A friend of mine recently brought up some repugnant treatment they’d received at the hands of someone close, a long time ago. When the villain reached out to them recently, this friend speculated if it’d be worth their time to forgive.*
I said, “Maybe, but not for the reasons you think.”
Even as a humorless atheist, I place a lot of value on forgiveness. I don’t do this because I think everyone’s flawed (“flawed” compared to what?). Or because I think no one should be judged (even the most tolerant moral code condemns stragglers). And especially not because I think we’re all beautiful children in the eyes of a god. I have more practical reasons for forgiving.
Forgiveness is great because anger hurts.
Someone does something terrible to you – breaks a promise, loses something you lent them, lies about you to a friend, steals from you, strikes you. In the moment, it hurts terribly. But after the moment, how does it feel then? If thinking about the crime still hurts, then you’re being hurt by memory, not by additional action. And if the memory of this person hurts you, then you’ve let that person take up a significant space in your head.
Forgiveness means evicting that person from that space. You acknowledge that what they did hurt, at the time, but you’re not going to keep dwelling on it. If you keep letting that anger surge back up every time you’re accidentally reminded of their sins against you, you’ll get mad at the oddest times and for reasons you won’t be able to explain to those around you. To the extent that you can choose happiness and reject anger, you’ll be better off.
Now just because forgiveness is helpful doesn’t mean it’s easy. For instance, the person who hurt you might already have a lot of space in your head to begin with. A boyfriend who cheated on you, a girlfriend who stole and wrecked your car, etc. There’s no easy way around that. But if you’re planning on keeping this person in your life, then your first step should be to admit to yourself, and to them, that their crime cost them a lot of trust. You’re not evicting them from your head, but they don’t get the same real estate they had before.
I don’t advocate forgiveness because it brings people together in the brotherhood of humanity. I advocate forgiveness because it makes the wounded party stronger. My symbol of forgiveness isn’t embracing the person who wronged you; it’s giving them a dismissive shrug. Oh, him? Yeah, he screwed me over once. Whatever.
It’s not easy. There are some wrongs so hurtful that it would take an amazing level of psychic control to let them go. So there’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t forgive someone. But if you can, the feeling of serene strength that results will amaze you. Few things make you feel better then denying your enemies the power to hurt you.
* This post should not be read as my verdict on whether or not to forgive this particular criminal, as I’m too much a stranger here.