To Err is Human. To Forgive is Optional.

Today, we’re going to talk about forgiveness. And by that I mean not only forgiving somebody, but also being forgiven. And accepting forgiveness.

It seems that today, especially in social media, we see a lot of saying and memes:

“Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace”

“Forgiveness is divine, but never pay full price for late pizza”

“Sometimes the first step to forgiveness is realizing the other person is batshit crazy”

Perhaps the religious tactic:
“Forgiveness doesn’t diminish justice, it just entrusts it to God”

Or perhaps the innuendo:
“Forgiveness is swallowing when you want to spit.”

What do all of these sayings have in common? Well, Every single one of them misses the point of forgiveness.

A: You are under no obligation to forgive. It is perfectly acceptable for you to simply “not forgive”. If somebody wronged you, has shown no remorse, has made no amends, and continues to be an unscrupulous bastard, even if you are not directly on the receiving end of the behavior, you are perfectly within your rights not to forgive them. Nobody should think less of you for that. You are fully justified

B: Simply saying,”I forgive you” is not necessarily true forgiveness. Yes, it may fulfill what you believe is your social obligation to forgive (See A: you have no such obligation), it may cast you in the role of the martyr, it may make you look like the bigger person, but unless you truly forgive, it is nothing more than passive-aggresive posturing, or at worst, disingenuous “non forgiveness”, being flippantly passed off as forgiveness. Dollar store, knock-off forgiveness.

So what is genuine forgiveness?
Well, it is a gift. it is not a gift for you. It is a gift for the person you are forgiving.

Well, why would I give a gift to someone who has wronged me? Shouldn’t it be them who gives ME the gift?
Well….you are giving it to them because you feel they deserve it. If you cannot give such a gift at this time, refer to A.

Well, how would they “deserve” such a gift?
Deserve is such a loaded word. It is loaded because it is subjective. Only you can decide if they deserve your forgiveness.

Well, how would you decide that?
Well, if they gave you a gift.

What gift would that be?

Every person is different, but here are some examples:

The gift of time and reflection:
Perhaps enough time has elapsed that you are ready to let it be water under the bridge (but only if you are ready).

The gift of contrition:
Perhaps the person is genuinely contrite. Perhaps they have been on the receiving end of similar tresspasses against you and they have learned their lesson because of it.

The gift of amends:
Perhaps they have made appropriate amends. Or perhaps they have righted the wrong against you directly to you.

But you don’t have to be the direct beneficiary of someone’s amends to deem them worthy of your forgiveness!

If someone wronged you, regretted it and spent the time doing good for other people, paying it forward, as it were, even if you were not a direct beneficiary of those amends, there could be a case for them being worthy of your forgiveness.

Everybody is different and again, see A. You don’t have to forgive.

But if you genuinely want to forgive, it is so much more than saying “I forgive you”


C: To genuinely forgive someone, you must waive any claim or privilege to exact retribution.

To wit: You cannot say,”I forgive you, but I hope you rot in hell”. Then you didn’t forgive them. You wished them harm, which is the retribution you waive when you forgive.

Let’s say you are suing somebody for punitive damages, but you say,”I forgive you”. Well, no you don’t, because you are in the process of imposing a financial penalty.

We hear about a lot of people whose lives have been damaged at the hands of a violent criminal who committed a horrible crime against them or a loved one. Consequently, they are sentenced to long prison terms. Every now and then they come up for parole, and a member of their family will often say they “forgive” the criminal yet they oppose their parole.

That’s not real forgiveness, because to truly forgive, you must waive any claim to single or continued retribution.

But again, refer to A: Their lack of forgiveness is perfectly justified. They’re under no obligation to forgive, they haven’t forgiven them yet, and want to see them punished for longer. I think if someone committed a crime against you or your family, you are perfectly within your rights not to forgive, and I don’t blame you one bit.

Another example I like to use is Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon. Of course, he did a terrible thing: he murdered another human being, an incredibly talented one at that. He murdered the father of a child, and a husband. He was rightlfully sentenced to twenty years to life. Well, twenty years have passed, and every now and then he comes up for parole.

Mr/ Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, opposes his release at every parole hearing. She has fully acknowledged,”I am not ready to forgive him”. And I applaud her honesty. Moreover, I don’t believe society has forgiven him. That’s a perfectly acceptable application of A.

Because in order to give true forgiveness, we have to waive our claim on retribution. That’s a big gift, especially if the person you forgive has done a terrible thing. So forgiveness should not be given flippantly or lightly.

