injuries are serious?
By understanding that every instance of wrongdoing contains a seed of our growth.
When someone wrongs us, what they really do is serve up a lesson wrapped in an injury. We can either resist the injury and nurture our pain, or we can work through the injury to learn the lesson it contains. That lesson gives meaning to the injury. It’s the gift we receive in exchange for our forgiveness. The place we’re left in is less charged, more peaceful, more meaningful. That place is called gratitude.
And the road to that gratitude is acceptance.