Unconditional forgiveness is not always psychologically possible, nor is it morally appropriate. Forgiveness should only be offered when we receive a genuine apology, and even then it is entirely up to us. But what alternatives are open to us? What does a future without forgiveness look like?
Suppose we find ourselves in a situation where the person who has hurt us has not taken responsibility or apologised for what they did. Very often, we will be advised to forgive them regardless—if only so that we can ‘let go’ and ‘move on’ with our lives.
But there are two serious problems with this view.
The first is a matter of psychological reality. When someone refuses to apologise or make amends, it is not always possible to overcome our anger, no matter how attractive this might be from a therapeutic perspective. Lowering our defensive stance against the threat posed by someone who has hurt us is not something we can just decide to do. We are inherently social creatures. So being susceptible to this kind of threat is part of what makes us human. We cannot simply eradicate this feature without doing serious damage to ourselves. Unless we are psychopaths, we will always be vulnerable to the person who has wronged us. It is in this sense that those who refuse to apologise for their wrongs against us continue to harm us. The memory of what they did is likely to re-surface from time to time. And when it does, we will almost invariably find ourselves experiencing varying degrees of defensive anger.
Second, despite its widespread acceptance, there are good reasons for thinking that unconditional forgiveness is morally questionable. Defensive anger is entirely appropriate when our self-worth has been threatened. If someone fails to experience anger at (or around) the time of the offence, we would have good reason to suspect that they lack self-respect.
But why should the passage of time make a difference? If the messages of disrespect conveyed in the original act have not been withdrawn by the wrongdoer, then they remain. Indeed, the failure of the person responsible to admit their fault and denounce what they have done only compounds or amplifies the original disrespect. Those who have been harmed will have even more reason to maintain their emotions of defiance against the threat posed by the wrongdoer. They have even greater justification for thinking that the wrong that was done to them reflects on the character of the person responsible.
We all accept that the passing of time alone can neither undo nor diminish a wrong. But what we often fail to acknowledge is that the passing of time builds a stronger case against the moral character of the person responsible. The longer they leave their action unacknowledged and unrepaired, the more likely it is that this behaviour was not a mere aberration. We know that someone’s behaviour reflects an established character trait not only when it is repeated, but also when there is no attempt to disavow or correct that behaviour. So the longer a person leaves their wrongdoing as it stands, the clearer it will be that this action was in line with who they really are.
For this reason, it is a terrible mistake for us to censure or pathologise those who continue to experience defensive anger in cases where the person who wronged them has not yet apologised or made amends. (On the other hand, we are also not entitled to judge those who feel that, if they are to regain their health and a measure of well-being, they have no choice but to forgo the strenuous demands of moral protest or the fight for justice.)
It must also be acknowledged that defensive anger is often only a hair’s breadth away from degenerating into offensive anger or revenge. So it would be helpful if we could find other, more positive responses that can enable us to defy the threat of an unrepentant wrongdoer. Here are four possibilities, each of which is likely to ameliorate or defuse our defensive anger — whilst remaining compatible with moral truth and self-respect:
1. Focus on other sources of self-worth.
We can concentrate our attention on the ‘social mirrors’ around us that are positive and affirming. That is, we can deliberately adjust the balance of those about whom we think and with whom we associate. We can learn to see ourselves primarily through the eyes of those who love and care for us, thereby ‘turning down the volume’ of the negative messages sent by the one who has wronged us.
Another powerful strategy is to engage in the practice of actively ‘seeing’ and honouring the intrinsic worth of everyone we encounter: friends, family, colleagues and strangers alike. As we develop this habit of ‘seeing’, we will find ourselves caught up in our own view of humanity. It will be almost impossible for us not to see ourselves through the same lens: we will see that, simply by virtue of our humanity, we too have incalculable, inherent worth.
2. Acknowledge their equal worth.
We can recognise that, regardless of what they have done, the person who wronged us has equal worth as a human being. This is not incompatible with seeing them as having a less-than-praiseworthy moral character; but it does prevent us from going down the endless, futile and unethical path of revenge. If there is anything that will put a stop to ‘moving on’, it is the business of seeking (or even just imagining) methods by which we can affirm our own worth by degrading or destroying theirs.
3. Be compassionate.
We can try to gain a sense of what it might be like to be in their shoes. Again, this will not be easy, and it is not a path that everyone can take. But there are clear benefits for us if we can manage it. If the person who has wronged us has not felt or expressed any remorse, then (unless they are a psychopath or genuinely unaware that they have hurt us) this means they will be suffering from the relentless need to suppress their shame; and so they will be ‘stuck’ in any number of shame-reactions, such as blaming others, denial, social isolation and even self-harming.
We know something of how negative and self-destructive this can be. So, as we put ourselves in their shoes, it is likely that we will begin to feel compassion for them. One benefit of this is that compassion has a similar quality to defensive anger: it can function as a powerful defence against attacks to our self-worth. It does not contain or convey the same messages as defensive anger (e.g. ‘I did not deserve this’), and so it cannot — nor should it — be seen as a substitute for defensive anger. But there is something about the other-orientated goodness of compassion that can defuse an attack on our self-worth. Put simply, we are far less likely to feel that we need to protect ourselves from someone if we care about their suffering.
4. Confront them.
A second benefit of feeling compassion for the person who has wronged us is that it will give us the motivation to alleviate the negative impact that suppressed shame is having on their lives. Rather than feeling helpless or apathetic about the situation, compassion can move us to do something constructive. We cannot forgive them, but we might confront them — respectfully challenging them to admit to their wrongdoing.
Needless to say, confronting someone who has, to date, refused to accept any responsibility is a high-risk strategy. Doing so could just cement their denial. But we can at least say that we did what we could, in good faith and for the right (altruistic) reasons. Even if our endeavours do not bear fruit, the fact that we have tried could help us to turn the page.
This article is an adapted extract from my book: “Beyond Harm”