The Difficult and Compelling Art of Forgiving

Robert Caldwell

A coworker undermines you with your boss. An acquaintance insults your dearest friend. An in-law demeans your parents. A drunk driver causes you permanent physical injury. Your father humiliates you in front of your peers, and your mother never defends you. A memory of being sexually abused by your uncle insinuates itself into your awareness. Your husband has an affair.

We are betrayed, hurt, wronged many times. Disappointing, humiliating, disabling experiences are too much life's routine. We have been injured, physically and psychologically, by inattention and abusiveness. To live is to accumulate experiences that burn and throb, even leave permanent wounds and handicaps. We warehouse volumes of resentments. We develop a repertory of coping programs: going numb, denying, forgetting, dissociating, or getting-even--overtly by direct action, or covertly by fantasy reprisals called resentments. All of these defenses enable us to avoid forgiveness--which is more difficult work than the aggressive responses just detailed. Forgiveness is hard to do and hard to sustain. To a considerable degree we take an easier path: we live by the energy of our resentments and the power we gain by refusing to forgive.


Forgiveness is often admired as a ideal, appreciated like "love" or "freedom." But, as with all lofty concepts, making forgiveness happen is something else again. Actually forgiving is honored more in principle than in particularity. Not-forgiving is a primitive survival reflex. After all, if we forgive, we may be struck again and this time the result could be worse, even death. So nature has installed many gratifications for withholding forgiveness that we should face up to before we are ready to look into possibilities for forgiving anyone:

After injury, there is a period--from few days to beyond this lifetime--in which we don't forgive, because we are neither able nor ready. Our psyches are bleeding and our hopes are frayed. Our feelings are in disarray and we are still smarting from being hurt. We don't know what will happen next. Our enemy may strike again and hurt us or our loved ones. It is the appropriate business of our body/mind to stay on guard, not to let go. Nature has made us so we will stand our ground and protect against the intruder. This is the most basic human response, and we maintain it as long as the pain of the injury remains active, and we are aware of the threat of further harm.

Many of us have decided that wimps, pushovers and co-dependents forgive and we are determined not to belong to those contemptible passive groups. We latch onto the popular "tough-guy" stance that has such currency today. We believe that being strong means holding others forever accountable, consequently forgiveness is for sissies. Grudges become frozen and become life programs.

Sustaining a feeling of self-righteousness can be very gratifying. In this morally ambiguous world in which it is often difficult to know what is "right" and what is "wrong," we can give puffed-up pleasure to our egos making the "good guy" even at the cost (alienation) of assigning the "bad guy" role to the other person. Furthermore, there is a bonus for self-righteousness--we ignore flaws in ourselves.

We become addicted to the "drug-like high," the adrenaline rush of self-pity, rage, and revenge that can be called forth, again and again, to distract us from our feelings of hurt. Revenge fantasies are especially compelling, They fill our consciousness with the notion that if we stamp out the offender (who, of course, deserves to be eliminated or at least, "taught a lesson") we will feel good and our personal world will be a safe and happy place.

We anchor ourselves within the "fellowship of victims," bonded together by our common hostility to the "real" perpetrators of evil--"those not-like-us who are trying to do-us-in." Nations, clubs, cults, gangs, professional societies, political parties often are fueled by such sentiments.

We save ourselves from facing our vulnerabilities, as we live out a version of an "eye for an eye," in refusing to behave compassionately toward others when they did not so behave toward us. Thereby we maintain a kind of tense, mechanical balance--formalistic and non-empathic. For many, this is as close as we come to keeping an inner and outer peace.

Our refusal to forgive becomes a part of our self-definition. We become accustomed to a style of not forgiving and the power of inertia becomes a formidable influence. We have lost a functional awareness that life has any options other than holding on to grievances. We have become an "Unforgiving Person," or, euphemistically, one who is "true to his or her convictions." We take pride in our constancy of character, paying little heed to the impact of our performance on ourselves and our world.


With so many "positive" payoffs from withholding forgiveness, small wonder that we are slow to learn to forgive. Of course, we know from unhappy experience that being unforgiving also carries its own considerable pain:

When possessed by an incapacity to forgive, we are more alone and alienated from others. In this "separated" state we cannot receive fully what we need to know or feel from one another, for without forgiveness the vitality of co-creation is substantially reduced. We nurse alone our wounds. We often continue to work and play with the unforgiven, but everything is diminished in zest and focus and effectiveness.

