What Does It Mean To Forgive And Forget?

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Emily Rapp discusses forgiveness, a religious ethics course, and why she finds it harder to forgive herself than others.

Forgiveness is a big word designed to cover a great deal of ground in many areas of life. You can be forgiven a loan, your sins, a misstep in a relationship or at work. “I forgive you,” is a powerful statement, but can it ever be true? Even in a religious context, the empirical evidence of forgiveness is not available; it’s a matter of faith and belief.

And what about that other popular saying, “Forgive but don’t forget.” Is forgiveness an act of forgetting, or is it something else? Is the forgiver or forgetter’s choice in the matter the element that distinguishes the more moral of the two actions? Or is it solely an issue of responsibility? And whose responsibility is it—the person who asks for forgiveness or the person who grants it? After you’ve been forgiven your sin, can you then forgive yourself for needing to ask for forgiveness in the first place?

While in divinity school, I took a comparative religious ethics class that was one of the most memorable academic experiences of my life, in part because the paper topics were incredibly difficult, and at times seemed impossible. For example: We read Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, a book that tells the story of how a group of men who were not Nazi zealots, but average dudes without strong political affiliations to any party or deep loyalties to any specific religious group, were responsible for killing millions of Jews in Eastern Europe. Another book, Zen Action, Zen Person, was about the “non-thinking” ethics of Buddhism, which at the time, in my Protestant-trained mind, seemed so slippery I could hardly grasp them. There was no doctrine, so there was nothing to violate, therefore no forgiveness was necessary, and yet there was an ethical system, only it involved no rules but a kind of radical acceptance that I had trouble trusting or gripping with my intellect. The assignment was to determine how a Buddhist might have responded to a man from one of the mobile killing units described in Browning’s book if he asked for forgiveness. I sat in my cubicle for hours, stumped. All the highlighters in the world were not going to help me navigate the answer to this conundrum, especially given the extremity of the acts perpetrated by the person theoretically asking for forgiveness.

What to do? As I listened to undergraduates panting and making out in the library stacks, I began to inventory small, less epic instances of forgiveness in my life; I realized that most of them took place in a ritualized context. Bread and wine, incantations, songs and liturgical cycles. This was a general, group experience of forgiveness, and although it was somatic (you eat and drink and kneel and sing), it was also slightly abstract. Lutherans apologize for a general list of wrongdoings as a group, but there is no individual catalogue of sins spoken aloud for confession; no penance exists beyond an (optional) intellectual pondering of how might I act more rightly in the future? I’d been mean to people; I’d said terrible things, told tiny lies. I probably stole chocolate from the cupboard. I asked to be forgiven, and I was, and yet I remembered those moments with chagrin and shame. Did the other person remember, or was it me who needed to forget in order to make their forgiveness stick? Were we all just standing in a fairy dust wash of forgiveness, the spell and texture of which would be broken as soon as we left the church sanctuary?

I still had a paper to write. On the one hand, a Buddhist would condemn an act of aggression that resulted in suffering; on the other hand, to punish someone or refuse forgiveness would be an aggressive counter-response and therefore not appropriate. Just as you could meditate into a state of “non-thinking” while still thinking, could you forget without aggressively forcing forgiveness?

Actions have consequences in Buddhism, so it’s not as if everyone is given a free pass at any time. There would be no absolution for the soldier in the situation we were asked to consider, but there would not be a lack of some kind of forgiveness, although that’s not even the right word. I decided that the Buddhist would be generous to the soldier, but that this was a complicated term in its own right. The man killed those people, and they were dead. All the forgiveness in the world would not—and should not—make him forget that. Perhaps I’ve always found the notion of absolution a bit odd, and clunky to apply to the moral vagaries of life.

If generosity is a way of re-describing forgiveness, what does it mean to be generous? I used to think I knew (or at least I did 15 years ago for the purposes of writing a 10-page paper); now I’m not so sure. I used to find it easy to forgive other people, but I found it almost impossible to forgive myself. This was a weird and slightly narcissistic double standard, with its expectation that I was supposed to be perfect while everyone else could flub up.

Now, as a constantly grieving person, I find myself apologizing or anticipating forgiveness. A lot. Apologizing for things I haven’t done, or might want to do, or don’t want anyone to know I might want to do or have done out of weakness or fear. I am an advance apologizer, and it’s super annoying. I am often edgy and not-myself, whatever that means, and it makes me feel wild, and afraid, and unable to trust myself—my own goodness or the goodness of other people. I feel angry and uncertain in a world where violence is perpetrated deliberately or just falls on you or the people you love in the form of a hidden genetic code or a bus veering out of control on an icy road.

I feel cattier, clingier, weirder, softer, kinder, edgier, more human. I could use a dose of radical generosity, it seems. And a reminder that there is no right answer, and that forgiveness-as-generosity is more interesting than forgetfulness, because it is yoked to the heart’s mysteries in a different way; it requires more of us.

We’re alive, which means we’re going to keep hurting people and screwing up, and we need more trust, more patience, more softness—all of those virtues we all wish we had in greater amounts. Generosity is imbedded in this understanding of forgiveness in a way that forgetfulness is not. It’s easier to practice, and, interestingly enough, much more difficult to forget.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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