There’s a big difference between the guilt we feel when we unfairly beat ourselves up for failing at work, or for not being the “perfect” parent/friend/partner - and the heavy burden of guilt we carry when we’ve really done something awful that genuinely hurts someone.
I talked about how to tell these two experiences of guilt apart in a recent article. I mentioned that the steps needed for dealing with true guilt involve admitting your wrongdoing and atoning for it, but also required you to apologize for your deeds.
But seeing this advice, reader Gisela Cartmill was moved to leave a question in the comments.
Gisela’s question really cuts to the heart of the matter. We’re raised to think of forgiveness in the context of schoolyard squabbles – we say something mean or pull someone’s hair; there’s a scuffle; the teacher breaks it up and tells us to say sorry, to shake hands and make up. By the next recess, it’s all forgotten.
But, of course, in adult life, it’s rarely that simple.
When we admit to a mistake and seek to atone for it, we usually can’t undo our bad deed, or erase it from memory. And no matter how heartfelt our apologies, we can’t force the people we’ve wronged to listen to them, let alone accept them.
Many of us also have experiences of doing something mean to nameless strangers, or to people from our past with whom we’ve totally lost contact. And as in Gisela’s case, death can also deny us the chance to talk to the victims of our actions.
Thinking about all this reminded me of the work of my Yale colleague, the theologian and author Miroslav Volf. In his lectures and writings, Miroslav talks about forgiveness as a “gift” – a valuable thing that the wronged person voluntarily gives to the wrongdoer.
“Forgiveness cannot be forced. If it’s forced, it isn’t really forgiveness.”
We can’t demand that an apology is accepted, and even when forgiveness is offered Miroslav says it can be an “imperfect” and “messy” process. The person we’ve hurt might forgive only a part of our bad behavior, or later reconsider their forgiveness and withdraw it.
Miroslav saw this process at work in his own family. His brother died in a childhood accident. The man responsible was completely devastated and deeply remorseful – but Miroslav’s mother struggled for years to give the man the gift of her forgiveness.
“She would forgive and then take the forgiveness back, especially at night when the demons would come. She’d say: ‘Why would I want to forgive? How can I forgive?’ Demanding some revenge was always present.”
So what if the person we wronged cannot or will not forgive us? Can we fill that void ourselves?
From his decades of work on reconciliation, Miroslav has observed that one of the most difficult things people wrestle with is forgiving themselves. But he argues: it is still possible.
“To forgive myself, I have to somehow distinguish between who the core of myself is… and what I have done,” says Miroslav.
We sometimes think that we are defined by our actions, that our sense of self is totally tied to them. That’s fine when our actions are noble, but a single bad deed can sometimes make us ignore all the good things we’ve done. And like Gisela, we then find it hard to forgive ourselves.
But Miroslav notes that many cultures and religious faiths argue that we should not be defined by what we do – that the deed is not the same as the doer – we can do bad things and still have good values at our core.
Just like the act of forgiving others, the process of forgiving ourselves can be “imperfect” and “messy”. Our "demons" might come in the night and cause us to withdraw our forgiveness in part or in whole.
But the science shows - we should still try.
Miroslav has seen this firsthand. His family’s hard experience of gifting forgiveness taught him that when we begin the process of separating the deed from the doer then “new green leaves” sprout in the lives of all the people involved.
Next week, we’ll explore what science shows about the benefits of forgiveness, and why making the effort is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves.
Stay safe and stay happy,
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