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To Forgive or Not to Forgive?

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We hear a lot about the notion of forgiveness lately. We're supposed to forgive those who trespass against us, thereby finding inner peace and healing, but I have a different take on forgiveness. To me, it's a potentially dangerous notion that can cause more problems than peace.

When I think about all the very bad people in the world: the abusers, exploiters, despots and dictators, I can't imagine forgiving any of them. Does this leave me angry, tormented and bitter, yearning for vengeance and forever holding a grudge? Not at all.

I see a real distinction between forgiveness and letting go. While I could never forgive the evil-doers in the world, I'm confident in my ability to deal with any hurt, anger or fear they might have caused me or those I care about. My heart remains open and loving, and I'm able to process and let go of any painful emotions these hurtful people might elicit in me.

I imagine that the people who promote forgiveness understand that staying angry at those who hurt us will keep us forever attached to them and therefore doomed to keep suffering. What they don't see is that we can detach completely from the hurtful people in our lives without having to forgive them.

The proponents of forgiveness believe that everyone is fundamentally good and that their bad deeds come out of a sense of spiritual confusion. Forgiveness is a recognition of their inherent goodness and supposedly a transformational energy which will lead them to redemption

I disagree with this, believing that bad people do exist and these individuals have no capacity for redemption and no conscience, remorse or ability to care. These are the perpetrators of the worst affronts to humanity and are the least deserving of forgiveness, in my mind.

People misunderstand the concept of forgiveness, mistaking it for tolerance toward bad behaviour or enabling, even. Some mothers forgive their husbands for beating their children and perpetuate the abuse.

Forgiveness becomes dangerous when it's seen as the only way to deal with having been hurt or offended. Many people can't bring themselves to forgive another person for the hurt they've caused, and many offences are unforgivable.

If someone has to force themselves to forgive in order to meet someone else's expectations, they'll be more tormented than if they'd held onto their hurt. A better solution would be to learn how to let go.

Letting go isn't that hard to do and it enables us to fully separate from whoever or whatever caused us harm. It can be done through grieving (involving a few good crying spells) or through exercises designed to help us release our pent-up emotions.

We can let go through drawing, writing, movement, even psychodrama. We can pound on a bunch of pillows and shout or perform a ritual for letting go. All of these exercises will enable us to free ourselves of any emotions associated with the hurtful person(s) and event(s).

Forgiveness has become the gold standard for dealing with wrong-doing, but that doesn't mean it's the right way to go. As I said, there are some things that we simply can't bring ourselves to forgive.

Letting go is always possible and always appropriate and as a bonus, it has nothing to do with depriving the perpetrators of the consequences of their actions.

According to the philosophy of ruthless compassion, allowing people to experience the consequences of their actions gives them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and to make better choices in the future. Depriving them of these consequences encourages them to repeat the hurtful behaviours.

We can let go of our hurt and anger while at the same time allowing for the appropriate consequences for wrongdoing. These are not at all incompatible, but we should know that punishing a wrongdoer for their actions isn't what will bring us peace. Peace comes from letting go, not from watching the other person being punished.

So, when is it appropriate to forgive, if at all? I see it as conditional on the other person. If what they've done isn't so terrible as to be unforgivable, then we might feel comfortable forgiving them under the following circumstances:

1: The person understands that they've done wrong and is remorseful;

2: they acknowledge what they've done and apologize sincerely for it;

3: they make appropriate amends and

4: they promise never to do it again and follow through with their promise.

If all of these criteria are met and we feel so inclined, we might then choose to forgive the other person. This doesn't mean, though, that we should continue to have a relationship with them or that we can ever fully trust them again.

Forgiveness isn't compulsory; it's voluntary: a gift we choose to give to the other person. It's a recognition that we no longer hold anger toward them and that we recognize them as a basically good person who made a bad choice.

When we forgive, we've decided to put the problem behind us. At this point we can either go our separate ways or resume our relationship without holding on to any bad feelings. Forgiveness is the first step in an amicable separation or in a full reconciliation. It doesn't follow, however, that we should forget what happened.

The act of forgiveness shouldn't make it as though the bad deed never took place. Instead, it's a way of giving the other person a chance to redeem themselves over time by demonstrating that they deserve our forgiveness.

All of this isn't necessary, however. As I said above, forgiveness isn't always desirable or appropriate. It should never be forced on anyone, as this would only worsen their pain. What is always helpful is to let go of our hurts and free ourselves of bitterness and rage.

When we carry around indignation, resentment or the desire for vengeance, we continue to be poisoned by the past. Letting go is the ideal solution. With or without forgiveness, we can walk away from the hurtful persons or events and carry on with our lives with no residue from the past clinging to us.

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