Wednesday, June 22, 2011

When to Forgive and How to Forget

It's a basic ethical principle: Don’t hold grudges. It's better to forgive and forget.

People who hang on tenaciously to a grudge, who refuse to let go of their grievances, and who sacrifice their lives to demand justice are not very attractive or engaging.

You would not want to be friends with someone who is letting himself be consumed by a grudge. If you did, you would have to choose between enabling the grudge or being a traitor to the cause.

Clinging to a grudge is a character flaw.

But, how then should you handle the fairly common occurrence of being wronged? When should you forgive and how should you go about forgetting?

When someone has wronged you, you merit an apology. Sometimes, an apology is not enough. If the person has, for example, caused you to waste your time, your money, or your energy, he must also make amends.

This means that he must do something to attempt to offer recompense for the pain he has inflicted.

If you do not receive adequate amends, you are under no obligation to forgive the person.

If you do not want to hold a grudge, thus, to try to extract amends, you do best to forget the person. Further interactions with someone who has not made amends can only recall the initial traumas.

We receive the concept of making amends by virtue of the 12 step program. It is contained in steps 8 and 9.

To quote them: “8) Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

“9) Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Once someone make proper amends, you are obliged to let it go. If the offense was exceptional, then you may well want to continue associating with the person. If the offense was egregious, then perhaps the only way to forget the problem is to forget the person.

If Bernard Madoff defrauded you of  your life savings, and if he chose to make restitution, you would still probably not go to visit him in prison.

When someone has abused your trust at that level, recompense makes it easier to let go of a grudge, but it does not mean that you should continue to be friends.

If hold on to your grudges you will become a grievance monger. Those who do so believe that the insults visited on them are so enormous that they require permanent contrition and infinite amends.

Such people are also, we must say, thrilled to take up permanent residence on the moral high ground. Getting justice becomes their consuming passion.

A grievance monger is not engaged with his or her social world; he is obsessed with finding justice. He makes his crusade the meaning of his life, a moral absolute.

To take an extreme example, if someone murders your child the only way he can do anything like making amends is by forfeiting his life, his liberty, or both. If he does so voluntarily, his crime will be easier to forgive. If he is forced to do so by the criminal courts, then I don't see a purpose to forgiveness.

Yet, his amends can never correct the harm he has done, so I see many reasons why he should not be forgiven or forgotten.

Once his sentence has been pronounced, and once he has been executed, there is nothing more that can be done. One needs to find the courage to let go of the grudge while not offering forgiveness.

Given that nursing a grievance beyond what is reasonable and equitable is a character flaw the denizens of political correctness teach it as a moral absolute.

In their eyes America has committed all manner of grievous sins against any number of disadvantaged groups. In truth, some groups have suffered horribly in America; others have not suffered very much at all.

It’s fitting to see the experience of African-Americans as a horrible injustice, deserving of considerable amends. It’s quite another thing for suburban middle class American housewives to compare their living conditions to what happened in concentration camps.

Once the grievance narrative took hold in America, an awful lot of other people jumped on it.

By now, the majority of Americans can claim to have been the victim of some kind of injustice. According the the mythology purveyed by the politically correct, America itself is a criminal enterprise, one that can only cleansed by its making permanent amends to all of the victims of its injustice. This is the rationale behind income redistribution.

I will leave it to others to decide whether America has made sufficient amends for the crimes of slavery and racial segregation. Yet, at some point, even the most righteous victims of injustice will have to let it go. After a time, there is nothing more to gain and one must simply forgive and forget.

And there is also a time when we should be able to grasp the fact that the African-American experience is in many ways unique, not something to be claimed by every aggrieved group.

We agree that it is bad to maintain a grievance to the point where it makes you insufferable for your self-righteous anger,  but it is also bad to forgive too easily and too quickly, to forgive before the other person has apologized of made amends.

Following the principles of the Philosopher, we should be looking for a middle ground between the extremes of bearing grudges and being too forgiving.

However well we believe know that it is bad to nurse grudges, it took some recent research by social psychologist Dr. Eli Finkel and his colleagues to show us that: “People who were apt to forgive their partner without that partner making amends tended to show a gradual erosion of their self-respect....”

Finkel has shown that some people, when they suffer abuse, are too quick to forgive. They hear an apology, one that sounds heartfelt, and they think that their abuser sounds sincere, and thus, that they are obliged to forgive and forget.

They are wrong, grievously so. You should not forgive someone who has abused your trust until that person apologizes and makes amends.

And that does not mean, sending you flowers and taking you out to dinner.

If you happen to be the victim of abuse, you would do best not to be too quick to forgive. It’s better to be too slow.

And if we are talking about ongoing, years long abuse, whether of your confidence or your trust or your intimacy, then forgiveness should be accompanied by refusing any further association with the abuser.

I sometimes read about people who have been abused in relationships, who break up, but who think that there is a special virtue in continuing to be friends with their abuser. I consider this to be an error. You should forgive; you should put it behind you; and you should forget about the incident.

Forgetting means refusing any contact at all with the person who abused you.  

When young people brag about being friends with their former lovers, even the ones who have treated them horrendously, they are off the moral mark.

Finkel also notes that people who are too quick to forgive, who do not expect some form of reparation, tend to see their self-esteem eroding.

Surely, if you allow yourself to be treated as being unworthy of an apology and amends, you are presenting yourself as lacking in self-respect.

If you want to enhance your self-respect, act like someone who has some, not like someone who is trying to rationalize a character flaw by giving undeserved love and forgiveness.  

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