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  • Writer's pictureAnnie Berbert

Forgiveness: What it is, what it isn’t, and how to apply it

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

How to let go and move forward in the wake of injustice.

In the story “A Piece of String” by Guy de Maupassant, the character Maître Hauchecorne is falsely accused of stealing a wallet when he was, in fact, only going to pick up a piece of string. After the wallet is found, Hauchecorne remains traumatized by and reactive to continued false suppositions until he dies. Some critics have argued that Hauchecorne is a tragic figure whose victimization led to his demise. Others have argued that his failure to forgive resulted in his downfall.

The story highlights a contemporary dilemma: does honoring our victimization antagonize our ability to forgive? To answer this question, it helps to take a deeper dive into what forgiveness really is and what it isn’t.

What Forgiveness Is

Forgiveness, in its most simple definition, is the letting go of a hyperfocus on past injustice — a recognition and acceptance that we cannot change the past. Sounds easy, right? But what, exactly, does acceptance mean for someone who has been significantly harmed by injustice? This is where the waters get muddied and why it is important to also define what forgiveness is not.

What Forgiveness Is Not

Forgiveness is neither an invalidation of suffering nor a minimizing of the harm done. The result of injustice is a loss of freedom, control, and opportunity; and with any loss comes grief. Accepting that we cannot change what happened to us does not mean we stop grieving the losses. In fact, we are better able to manage and accept the grief and the loss when we acknowledge its reality and its depth. “There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon,” is a Little Golden Book and Record from yesteryear that tells the story of a boy who awakens to find a dragon in his home. The dragon follows him down to breakfast, and the boy keeps telling his mother there’s a dragon. The mother keeps replying, “There’s no such thing as a dragon.” Each time she does, the dragon gets bigger and bigger until it’s so big, it runs off with the entire house. Eventually the mother is forced to acknowledge there is a dragon — it’s real. As soon as she does, the dragon shrinks back down to a manageable size. We cannot accept or let go of things we refuse to see in the first place. Accepting that the pain from our past experiences is real, normal, and okay is an important step in diffusing hyperfocus and letting go.

Forgiveness is not forgetting about injustice. Growth and change depend on memory. If every night our memories were wiped clean but every day we were given the same task to complete, how many times would we make the same choices in how we performed the task? The mouse in the maze who remembers where the dead ends are will make it to the cheese faster than the mouse who does not remember. Letting go does not mean we forget about what happened. We are not letting go of the memory. We are simply letting go of our mental fixation on something we can no longer control — the past. We are using that memory, instead, as a tool for growth; when we free up the energy we have been using to ruminate about the past, we can apply that energy towards healing our present.

Forgiveness is not excusing accountability. If a four-year-old loses patience with its younger sibling and pushes the sibling over, a parent can forgive the four-year-old and accept that what happened in the past happened. That does not mean the parent should avoid teaching, disciplining, or setting boundaries for the four-year-old to avoid the situation from happening again. If we are harmed — and that harm is excused by someone in a position of power or trust — we experience a secondary trauma or injustice that oftentimes is more painful than the initial harm. To excuse perpetrators from accountability is to compound injustice, making the act of letting go twice as difficult.

Forgiveness is not remaining in an unsafe or unhealthy situation. Many victims have failed to get help because they have been told, “You just need to forgive.” We can accept or let go of a hyperfocus on past injustice, but that does not mean we need to continue to endure present injustice. A victim just needs one thing: safety. And they need safety ASAP. Once they are safe, then they can apply energy to letting go of past injustices — because then and only then will the injustice be in the past. Asking a person to forgive when they are still experiencing recurring harm empowers their abuser to keep abusing. When we are in an unsafe situation, safety is always the top priority — not forgiveness. If you or anyone you know is experiencing abuse, please call the following hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE

Forgiveness is not trust. Accepting that past injustices cannot be changed does not mean you need to trust those who were unjust to you. A person who has been assaulted can let go of a hyperfocus on the past and still obtain a restraining order. Trust is earned by those who seek it and act concordantly in trustworthy ways. Trust isn’t owed to those who demand it. When trust has been mildly damaged, repairing it can happen quickly. But if your trust has been violently damaged, it is okay to never trust that perpetrator again. Letting go of trying to change the past does not require that you accept someone who has harmed you back into your life. You can forgive someone and still not trust them. You can forgive someone and still maintain firm boundaries around them. Forgiveness is not trust.

Forgiveness is not silence. Our inability to change the past does not negate our opportunity to change the future. We can use our experiences with injustice to effect change that protects others from having those same experiences. We can let go of a hyperfocus on who and what has harmed us in the past and still advocate for those presently in harm’s way. Forgiveness endorses speaking up.

How Do We Apply Forgiveness?

Now that we have a clear picture of what forgiveness isn’t, how do we go about applying what it is? Letting go of a hyperfocus on our past injustices and accepting that we cannot change the past sounds great in theory, but how is it achieved in reality?

First, we can practice self-awareness. Meditate. Be mindful. We can be in tune with our innermost needs and feelings and biases. When we tune into ourselves, we move away from a fixation on systems and people that have harmed us. What do we value, hope for, dream of? What are we doing to get there? Where in our bodies do we feel our pain? What emotions are we experiencing? What color would we give those emotions? Often when we have been harmed, we detach from ourselves and focus solely on who or what has harmed us. Reconnecting with ourselves can help us move beyond the injustices we’ve experienced. Self-awareness also contributes to self-forgiveness. It can be painful to examine ways in which our behavior towards others has been unjust. But such examination is important if we seek individual and societal improvement. Accepting that we cannot change what we have done, seeking to make restitution where we can, and working to improve what we can improve helps overcome the shame that chokes self-forgiveness. Maya Angelou articulated how self-awareness can be the impetus for self-forgiveness and change when she said, “I did then what I knew best, when I knew better, I did better.”

Second, believe in the power of “and.” The use of the word “and” can help with either-or thinking and engender psychological flexibility. We often divide the world into binaries: hero or villain, right or wrong, just or unjust, good or bad, selfish or unselfish. Few people are either one or the other. Most of us are both hero and villain, right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad, selfish and unselfish. We cannot change the past, and we can change the present and influence the future. Understanding the fluidity of life that comes with the word “and” helps us feel empowered. And in that space, we can more easily let go of the injustices that have been disempowering in our lives.

Last, give yourself time. We’ve all heard stories about a sudden happenstance where someone was able to forgive, to let go, to accept — and how they felt a miraculous whoosh of relief. But for many people, forgiveness is a process. It can take time to accept the limitations and injustices of our past. Working to accept that we cannot change our history will eventually bring relief, even if that relief is not immediate, even if it builds so incrementally, we struggle to see it at first. At some point, as we accept what we cannot change, we will reach a place of peace and know that forgiveness has been realized. Be patient if your ability to forgive doesn’t happen in a blink.

So, after all this — what is the verdict? Can we honor how we have been victimized and still forgive? Was Maître Hauchecorne genuinely victimized or playing the victim? The answer is yes and yes. Hauchecorne experienced significant injustice. He was falsely accused, and even after he was proven innocent, villagers still suspected his involvement. The more he spoke up, the more he was disbelieved and discredited. The result pained him deeply. His pain was real. The injustice was real. And Hauchecorne’s hyperfocus on a past event that he could not control ultimately destroyed him. The more he focused on the piece of string from his past, the less he could focus on potential opportunities of the present and the future. We live in an unjust world. At times we will act unjustly and experience injustice. And in the wake of that, we have the capacity to let go of people and events we cannot change and embrace those we can. Photo by Christopher Stites on Unsplash

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