Is It Possible to Really Forgive Someone?

Why it’s more important to forgive and remember than forgive and forget

by Akiko Busch • Next Avenue
women hugging image

Forgiveness is a complicated subject, as we were recently reminded when two disgraced New York politicians announced their campaigns. Former governor Eliot Spitzer, running for state comptroller, asked voters to forgive his past penchant for prostitutes, while shamed ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner continues to plead with constituents to overlook his lewd photos, sexting and subsequent lies.

These comeback endeavors met with mixed feelings, ranging from skepticism to outrage to an attitude of forgive and forget.
It is the latter reaction that puzzles me most.

Why is forgiveness so often linked with forgetting? Is it some reflexive cheek-turning that Christians believe is a virtue? Does it have to do with some societal instinct for denial? Or is it our accelerated culture and 24/7 news cycle that force us to move on at all costs?
I would make an argument for forgiving and remembering.

Recast this way, the emphasis shifts from holding a grudge or hanging on to slights to using the ability we develop to confront transgression. It also entails considering the full complement of experience, actions and words that might explain the motives behind an act then fully absorbing its meaning. Only then can one find a way to move on.

Learning to Reframe the Story

Anyone who has raised a child should have this ability, since acceptance is part of a parent’s job description. It can be a relatively easy thing to absolve a broken platter, muddy floor or spilled food. But the behavior that may lie behind the act — carelessness, thoughtlessness or selfishness — calls for different measures, whether empathy, discipline or tougher demands.

Unlike with such small childhood offenses, a different manner of accounting comes into play with larger issues that involve betrayal, violation of a public trust or greater, more profound gestures of hurt, be it a cumulative emotional injury or acts of raw, physical violence. Colin Tipping, the founder of a program he calls Radical Forgiveness, suggests that one important avenue to pardon is storytelling.

"It is a way of bringing all the feelings associated with the content of the story to the surface so they can be seen and confronted," says Tipping. "It is a way of validating one’s feelings in the sense that it gives us a context and a justification for having them. It allows us to work through the emotions that do come up, using compassion, empathy, understanding and mercy, all of which we can extend to ourselves as well as others."

We can tell the story to ourselves, Tipping continues, "but it is more powerful if we tell it to someone else, so long as they have the right ‘listening’ for it and can validate it for us and be there with us when the feelings arise. I believe the telling of the story and feeling the feelings fully is essential to the process of healing our fears and expanding into love."

Photo courtesy of auremar/

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