Friday, March 9, 2007

To err is human, to forgive divine

I have been doing some reading on forgiveness lately, and it got me to thinking about my own experiences, as well as my conception of forgiveness as a whole.

Outwardly, I probably look very good at forgiving. I try not to hold grudges, at least against those whom I will continue to have a personal relationship with. In fact, people have often chastised me for my continuing kindness towards those who have done me wrong in some way. Part of this is part of my neurotic obsession with being seen as a good, kind, worthwhile person. I can’t even stand the idea of someone who has betrayed me in some way thinking I am remotely unkind.

However, the article I am reading makes several intriguing claims about there being multiple components to forgiveness— behavioural (acting kind, or at the very least, not malicious), affective (overcoming resentment and anger), and cognitive (the more thinking and motivation based component). I’ve realized that in certain cases, I am guilty of what the author calls “hollow forgiveness”. I outwardly act kind and helpful, while inwardly waiting for some sort of recognition from them of what a bigger person I am being. This is hardly forgiveness, and actually feels a bit dirty to admit.

For example, I have an odd relationship with a fellow I dated nearly ten years ago. The details are for another time, but it will suffice to say that things ended in a rather cruel way on his part. Though I have not seen him since the tender age of 16, like clockwork, he pops back into my life every 2 or so years, usually looking for help. I find myself in the odd position of providing support to the guy who not only broke my heart, but also only comes into my life when he is feeling messed up, and falls off the face of the earth as soon as he is feeling better. It is also telling that I would never consider in a million years going to him for emotional support. Why, then, do I continue to provide an ear for this man? I want to be the bigger person. I want to be in the position of being able to forgive him. I want to believe that I have a duty to help him, as the simple fact that his teenage girlfriend is the only person he can call when he is feeling depressed make me feel sad and obligated. I want to act like he is forgiven.

But I have not forgiven him. This became clear in our most recent series of interactions, in which I became so vigilant to any signs that he was going to disappear after I helped him through his most recent crises that I got very angry at him in advance. It was clear that I hadn’t let his past transgressions go and was still carrying the hurt around- despite acting like I was fine.

He did disappear again soon afterwards. And I have decided that I am fine with not forgiving him, and I will not let myself be drawn into his games again. I don’t need to be the bigger person in this one, as my well-being is worth more.

But, as usual, I digress.

Forgiveness is also not simply letting things slide, or what the author calls habituation and dissipation. We all do this as well. We seemingly let something go, at least we don’t hold onto the anger and resentment, and gradually go back to old patterns of behaviour. But, when something reminds us of the incident, we still feel that indignation welling up again. This is an especially ugly beast in the face of arguments with our significant others- I know I have both brought up things from the past that still jump out for me every once in a while, as well as having things I thought were non-issues and long gone sprung on me.

Another thing this article claims is that to forgive is not to be naive about future likelihood of harm. Just because you forgive someone doesn’t mean things are back the way they were before and that you need to leave yourself susceptible to the same thing happening again. This helped me to realize that there is another person in my life I have genuinely forgiven. I always felt like I needed to qualify my forgiveness in my mind. I felt like her and I were close again, I always have high hopes for her, will do almost anything for her, and understand why she did what she did— but still felt like I should not put myself in a similar vulnerable position with her again. It is nice to know that having a bit of common sense and learning from the past does not preclude forgiveness.

I also wonder sometimes if forgiveness is always the amazing moral virtue we should all strive for. I do believe that most people should be given a second chance, as we’ve all done things we regret and will never repeat. Causing hurt in those we love is all the punishment most of us need.

I know every one looks at those parents whose children have been killed and are able to look the murderer in the eye and say “I forgive you” with amazing respect and awe. And maybe they are forgiving for their own piece of mind, rather than that of the killer. Yet, I still can’t understand how anyone has the capacity to forgive someone like that, or furthermore, how the perpetrators warrant forgiveness. But aren’t there some things that don’t deserve to be forgiven?


iFreud said...

Princess, I cannot believe all that we have in common sometimes, above and beyond doggie socks.

I have done a lot of forgiveness research, so this post was a thrill for me!

Sometimes unforgiveness is simply a protective measure, and is healthier than actually forgiving a person who has hurt you. It is not always the bad thing that we make it out to be.

Hollow forgiveness is also one of those things that occurs when you don't have the existing relationship to just open up to someone and blurt out all of these feelings and thoughts. For example, I have friends at school, and if they transgress upon me, I might engage in hollow forgiveness to ease the dissonance I feel instead of actually trying to resolve it - it is simply easier and less effortful this way. Again, hollow forgiveness may serve a purpose...

