Forgiveness Is Not a Binary State

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Photo: Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

In the summer of 2015, less than a week after Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina — a crime for which, yesterday, he was sentenced to death — the relatives of his victims arrived at his first court appearance with a surprising message: forgiveness.

“We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive,” said one woman whose brother was killed in the attack. Another, whose mother was among the deceased, expressed similar sentiments: “You took something very precious from me,” she said, “but I forgive you.”

And a few days after that, writer Roxane Gay published a moving op-ed in the New York Times explaining why she did not. “I have no immediate connection to what happened in Charleston, S.C., last week beyond my humanity and my blackness,” she wrote, “but I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am wholly at ease with that choice.”

Together, these two reactions — both powerful, both valid, diametrically opposed to each other — raise an important question about the slippery concept at their center. Forgiveness, clearly, is a highly personal choice, speeding healing for some and precluding healing for others. But what does it even mean to forgive, anyway?

It’s something we haven’t been asking ourselves for very long — it wasn’t until 1989 that psychologists even started to really study forgiveness — but psychologist Harriet Lerner believes we’ve been too hasty to rush into an answer. In her new book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, Lerner argues that we’re flying blind: Academic research and conventional wisdom alike emphasize the positive effects of forgiveness without having reached any clear consensus as to what the act of forgiving really looks like.

“When I read the literature on forgiveness, I found myself confused. And it took me a while to sort out that the confusion was not mine, and had more to do with the way that forgiveness is talked about and written about,” she says. “What I began to be aware of is that the forgiveness experts were collapsing the messy complexity of human emotions into simplistic dichotomous equations, like you either forgive the wrongdoer or you’re a prisoner of your own anger and hate. Either you forgive, or your life will be mired down in corrosive emotions and you’ll never move forward.” The reality, she says, is that forgiveness is rarely so tidy — and that placing too much faith in its powers can actually harm, rather than help.

Forgiveness isn’t always a good idea.

Scientific literature is chock-full of ways that forgiveness can improve your mental and physical health: It can ease anxiety and depression, cut down on your risk of heart attack, even help you live longer. Letting go of a grudge, it seems, may be up there with exercising and getting enough sleep as one of the best things you can do for yourself.

But the problem with this framing, Lerner says, is that it can push people into extending the olive branch before they’re ready, turning forgiveness from a personal choice into something closer to an obligation: the emotional equivalent of eating your vegetables. And if you can’t bring yourself to do it, you’re going to feel all the worse.

“It’s a terribly hurtful thing to put forth the notion, which is everywhere, that there can be no peace or healing without forgiveness,” she says. “To suggest that the only way out of their unhappiness is that they have to transcend their legitimate anger and pain … It’s not anybody’s place — not your therapist, or your minister, or your coach, or Facebook, or whatever — it’s no one else’s job to tell you to forgive or not to.”

Lerner offers an example of what happens when they do: “[Let’s say] the hurt party opens a conversation with their mother about some earlier neglect or injustice. And the mother says, ‘I’m really sorry, what I did was wrong, do you forgive me?’” Most of the time, she says, “The impulse is to say, ‘I forgive you,’ because they’re so relieved the mother has acknowledged the harm. But the problem is that forgiveness takes its own time to hold.”

And if the hurt party can’t actually bring themselves to forgive, one of two things happens: On the one hand, they could power through, accept the apology anyway, and then grapple with lingering feelings of anger that now feel invalidated. Or, on the other hand, “If the hurt party says, ‘I don’t forgive you, I need more time,’ very often the hurt party becomes the bad guy. And the wrongdoer feels self-righteous because they’re angry the other person isn’t saying ‘I forgive you,’ and blame is shifted to the one who doesn’t forgive.” True forgiveness, she says, is something you earn, and something you wait for. It isn’t something you can request — because if you have to ask, odds are you won’t be getting the real thing.

Forgiveness isn’t the only way to move on.

The bright spot is that you don’t necessarily need to forgive to reap the benefits that research promises. Often, Lerner says, when her patients talk about wanting to forgive, they’re actually talking about something else entirely: “Really, if I question carefully enough, what they’re saying is that they just want the burden of their anger and resentment to go away,” she says. “It’s like they just want to get past the corrosive effects of their negative emotions and grab a little peace of mind,” to get themselves to a place where they no longer dwell on the hurt, and the memory, while still a painful one, no longer carries the same potent sting.

And there are ways to do that — to unload some of the stress and the hurt — without involving the person who hurt you in the first place: talk therapy, meditation, keeping a journal about your feelings. “My simple answer to the question of, ‘How do you let go of obsessive rumination and nonproductive anger and hurt?’ is, ‘Any way you can,’” Lerner says. If, for you, that also means letting go of the ill will you feel toward the offender, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too — the end is more important than the means.

Forgiveness isn’t black and white.

Most people, it’s probably fair to assume, would agree that forgiveness is typically a process, one that can take time and effort, rather than something that happens instantaneously. So what to call that middle ground, the space between hurt and forgiveness where you move toward your goal?

That, too, is forgiveness, Lerner argues. “If you read the literature, it basically talks about forgiveness as an all-or-nothing thing, like being pregnant,” she says. “But the truth is, you can forgive the other person 95 percent or 2 percent or anywhere in between.”

In her book, she recounts the story of two of her former patients, a married couple rebuilding their relationship after an affair: The wife ultimately told her husband she forgave him 90 percent of the way, but would always stop there; sneaking his mistress into their home while she was away, she told him, was an unforgivable offense. “And that was fine,” Lerner says. “It was certainly enough for them to move forward with love and mutual respect,” without the wife having to feel like she was sacrificing her dignity or suppressing her true feelings. If true forgiveness can only happen at 100 percent, in other words, it’s less likely to happen at all. An imperfect forgiveness may be the better thing to aspire to — if, of course, you choose to aspire to any form at all.

Forgiveness Is Not a Binary State