How do you forgive someone who has tortured you? Or someone who has murdered your mother and pregnant sister? In what way do you forgive those who have oppressed and harmed your people, your community?
Do you forgive and forget?
Absolutely not. You remember, but you remember graciously.
Remembering graciously means remembering for the purpose of understanding and extending grace, as well as pursuing justice. It does not mean condoning or excusing wrongdoing or oppression.
The people I interviewed for my doctoral research on the experience of forgiving injustices like those above told me, “I will never forget.” One of the participants in my study said, “It’s important to remember with eyes wide open.” No denying, spinning, or avoiding.
Accountability and consequences were very important to the people I interviewed. Vengeance was not. Revenge would mean they were joining with their offenders in causing pain, not progress.
The man I interviewed who was tortured for his political beliefs said to his tormentor, “I will never forget what you’ve done to me because that’s my history. That’s my experience. I will keep it in my mind, so I keep working to stop this from happening to anyone else.” He forgave without forgetting because he knew that remembering would allow him to help create a better world. But he had to remember graciously, or anger and bitterness would harden his heart and prevent him from acting morally.
Our tough experiences have the capacity to teach us essential wisdom. They can provide valuable insights. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said:
To forgive and forget means to throw away dearly bought experience.
Forgiveness has different meanings for different people, but overall, forgiveness is a virtue with the purpose of leading us to better lives. Genuine forgiveness helps us feel at peace and improves our relationships. Fake forgiveness extends or even deepens hurt. Buried hurts are toxic because they deprive us of our need to grieve, to lament, to process and release our pain.
People who’ve been mistreated may have a hard time with the word forgiveness because they fear abuse and injustice will continue if they forgive. People who are concerned they will be blamed or shamed may have a hard time with the concept of forgiveness because they fear retribution.
“Just get over it,” sounds so easy when we aren’t the ones who need to get over something that is churning inside us, affecting our health, our relationships, our future.
We see the desire to forgive and forget in conversations about what’s being labeled “critical race theory.” The message seems to be, “Let’s not talk about the parts of our history that are painful. Let’s just feel good about ourselves and forget the past.” But as author William Faulkner said:
The past is never dead, it’s not even past.
We are all a product of our past. It has shaped us. The same is true about communities and nations.
I was leading a conversation class for adults from various countries who were learning the English language, and one woman asked me, “Why are so many of the homeless people in our community Native Americans?” I paused for a moment, realizing that answering that question was complex. Another woman in the class piped in before I could respond, “They’re lazy. If they have arms and legs they should be working.”
Ugh! It’s so easy to judge others harshly and comfort ourselves by thinking they surely deserve whatever misfortune has befallen them. Psychologists call that “just world hypothesis” – or more accurately, “just world fallacy.” We don’t like unfairness, and it feels better to think good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. And if all is fair, there’s no need to alter our personal behavior or our society. Just world fallacy is intoxicating because it comforts us and releases us from any responsibility to change ourselves or a situation that may, in fact, not be just.
You’ll be relieved to know I didn’t start spouting psychological theories to the class. Instead I replied, “To understand why, you need to know history. Every person, every group, has a story to tell. You will not understand why until you learn their story.”
We talked about the history of Native Americans in our nation and in our community. We talked about historical trauma, prejudice, and differing perspectives. About what a tough time we humans have being compassionate and treating others – all others, no exceptions – with respect.
It takes time to learn history, to listen to people’s stories. It can be difficult because some things are hard to hear. We wish they had never happened.
We like to hear a lovely story of unending progress – what’s sometimes called a “whiggish” interpretation of history. That version of history tells us that if we are satisfied with the present, the past must have been a good thing and needn’t be examined for flaws. It’s nice to feel good about our history, but sometimes we need to hear truths that make us feel bad so we can heal and learn from them.
If a trail of damaged, wounded people has been left behind, whether it’s in a family or in a nation, understanding their history will help create beneficial paths forward. When past wrongdoings are acknowledged, those who have been harmed gain confidence that lessons have been learned from that past, and they gain trust and hope for the future.
Forgiveness and progress flourish when people come together for gracious remembering. The goal is recognizing a painful past, hearing each other’s stories, and reimagining the future. Ishmael Beah, Sierra Leonean author and human rights activist, said:
A lot of people, when they say forgive and forget, think you completely wash your brain out and forget everything. . .What I think is you forgive and you forget so you can transform your experiences, not necessarily forget them, so that they don’t haunt you or handicap you or kill you.
There is nothing easy about facing a painful past, so it’s understandable that we may wish we could simply extinguish agonizing memories, and there is research going on right now with the purpose of physiologically doing just that. In some cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, that could be a good thing. But erasing a painful past could also turn into a way of making us vulnerable to a tragedy’s repeat performance. We may eliminate an opportunity for greater awareness and transformation.
It takes courage and compassion to remember graciously. But that is the way to create a brighter future.