What do we really mean when we talk about forgiveness?
My March column for The Revealer is a section from my book in progress on the limits of forgiveness (which is due to the publisher in a month, so I don’t have much else to say in this newsletter, because that sucker gets priority). Here’s an excerpt, and you can read the whole thing at this link.
I got some of the ideas for this column/book chapter from the podcast Stuff You Should Know, which did a really interesting episode on forgiveness, although the Stuff guys lean a lot more toward forgiving everyone than my book will. And I have a LOT more thoughts about Promising Young Woman but no time to write them at the moment… and also about Wildcats, which I’m watching right now, and about Everything Everywhere All At Once, which is definitely about menopause. Someday I’ll get back to writing about art and culture.
See you again when this book is D.O.N.E.
Expecting people to forgive in all situations can enable abuse and allow social injustice to continue
(Image source: BBC/Getty Images)
House cats may spend most of their days asleep, but when they’re awake, they’re likely to spend at least some time fighting one another. Competition in the natural world for food and territory may be a far cry from a comfortable life of puffy sofas and regular feedings, but animals still feel a need to battle it out. But no matter the species, even if they bite hard enough to draw blood, animals usually seem to forgive one another.
Anyone who’s watched a nature documentary knows there are exceptions. Sometimes animals fight to the death. More typically, fights end quickly, and the herd goes back to grazing or hunting. Sometimes animals become enemies for life. But they mostly return to being compatible.
This may not be what we think about in the larger scope of conversations about forgiveness. But our hominid ancestors lived in tribes, and we are still animals. Moving quickly past conflict made our survival as a species possible because we learned how to stop fighting before we killed one another. In any competition for survival, a pack is more likely to survive than a solitary animal. It could be argued that forgiveness is hard-wired into our DNA.
Yet the reason we evolved as a species from swimming to crawling to walking is because we were willing to override our genetic code. We learned to forgive to protect the pack, but we also learned when a pack member could not be forgiven. In those same nature documentaries, you might recall the solitary animal, cast out on its own, wandering the wilderness. That is the unforgiven animal. And revenge or retribution might be as deeply embedded in our genes as forgiveness.
But what do we really mean when we talk about forgiveness? The understanding most of us have is that forgiveness is essentially a kind of moral gift, granted to someone who has wronged us. There’s also a common notion that we somehow “forgive and forget,” moving past harm and leaving it behind, which is often far from our lived reality. Forgiveness is often portrayed as something that will help a person turn their life around. Seemingly every religious tradition describes forgiveness as a virtue. Muslims refer to Allah as “Ghafir,” or all-forgiving. In the Dharmic religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, seeking forgiveness is an important step toward both mental clarity and cultivating compassion. Judaism’s focus on forgiveness is so paramount that many regard Yom Kippur, literally “Day of Atonement,” as the holiest day of the year.
Christianity, however, is what shaped much of Western thinking about forgiveness, and nearly every classic work of literature, film, theater, and music made by Christian or lapsed Christian artists has involved some portrayal of forgiveness. In America in particular, our collective imagination is shaped by the idea that forgiveness is a virtue, and failing to forgive is a vice, sin, and failure.
Up until the 20th century, when psychology evolved into its contemporary form, how people understood forgiveness was rooted in philosophy and religion. And both of those continue to influence how we talk about forgiveness today. In essence, our understanding of forgiveness often lands in the middle of a Venn diagram of philosophy, psychology, and religion. Plato and Aristotle, the founders of Western philosophy, saw controlling anger as important to leading a virtuous life, and understood forgiveness as a route toward freeing a person from anger. But as Christianity evolved and conquered, forgiveness itself became a virtue, and failing to forgive became a vice.
(Scene from Promising Young Woman)
On the opposite hand of forgiveness is revenge. And depictions of revenge can be a highly enjoyable way for us to live out the fantasy that we might get our own retribution instead of being forgiving. In the 2022 film The Banshees of Inisherin, a conflict between old friends escalates to absurdist levels of violence as the two men trade acts of revenge. At the end of the film, Pádraic, whose house has been burned down by his former friend Colm, says “some things there’s no moving on from, and I think that’s a good thing.” In 2020’s Promising Young Woman, a former medical student whose friend was raped by a classmate systematically takes revenge on everyone from the school who colluded to cover it up. In 2002’s Oldboy, a man freed from prison after many years for reasons he doesn’t understand sets out on several acts of revenge. And even 1980’s classic comedy 9 to 5 is about a group of women who get revenge on their misogynistic boss.
These movies are enjoyable because they are a kind of wish fulfillment. Instead of being forgiving, the characters get what most of us really want deep down inside when we have been wronged, which is to hurt the person who did it. Sublimating that instinct for revenge is one of the great battles of our lives. The difference between us and our house pets is that we keep thinking about being wronged long past the event itself, sometimes for years or decades.
Revenge fantasies are an escape from the reality that forgiving is sometimes just more pragmatic. But the fact is that while forgiving one another may be part of what keeps our world from tumbling into violence, it is not always as easy as we are taught. And it is not always possible.
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