I have not written very much about forgiveness. Surely, it was an oversight, one that reflects the fact that for most of us forgiveness is semi-automatic. When someone abases himself by offering an apology, our first instinct is to accept it and to forgive him.
Today Dr. Helen Smith reminds us that forgiveness is far more complicated than we imagine and that if we hand it our indiscriminately, we are making a mistake. Link here.
There are times, she has written in the past, when it is normal and rational to refuse to forgive people. Despite the protestations of Dr. Phil, you should feel required, by any moral imperative, to forgive the man who killed your child. Link here.
Besides, if there were no unforgivable actions, then offering forgiveness would be meaningless.
Today, Dr. Helen was reporting on a new article about forgiveness.
Entitled, “Why You Should Hold a Grudge against your Spouse,” the article explains that when a husband is too quick to forgive an abusive wife, the wife will be more likely to repeat the abuse. If the husband holds a grudge, withholds forgiveness, then the wife is more likely to rectify her bad behavior.
How should we understand this seeming anomaly? And why do psychologists so often tell people that they must always forgive, lest they hold on to their grudges and become angry people.
The research suggests that when a husband holds a grudge, he is showing that he is expecting that his wife will be good to her word and will not repeat the offending behavior.
We can outline some different aspects of forgiveness.
In the first place, forgiveness is something you earn, not something you are entitled to. The mere expression of regret does not entitle you to forgiveness. If the apology is empty you do not deserve forgiveness.
Second, an apology must be sincere. People often go through the motions when they apologize. We do them no favor by pretending that it means something when it doesn’t.
Third, an apology implies a vow never to do it again. In the moment of the apology, you cannot know whether the person is going to keep his word. If you have your doubts, you might well be led to refrain from forgiving him.
Fourth, an apology should not lead to an immediate return to normalcy. When an executive offers a public apology, he should also resign from his position and withdraw from society.
You may recall that Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, offered a public apology for incinerating the members of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Dozens of people died in the fire; many of them children.
When Reno apologized in a Congressional hearing, her facial expressions suggested sincerity. Yet, she did not resign her position, so we have no reason to forgive her.
However sincere the words, they must be accompanied by an appropriate action.