I don’t know about you, but I’m uncomfortable with the modern perspective on forgiveness. Part of the problem is that I am from a different age, but I don’t offer that as an excuse. It could simply mean that I am rooted in the past and fearful of progress.
Before addressing that possibility, let me explain what I mean by the modern perspective on forgiveness. These quotations will serve that purpose:
If you decide there is nothing to forgive yourself for, you are free to put away shame and guilt and move forward. If, on the other hand, you decide that you need to forgive yourself . . . now may be the time to transform yourself into a friend—by forgiving yourself. Beverly Flanigan, Forgiving Yourself
Your inner child depends on you for the love and approval that you may not have received when you were a child. Going within and learning to love and comfort that inner child will bring many wonderful changes to the quality of your life. Louise L. Hay, Forgiveness: Loving the Inner Child
If you’ve struggled with self-forgiveness for years . . . you will now come to know that you are every bit as deserving of forgiveness as anyone else and will love yourself enough to give it. Colin Tipping, Radical Self-Forgiveness
To consolidate these ideas, forgiving ourselves is presented as a good thing, a way of befriending ourselves and gaining the emotional comfort we didn’t get as children. Moreover, forgiveness is not something to be earned but something we deserve and are entitled to, and all it takes to gain it is to love ourselves.
To many younger readers, this perspective will seem perfectly reasonable. So much so, in fact, that they would wonder what inclines me, or anyone else, to question it.
Historically, forgiveness has been defined as setting aside resentment and grudges toward others for what they have done to us. The traditional perspective follows that definition and focuses on forgiving others. In contrast, the modern perspective departs from that definition and focuses on forgiving ourselves.
Over the centuries, philosophers have stressed the importance of forgiving others for their offenses and asking their forgiveness for ours. Most religions—including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam—offer this teaching. Some, notably Christianity, emphasize as well that our requests for forgiveness should go beyond merely acknowledging our offenses and also make amends and demonstrate a genuine intention of not committing the offenses again.
From this historic perspective, forgiving ourselves for our offenses to others makes no sense because forgiveness in such cases is not ours to give. Only the forgiveness of those we offended can satisfy the demands of the situation.
To get a sense of the absurdity of forgiving ourselves for offending others, imagine a group therapy session devoted to that task. Each person in the group would verbalize his or her self-forgiveness:
Agnes would forgive herself for shoplifting from the department store
Bill would forgive himself for cheating on his wife
Alice would forgive herself for spreading rumors about a co-worker
Claude would forgive himself for gambling away the rent money.
Presumably, when the session was over, the participants would have banished all feelings of guilt or shame and would leave the meeting feeling much better about themselves. But would the feelings be justified? No. The only way those individuals could deserve to feel better about themselves is if they did something to merit that feeling. For example:
Agnes could send the store manager a written apology and include cash to cover the price of what she stole. (Doing this anonymously would avoid prosecution.)
Bill might not be able to tell his wife about his cheating without endangering his marriage, but he could find concrete ways to become a better husband, and of course to avoid future temptations.
Alice could tell her victim what she had done and apologize for it. In addition, she could tell those she had spoken to that she regretted her words because they were nothing more than rumor.
Claude could apologize to his wife and children and make up the lost rent money by forgoing personal expenditures for a period of time.
The champions of self-forgiveness have other arguments for self-forgiveness, of course. One is that some people need to forgive themselves because they sometimes blame themselves for things they are not really responsible for—for example, children blaming themselves for their parents’ divorces, misguided souls believing that by not being sufficiently “green” they have personally caused global climate change. However, what is needed in such cases is simply greater discernment rather than self-forgiveness.
Another, more substantive argument is that we all need to forgive ourselves to relieve the burden of conscience we suffer when we offend others. But this argument overlooks the fact that our consciences are rarely as sensitive and well developed as might be imagined, largely because most of us are adept at denying responsibility for, rationalizing, and excusing our bad behavior. And in cases of more highly developed consciences, seeking forgiveness from those we have offended is more salutary than forgiving ourselves.
The argument that forgiving ourselves relieves the burden of conscience also misses the dynamic of seeking forgiveness. Apologizing and making amends are humbling acts that in themselves provide relief to a troubled conscience, even if the offended person denies us forgiveness. And if that person forgives us, the relief to our conscience is intensified.
Seeking and receiving forgiveness for our offenses does not undo them—that is never possible—but it does to a great extent balance evil with good. And that is a result that cannot be achieved by the purely indulgent act of forgiving ourselves.
Let’s return to the issue I proposed at the beginning. Is discomfort with people forgiving themselves merely a matter of being out of step with the times? I don’t believe so. I think it is, instead, a matter of the times being out of step with the hard-won insights of the generations.
Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
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