In one of the more enlightening distractions of the day, I had a long conversation with the Elder Avraham on the nature and merits of forgiveness. The specific issue at hand was a recent Dr. Laura column in which she tells her readers “Don’t be so quick to forgive” because “knee-jerk forgiveness…will likely make you feel less important and make your pain feel inconsequential. ” In one example, she describes a caller who’s sister had an affair with her husband. Although the sister never expressed remorse, the father wanted the caller to forgive her sister for the sake of “peace” in the family.
On the other hand, it’s clearly not healthy if not prohibited (Lev. 19:18) to bear the grudge. Avraham was reading some texts for Kavvanah which apparently encouraged the offended party to forgive more easily.
How can we then reconcile two conflicting values? What is the middle ground between not becoming obsessed with revenge or self-pity, and not becoming a doormat?
There are several factors to consider. First, what is the nature of the offense? Eating someone’s donut should be easier to forgive than adultery. Not all offenses are equal in their severity and therefore not all forgiveness are equal in their absolution. Second, what is the nature of the apology? Is the offender sorry that s/he committed the wrong or that s/he got caught? Furthermore, there is a difference between saying “sorry” and being sorry. An empty apology serves the offender more than the victim as it gives the offender a sense of absolution and it obviates the guilt. A sincere apology would not only include remorse, but some matter of restitution if possible.
During the IM conversation, Avraham and I reached a similar conclusion from different perspectives. On one hand, a person should not be consumed by hatred, and on the other, shouldn’t be so quick to absolve the offender. Emotional wounds, like physical ones, take time to heal. The more severe the wound, the longer the recuperation. Just as discharging onesself from the hospital too early can have lasting physical effects, so can forgiving a person before s/he is ready. Therefore following this analogy, a person must come to terms with the action before any forgiveness may be given.
Sometimes we are too quick to forgive, or even worse, we’re expected to forgive. People feel obligated to forgive before they’re ready and consequently feel guilty in addition to whatever pain they have suffered. This forgiveness serves the offender more than the victim and is as empty as many apologies. This doesn’t mean a person should be consumed by the pain. Quite the contrary – s/he must undergo the process of healing. This process will vary from person to person and from offense to offense, but in all cases, it must be performed. Only when a person has “healed thyself” can forgiveness truly be given – and received.