From a social cognitive perspective regarding forgiveness, it is fair to say that when someone causes us pain, or hurts us, those new memories are with us, and never really go away. We build new associations with new information, but like an old attitude, it is still there. I think forgiveness happens when the balance of positives outweigh the negatives again, with establishing new perceptions, thoughts and feelings about that person. Sometimes the relationships never progress much to establish this exchange, so "forgiveness" never occurs.

The fundamental million dollar question in research on forgiveness is how do people forgive when someone has done something so absolutely heinous, like hurt your family or child. I don't think this kind of phenomenon can be studied with group design, and should be more qualitative, because it is so individual. I like to think I am generally forgiving, but there have been situations where I haven't forgiven, and mostly, it is for self-protection reasons that I do not.

Talk about digressing... I just got excited about your topic.

Which particular authors were you reading? McCullough? Worthington? Baumeister & Exline?

John said...

I confess to getting much needed "reflection" from your musings at times. And I thank you.

As for forgiving people...I find it depends on what has been done and to whom. Some things just can't be forgiven, but it's down to your personal feelings. Someone might be able to forgive a murderer, but not be able to forgive the milkman for dropping off the right type of milk. Ok, base example, but you get what I'm trying to say.

I'm more likely to forgive those whom have "wronged" me, but less likely to forgive those that have "wronged" say a family member or close friend.

Anyway...I'm blogging on your blog again. Sorry.

John said...

Obviously ifreud and I posted our comments at the same time. Having read hers I wish to nominate myself for the award of "Least Educated In Forgiveness".

iFreud said...

JOHN! Don't say that! We are academics - this is our shit. The "layman" or real perspective is what drives research and provides insight. How could we even understand what forgiveness is if people don't share their experiences, thoughts and feelings?

Ant said...

Wow, so many factors to this stuff...

I've generally lived by the maxim of "forgive but don't forget", which has elements of the hollow forgiveness that you mention but seems to work. Basically I won't go out my way to avenge or be spiteful to folk, but I will now factor in their exposed behaviour in any future exchanges we have. (Folk rarely change...)

The base I'm coming from is that I trust (properly trust) virtually no-one, except a select few people in my life. So I'm rarely disappointed if people don't shape up. The litmus test would be if any of that inner circle betrayed my trust in a major way - hasn't happened so far and I don't know how I'd react...

Beth said...

I have a tendency to "forgive" as a means of avoiding unpleasant confrontations.
And even when we "forgive" someone for some transgression, we tend never to forget. So have we truly forgiven?

Princess Pointful said...

Much thanks for the thought provoking responses!
I have to run at the moment, but I will try to respond soon.

Princess Pointful said...

iFreud- It's always nice to find someone who shares similar interests, both intellectually and otherwise! This was my first foray into any academic research on the area, so it was really intriguing. I definitely agree with a lot of your points.

I think the problem forgiveness is that while it somehow frees the person who experienced the harm from some sort of psychological burden, sometimes the transgressor also gets freed as a result when they shouldn't be.

The few papers I read had Fincham as an author, though I am familiar with some of Baumeister's relevant work on empathy.

John- We talked a little in class about how close friends and family almost seem to be harder on the transgressor than the hurt person-- which is all in good intentions, I'm sure, but sometimes can do a whole lot more harm than intended.

And I second iFreud's scolding of you! You can't take our nerdly ramblings as indication of your lack of knowledge... we are grad students, so this is essentially what we do for a living to a certain degree. However, we do study people, so what people feel on forgiveness is what is relevant, right?

Ant- I know a lot of people subscribe to the maxim of keeping people at a distance to avoid future hurt. While it can be adaptive, I'm sure, I sometimes think that part of life and love is having to take the risk of being hurt to really experience what is good. Which is not to say that I haven't been guarded at times for that very same reason.

Beth- Me too! I have such a hard time with simmering anger in the air, that I will often feign nonchalance or even forgiveness to avoid having to deal with it.

eric1313 said...

"Part of this is part of my neurotic obsession with being seen as a good, kind, worthwhile person."

This is never neurotic, as long as it's sincere.

We all know you aren't for show. You are what you present yourself to be, regardless.

eric1313 said...

And it is so important to take emotional risks. We would not find love if not.

But guarding our hearts is also necessary... balance is a tough thing to maintain.
And I am so guilty of blogging on your blog! Jeeezzz...