The topic of forgiveness is one I’ve wanted to expound upon for quite a long time because so many people have a complete and utter misunderstanding of it. In these troubled times, amidst protests against racism and police brutality, a president touting authoritarianism and fascism, and a politically fractured populace, forgiveness can play a profound role in helping to heal a troubled nation as well as interpersonal relationships that may have become strained.

What Is It To Forgive?

Oxford Languages

We have all heard the expression “forgive, but don’t forget” in one form or another. The general notion is to release any untoward feelings one may have toward someone who has offended you while not releasing the memory of the offense.

This approach has always puzzled me: how does one let go of negative feelings towards those that offend us while clinging to the memory of the offense itself?

Cancelling A Debt

An answer may be found in the definition’s second meaning: to cancel a debt. Usually used in terms of financial reimbursement, one could also apply this to other forms of debt, such as social, familial, or marital. While the person who wronged you may ‘owe you’ anything from an explanation, to an apology, to an act of reimbursement or rectification, to not require that act may be said to be an act of forgiveness.

Taken together, we have a relinquishment of ill-will and a release of the requirement for an act of penitence. We won’t hold resentful feelings against the person who wronged us, and we won’t require them to do anything in recompense. Having achieved this stance of forgiveness, what would be the point of “forgiving but not forgetting?” Why hang on to what you’re not angry about any longer and have not required an expression of remorse in response?

Forgiveness in Religion

Forgiveness itself is a concept derived from the religions of our distant past. The Bible, as a literary reference if nothing else, provides a bountiful source of reference to this dictionary meaning of forgiveness. We are instructed to “turn the other cheek,” and admonished for throwing the first stone. Literally, scores of examples are given in this work, but the primary point isn’t just the practice of treating people who have done wrong with compassion but forgiving them — actually feeling that they haven’t done wrong.

We can find similar references to this change of the heart in other places as well, with differing spiritual overtones: Jewish canon suggests that one can only sin against God (and thus God is the source of all forgiveness), while the Bhagavad Gita references the Sanskrit word kṣamā, translated as forgiveness, patience, austerity, or tolerance (depending on context) as a change in the presence of mind and in attitude regarding a past event.

Forgiveness, then, as approached by its correct definition, is a very difficult thing to do. We’re not talking about behaving as if nothing wrong had occurred, but as per the primary definition of the word, feeling that nothing wrong had occurred. In fact, it may seem genuinely impossible in certain situations; for example, those arising from abusive relationships. There is even a branch of psychology that calls exception to the generally beneficial effects of forgiving past wrongs in the examples of sexual or emotional abuse, showing that victims are empowered when discouraged from forgiving their abusers.

It Is What It Is

I try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to retain a transcendent and relativistic viewpoint when addressing how to deal with slights, large and small, in my life. I have to sit, and think, or sleep on it, or let it just stew for a day, a week, or more. I must take a mental step back to see the “big picture” for what it is, and I can’t always do it in a short span of time. Even after I consider the repercussions of a slight – how serious was this, how much does it matter in the short term, the long term, the results and their effects, and if all this personal reflection on the matter is worth the energy, at some point I have to think about why I’m still upset about it.

There are some fairly trivial things that get my dander up in a big way, and honestly, I don’t always have a rational explanation for why that happens, case by case. What I do know is that, if I want to keep my blood pressure under control, if I want to get any sleep, if I want to not bite the next person that speaks to me, I have to stop being angry. I have to find a way to let it go. Some religiously-minded say “let go and let God;” my spirituality doesn’t run that way, so I say “it is what it is” in my attempts to see this bigger picture.

The Big Picture

The bigger picture is the “transcendent, relativistic viewpoint” I mentioned. In a hundred years, unless you’ve become a contributor to mankind’s history in some significant way, you’re going to be forgotten. You might be a picture in someone’s family album, or a name on some documents on an ancestry website, or represented by a series of heirlooms passed down to next of kin even more removed, but that’s all. And, after another hundred years, unless you’re a prominent figure, you will not only be irrelevant but you will have all but vanished from the face of history itself.

And a thousand years after that, the odds are that you will become an unknown. In the grand scheme of things, in the dimension of duration that stretches through the vastness of space-time, you will not matter, and you will never matter. A popular twist on an old adage goes, “Life sucks, and then you die, and then life goes on without you.” While life may not suck, it certainly will go on without you, and given enough time it will do so as if you were never here.

The Here and Now

Since we are only important in the here-and-now, with family and friends and those who read our writings and experience our creations, here-and-now is the only time that matters. Here and now is where I should take stock and grasp whether being angry about a thing is worth the energy. I’ve found, for myself, that being angry about social ills, political unfairness, economic disparity, racism, bigotry, religious fundamentalism and a host of other social ills is worth being angry about – and being angry about what some particular individual did to me, in the end, isn’t. Because, in a hundred years, those personal slights will not matter to anyone, and anyone it matters to today, including myself, will be gone and quite probably forgotten by the world we leave behind.

When we are dust, long after our departure, no one, not one person, will care an iota whether we did or didn’t forgive anyone. So, forgiveness is ultimately for us — but to reap any benefit from it, we have to do it. At some point in our lives, we have to stop being angry, and most importantly, stop dwelling on past slights.

It’s not worth lugging some reminder of a perceived wrong, intended or otherwise, to the grave. That memory will not exist a moment past your death. In light of the reality of who we are in the cosmos, in time and space and who we are as a species, as people, as individuals, life is far too short to spend any amount of time carrying unnecessary weight.