Immersed in the river (sewage) of revenge energy, we can develop a paranoid perspective. We are constantly on the lookout for enemies. We have little interest in building the "good life" for so much attention goes to surviving in a "hostile" world. Seeing others as our enemies, we can only imagine they see us similarly. The world becomes an unfriendly and dangerous place.

In refusing to forgive others, though we may "let ourselves off-the-hook" by keeping them on it, we fail to forgive ourselves. Shunning any awareness of our own deficiencies and antisocial behaviors, we lack requisite self-knowledge on which to build the skills and compassion for self-forgiveness. We thus leave ourselves in an inner and social world of unresolved shortcomings, guilts, and perversities.

Holding to an unforgiving style means living a life daily shaded with "regrets," a life in which things are never as free or as full as they might be. A life of "regrets" is an ideal seed ground for apathy and depression.

The failure to forgive fosters debilitating attitudes of resentment and rage. Many research studies show significant correlation between resentment and anger and the reduction of the efficiency of the immune system--the effect of which is to increase our vulnerability to illnesses ranging from the common cold to AIDS. Other people, unforgiven, literally make us sick.


On balance, many feel they wish to grow in the attitude and skill of forgiveness. They wish to learn to be more free and generous in forgiving others. The first step is to find the courage to face one's pain.

Edward (Names and identifying information have been changed.) had no serious notion that Joyce could be unfaithful to him. He believed that he would never even be tempted to have an affair and imagined that Joyce felt the same. He was mistaken. For months Joyce carried on a secret sexual liaison which was only discovered when Edward, searching for car keys in Joyce's purse, came upon mysterious phone numbers. Innocently he asked Joyce about them, and overcome by shame, assuming she had been found out, burst out in tearful confession. Edward went first into denial, then rage, then panic, then flight. How could he stay with a woman who had so betrayed him? The very thought of intimacy between Joyce and her lover sent him reeling. He refused to think about it as long as he could--about half a day. Then rage set in: he cried, swore, threatened--and put his fist through the wall. He "hated" her, demanded she get out of his sight, called her every hurtful name he had ever learned, attempting to hurt her as she had hurt him. He contemplated suicide, and told Joyce it would be her fault if he did. He moved out to stay with a friend, threatening to leave her for good.

When I began to work with Edward and Joyce, Edward had begun to realize his hysteria and blaming and unremitting anger were getting him nowhere. He was miserable and the marriage was imperiled. He began to calm down. He noticed that he was still breathing, and that he had a present and yearned for a future with Joyce. For four days he let himself just sit with his pain. Instead of screaming, he let himself cry; instead of threatening, he thought of what he wished to salvage from this time of pain. He began dimly to let in that Joyce had expressed aching regret and implored him to give their marriage another--fresh--try. Tortured and obsessive nightmares awakened him less often. Edward's pain began to open for him issues far beyond Joyce's affair. He began to see how they had gradually ignored a growing disaffection in their relationship. Their diverse interest kept them away from each other and sex had become perfunctory, more a release and symbol of their married state than a source for renewal and intimacy. They had lost touch. So Edward, rather than cast himself into the energies of anger and blame, through his awareness of his pain, began to return to a consciousness of self--his feelings, failings, and behaviors that were part of this traumatic and perplexing event.

When we do not forgive, we are stuck living with an unforgiven person--one who is untrusted, and disliked. We have trapped ourselves into believing that our unhappiness originates outside ourselves--in what another did to us, rather than within, in our reactions to what was done to us, in our own pain, and rage, and hopelessness. The beginning of learning to forgive is to take seriously our own experiences of our hurts, betrayals, griefs, embarrassments, losses--and our complicities in how we have shaped and experienced life's happenings more than we focus on what had been done to us by others. What has happened to us, has indeed happened--and the way we see these things, and feel about them, and seek to act about them, the way we mold and hold them is who we are. To allow ourselves to experience and acknowledge our pain, as indeed belonging to us, is the beginning of a path of self-awareness that can lead to healthy forgiveness. Denying, avoiding, fleeing, twisting, projecting our pain does not remove it from being imprinted patterns in our mind that must be reckoned with, if our path is to be well-grounded in authentic experience.