Now another aspect of forgiveness I find interesting is that of what I call “deferred forgiveness”, “pending forgiveness” or “conditional forgiveness”, and for these examples I am going to use one of my favorite stories: Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.

First we have to talk about our protagonist, Jean Valjean. Very early on in the story, he is described as a pretty mean bastard. He had just got out of prison. Shortly after his release, he mugs a young boy (this was not in the musical, only the book), and people, realizing he’s a parolee won’t give him the time of day.

Until Bishop Myriel of Digne. Who, in spite of the fact that Jean Valjean is dirty, scary looking and just got out of prison (for theft), takes him in to the rectory, gives him a nice dinner and a bed for the night.

Jean Valjean, touched by this act of kindness, when he wakes up the next morning says,”Thank you so much, Bishop. I an very touched by the kindness you have done me. I will repay you the first chance I get…”

Just kidding. No he didn’t. (Just checking to see if you were paying attention)

Actually, Jean Valjean waited until everybody in the house was asleep (including two old ladies), stole a bunch of silver, and ran off with it.

I repeat: He was a guest in somebody else’s house; somebody who showed him kindness when nobody else did, and he ripped them off in their sleep.

Pretty shitty thing to do, no?

The gendarmes (French cops) thought so too, because they caught him red handed and dragged him by the scruff of the neck and brought him back to the Bishop’s house.

They got the poor bishop out of his bed, and told him what Jean Valejan had done.

So, naturally, the bishop said,” What? After I took him into my house? Arrest this ungrateful asshole! Well! That’s the last time I do anything nice for anybody else! (I “forgive” him, but I still want him to rot in jail)”

Ha ha. Just kidding again.

Instead the bishop decided not to press charges, but says, “Gimme back my silver. Now get the hell out of my house!”

Wrong again.

Instead the bishop tells the gendarmes that Valjean didn’t steal the silver, rather, he gifted them. When the gendarmes leave, he give Valjean more silver. But there is one caveat: Jean Valjean must use the silver for good. To make amends.

So. That’s exactly what Jean Valjean does. And we never hear of the Bishop again. He was a small, but pivotal character early in the book. He served his purpose, and ol’ Jean did exactly what he was supposed to do.

Now, let’s talk about a couple of hypothetical scenarios. We’re going to play with Les Mis a bit.

Let’s say Jean Valjean, twenty years later showed up at the Bishops door with a hot new carriage for him, a whole bunch of gold, and a pair of front row tickets to catch a Paris Yankees game, and said, “Hey Bish. Look, I’m sorry I stole that silver years ago, so I paying it to you back, with interest. So here’s this nice carriage, all this gold, and enjoy the Yankees game!”

Well, was that the kind of forgiveness the Bishop had in mind when he forgave Jean Valjan?

Well, no. Because when he extended the conditional forgiveness, he did not expect to be the direct beneficiary of Mr. Val’s amends. And that is why we never hear about the bishop after that initial forgiveness.

OK. Let’s move Les Mis in another twisted direction (and roll Victor Hugo over in his grave a little more)

Let’s say the Bishop gave Jean Valjean the silver, ol’ Jean thanked him for it, then went and used it for hoes and whiskey, and pissed it all away. Would the bishop be justified in yanking back that forgiveness?

Well, yes because that forgiveness was given on credit. It was conditionally given, and old Jean failed to fulfill the conditions of that forgiveness.

Remember, the bishop didn’t forgive Jean Valjean for stealing the silver because he HAD used it to do good. He forgave Jean Valjean on the condition that he WOULD use the silver for good.

And he was right. That’s the rest of Les Miserables. The Valster using the silver for good.

One of my favorite stories, because it is an example and a story of true forgiveness.
And not forgiveness (Yeah, I’m looking at you Monsier the Inspector, Javert!)

And maybe that’s why it’s fiction. Because few people are as noble and pure with their forgiveness as the Bishop. But it is something to aspire to, isn’t it?

I personally might not have had the poor guy arrested for stealing the silver, but I probably would have said, “Gimme back my silver, now get the hell outa my house” (Application of A) Is that wrong?

And then maybe twenty years later, If I had learned he had done all these good and wonderful things without the silver, I might have forgiven him, no strings attached.

So what’s the moral of this?

Well, you don’t have to forgive anybody (see A)

It’s a gift for the person you are forgiving, not for you! (See B)

There are no strings attached to true forgiveness…. like claim to retribution (See C)

Forgiveness is a huge gift to give, so you should know what it is you are giving before you decide to give it, and give it right.

And now, please forgive me for writing this screed!