Toward the end of her almost epochal book, The Human Condition (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt turns finally to two neglected powers of the human spirit: forgiveness to heal our past, and promises to secure our future. The only remedy for the inevitability of history, says Arendt, is forgiveness. She means that in the natural course of things we are stuck with our past and its effects on us. We may learn from our history, but we cannot escape it. We may forget our history, but we cannot undo it. We may be doomed to repeat our history, but we cannot change it. Our history is an inevitable component of our being. One thing only can release us from the grip of our history. That one thing is forgiveness. Jesus tells us that if we do not forgive our fellows, we should not expect God to forgive us (Mark 11:25).
Three Stages when we forgive. A. Suffering. No one really forgives unless he has been hurt. You can be hurt when you suffer at the hands of people you love. But not every hurt needs to be forgiven. There are some hurts that we can swallow, and shrug off. We should not try to forgive when all we need is simply a little spiritual generosity. Consider the following hurts: 1) Annoyances. People annoy us by being late for appointments, and by telling boring stories at dinner. 2) Defeats. Some people succeed when we fail; they get promotions when we are ignored; they always seem to be there ahead of us—and to make things worse, these people who beat us are our friends. 3) Slights. People we want to notice us ignore us; professors and priests we adored forget our names two years after graduation. These are all hurts, but they are not the kind that needs forgiving. Such bits and pieces of suffering require tolerance, magnanimity, indulgence, humility—but not forgiving!
There are two kinds of hurts that must be answered with the miracle of forgiving. They are acts of disloyalty and acts of betrayal. 1) Disloyalty. A person is disloyal if he treats you as a stranger when, in fact, he belongs to you as a friend or partner. Each of us is bound to some special others by the invisible fibers of loyalty. The bonding tells us who we are: we are who we are, most deeply, because of the people we belong to. This is why disloyalty is so serious. When someone who belongs to us treats us like a stranger — he digs a deep ditch; and he builds a wall between the two of us. And in doing so he assaults our very identity. Words like “abandon,” or “forsake,” or “let down” come to mind when a husband has an affair with his wife’s friend; someone who belongs to you by some spoken or unspoken promise such as friendships treat you like a stranger. 2) Betrayal. Turn the screw a little tighter, and disloyalty becomes betrayal. As disloyalty makes strangers of people who belong to each other, betrayal turns them into enemies. We are disloyal when we let people down. We betray them when we cut them in pieces. For example, Peter was disloyal when he denied he ever knew the Lord; Judas betrayed Jesus when he turned him over to his enemies. You betray me when you take a secret I trusted with you and reveal it to someone who is likely to use it against me or whisper my secret shame to a gossiper. These examples all have the same painful feature: someone who is committed to be on your side turns against you as an enemy. The moment of forgiving comes when someone who ought to be with you forsakes you, when someone who ought to be for you turns against you.
B. Spiritual surgery. The second stage of forgiving involves the hurt person’s inner response to the one who wronged him. When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You disengage that person from his hurtful act. You recreate him. He is remade in your memory. You feel him now not as the person who alienated you, but as the person who belongs to you. You recreated your past by recreating the person whose wrong made your past painful.
You do not change him, out there, in his being. But when you recreate him in your own memory, there, within you, he has been altered by spiritual surgery. God does it this way, too. He releases us from sin like a mother washes dirt from a child’s face, or as a person takes a burden off your back. The Bible’s metaphors point to a surgery within God’s memory of what we are. Sometimes this stage is as far as we can go. Sometimes we need to forgive people who are dead and gone. Sometimes we need to forgive people who do not want our forgiveness. Sometimes our forgiving has to end with what happens in the spiritual surgery of our memories.
C. Starting over. The miracle of forgiveness is completed when two alienated people start over again. A man holds out his hand to an alienated daughter and says, “I want to be your father again.” A woman holds out her hand and says, “I want to be your wife again.” Or, “I want to be your friend again, your partner again. Let us be reconciled; let’ us belong together again.” Reconciliation is the personal reunion of people who were alienated but belong together. It is the beginning of a new journey together. We must begin where we are, not at an ideal place for reunion: We do not understand what happened. Loose ends are untied. Nasty questions are unanswered. The future is uncertain; we have more hurts and more forgiving ahead of us. But we start over where we are.
Forgiving is not forgetting. We forget some hurts because they were too trivial to remember or they were too terrible to remember: All we need to forget is a bad memory or a compulsion to suppress. We do the miracle of forgiveness when we remember and then forgive.
Forgiving is not excusing. We excuse people when we understand that they are not to blame for the wrong they did us. Patawarin mo na kasi pinabayaan yan ng magulang niya noon. His past is not an excuse for the wrong he has done.
Why forgive? First, forgiving creates a new possibility of fairness by releasing us from the unfair past. A moment of unfair wrong has been done; it is in our past. If we choose, we can stick with that past. And we can multiply its wrongness. If we do not forgive, our only recourse is revenge. But revenge glues us to the past. And it dooms us to repeat it. Forgiving removes us from the chain of wrongs; nagpapatong-patong na hinanakit. We start over to begin a new and fairer relationship. We will probably fail again. And we will need to forgive again. Seventy-times-seven, as Jesus said, always forgive.
Second, forgiveness brings fairness to the forgiver. It is the hurting person who most feels the burden of unfairness; but he only condemns himself to more unfairness if he refuses to forgive.
Is it fair to be stuck to a painful past? Vengeance is having a videotape planted in your soul that cannot be turned off. It plays the painful scene over and over again inside your mind. It hooks you into its instant replays. And each time it replays, you feel the clap of pain again. Is this fair?
Forgiving turns off the videotape of pained memory. Forgiving sets you free. Forgiving is the only way to stop the cycle of unfair pain turning in your memory.
How to forgive: What might help. I must say something about how we forgive—but I cannot; I do not know how. Essentially we cannot do it. Maybe we cannot. But we do it anyway—sometimes! Here are three things I have noticed about how people forgive. These might help.
First, they forgive slowly. There are instant forgivers, I suppose, but not many. We should not count on power to forgive bad hurts very quickly. Essentially, we cannot; but eventually we do. God takes his time with a lot of things. Second, they forgive communally. Can anyone forgive alone? I do not think I can. I need people who hurt as I hurt, and who hate as I hate. I need persons who are struggling as hard as I need to struggle before I come through forgivingly. It is fine if you can do it all by yourself; but if you are hooked into your videotape of past pain, seek a fellowship of slow forgivers, or the fellowship of people who knows how to listen to you. They may help.
The Gospel of Mark mentions that we are forgiven only when we forgive. Therefore, we forgive only when we have experience what it is to be forgiven. When it comes down to it, anyone who forgives can hardly tell the difference between feeling forgiven and doing the forgiving. We are such a mixture of sinners and sinned against, we cannot forgive people who offend us without feeling that we are being set free ourselves.