The Difference between Forgetting and Forgiving

The Difference between Forgetting and Forgiving October 9, 2013


This post is written by Andrew Marin, President and Founder of The Marin Foundation

Within the process of reconciliation there is a difference between forgetting and forgiving. When harm is done to someone, most of the time, and depending on the severity, they just want to forget that event(s) ever happened and move on with their life.

As Freud famously suggested, memories of such harm can be repressed, only sparked to live again through an emotional stimuli. Neuropsychologically, research suggests that Freud was on to something. Researchers from Central Michigan University, Brandon University, and the Tokyo University of Social Welfare found that even the most traumatic of memories can be stored in the background of one’s memory, to the point of being forgotten, only to be forcefully shoved to the forefront through similar external emotional stimuli, or internal cognitive reactions. Thus, no matter how much we might try to forget the greatest wrongs committed against us, it is a physiological impossibility. That is fact.

Since one can ultimately never forget the greatest of trauma committed against them, the important question is: How does one come to grips with a time of horror that irrevocably shapes them, no matter how much they long to reverse time an avoid it all? 

The answer is forgiving.

We hear it in a variety of situations—some perpetrator altered a victim’s reality for all time, and against all odds the victim ends up in a news story writing and visiting the perpetrator in prison, sending them care packages, and showing them the love they, to all humanly accounts, do not deserve.

Why is this news worthy? Because it happens so infrequently. And we then wonder why contemporary society is trapped spiraling downward into more hate, dissent, wars, and enmity? It’s because as a people, we have forgotten how to forgive.

We hear it all the time, “I’m at peace with what happened.” The mistake is to interpret such a statement as “forgetting;” or, that one has “given up and resined themselves to their current reality.” The interesting theological implications to this peace-in-trauma, is that its impetus does not have to be based in faith. Yet even more so, those of faith have a demand to live in such a state. MLK Jr. calls this choosing to live a lifestyle of forgiveness.

And unless one constantly works toward forgiveness with a lens filtered through an ultimate will to forgive, they will always be haunted by the thing(s) that define them the most, but can never forget.

So how does one forgive? There are no easy answers other than time and intentionality to live with a hope of one day practicing forgiveness.

The Crucified gave us a model of forgiveness that took him to death on a cross. He showed the utmost commitment to the perpetrators of sin [see: not just the decision makers that ruled such a death, but all of humanity’s daily rebellion against living in a state of unconditional love and grace]. Unless we are willing to go that far with our journey of forgiveness—go to such lengths of solidarity with our perpetrators—their actions of emotional, political, religious, psychological, or physical violence will always inhabit the needed space in our minds for what we need most to live at peace.

One cannot forgive when they are constantly trying to forget.

Much love.

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  • Mark Gerardy

    I struggle with forgiving others. In my own quest for answers about the limits and applicability of forgiveness, I found on my own:
    …which is one of the few honest and realistic approaches to forgiveness.

    My growing understanding has gathered that forgiveness has its place in the world, but cannot bridge every gap, nor should forgiveness be expected to. Forgiveness is very personal and in many cases, should never be imposed on anyone, especially in cases where the wrong is heinously-severe or intentionally-inflicted with vicious malice and contempt.

    I think forgiveness has a huge legitimate place in situations of honest mistakes, unintentional or unforeseen consequences, oversight, accidental mistakes, insensitivity or misunderstandings – including lack of awareness resulting in misspoken words or such that were not intended to harm.

    But I think that anyone who delights in hurting others, just to enjoy watching them suffer and takes pleasure in permanently destroying them psychologically while administering pain, torment and antagonism – is beyond my own ability to forgive – especially if that person can or could have conceptualized at the time, the hurt they were doing to another person, but nonetheless continued without mercy, human compassion or restraint. Things like hurting insults or epithets (or punches and beatings) while smiling, jeering, mocking the implied exaggerated supposed mannerisms of LGBT people or laughing while delivering humiliating punishment, then things like this I find impossible to forgive. Nor do I feel that forgiveness should be imposed as an expectation.

    If the burden is put only on the injured party to forgive, then forgiveness is entirely one-sided and self-serving entirely for the one who has wronged someone else. In addition, there is the social awkwardness factor that past abuse defined the entire relationship. I think there is a place for forgiveness, and a place for isolation, withdrawal and peace that can come from having the right to not participate.

    I just think that there are parameters to forgiveness and that these should be qualified, as opposed to holding up forgiveness as an absolutist ideal.

    “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
    I am not divine and do not pretend to be, nor should I be expected to be divine. I refuse to live up to that expectation (or implied social role) as gay man, I am human being like everyone else.

    • Y. A. Warren

      Those who want to keep you out of relationship with them only resent your efforts at forgiveness. Here is the prescription for forgiveness that we are told came directly from the lips of Jesus:

      Matthew 18:15-17

      New International Version (NIV)

      Dealing With Sin in the Church

      15 “If your brother or sister[a] sins,[b] go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’[c] 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Continuing to forgive those who admit to no wrongdoing is simply enabling behavior.