As we confront and examine our experiences of hurt and betrayal, as we discover that we just may be strong enough to let in what actually happened to us without being overwhelmed or having actively or passively to destroy those who have hurt us, we have begun to grasp the essential condition for learning forgiveness: development of strength-of-self. Only the strong and un-threatened can forgive. Only to the extent that we can protect ourselves from hurt, or to the extent that we believe that when hurt we know we have within ourselves the powers of self-healing, have we the capacity for honest forgiveness.

When our grievances and revenge fantasies fill more space in our minds than our intentions to forgive, our sense-of-self has been violated, damaged, and diminished. Weak persons cannot forgive others, for they need to hold onto the one power they have, the energy of revenge and hatred. Weakness also has a name--victim. The victim, by definition, is permanently unforgiving. Withholding forgiveness and playing victim are overlapping processes. Perceiving ourselves as victims is certainly a tempting solution to the injuries of life--injuries that we trace to being betrayed by events, others, God. Dealing with our unhappiness by accusations and indictments, claiming that our problems are from without, and we have no responsibility for them

is a very seductive habit. There is a certain amount of energy in underdog complaining--especially if we can find partners who will do a frustration and anger dance with us. And for many it is simply a way of being alive, passed on from generation to generation.

When we begin to claim our powers, to shift from a victim stance to being in charge of our own experience, a fundamental movement into strength occurs. We begin to experience the world, not as relentless molder of our lives, but to know ourselves as the primary actors with the world-as-our-arena. We cease demanding that the world change to meet our expectations, but that we change the way we influence its events and configurations. We become aware of how the development of our personal power is what changes our world, and not vice-versa.

There are two ways of claiming strength: the competitive and the artistic. The competitive forms the world into two camps, weak and strong, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, lovable and unlovable, winner and loser. In this perspective, we are strong as we see others as weak, we are good as we see others as bad, etc. This is the path which sustains not-forgiving, for to forgive would be to weaken ourselves and become vulnerable to others. The other route is that of the artistic, the way which pays attention to one's inner experience of the world and sees all of life's events as fluid possibilities for creativity. The world is perceived as raw material for shaping our lives, and we approach the engagements of the day not in a dichotomy model ("We win" means "they lose."), but in a expectation for flow and co-creation. This is a world in which we are learning to include all our experience within our ego boundaries. This is world that is "our oyster," for there is nothing that cannot, in some sense, be assimilated, guaranteed, and made into life-contributing experiences. This is a world in which we are growing in the confidence of being loved, belonging within the human community, and knowing that we can impact our world in ways that give us joy even as we enliven others. This world in which we wish to continue to create has no categories of winners and losers, but only of those who stay the trip in style.

John Taylor had a troubled childhood. Abandoned by his father when only two years old, he was brought-up haphazardly by a depressed and hysterical mother, a competitive sister, and a passive grandmother. John struggled through college, demeaning jobs, and fragmented relationships, always functioning far below his natural capacities. For a decade he was at war with his family, unforgiving in his attitudes and unwilling to attempt efforts toward closeness. His few communications were hostile and, at best, brief and ritualistic. In his thirties he began making a shift that included new friends, involving himself aggressively in his therapy, risking himself in a new job which claimed his talents, and beginning a relationship with a loving woman. With these new styles of rewarding work and nourishing relationship, for the first time it occurred to him that reconciliation might be possible. He went home. Beginning with a tentative reunion he undertook the hazardous and difficult task of establishing adult respect and human interplay with his family. He discovered where his father lived, and made contact with him for the first time in thirty years. His meetings with his father were only a fragment of what he had wished. (His father behaved innocuously, but did not warm to him, so John soon gave up pursuing ongoing communication.) However, John thrived on what was happening within himself regarding his father. He had made him real, rather than an evil phantom, and having known first-hand his father's handicaps at human relationships, he came to understand that being abandoned as a child was no judgment on about his being unlovable, but manifestation of his father's severely damaged capacity for intimacy. Out of his developing competency to control his life, he felt his resentments lessen and his capacity to enjoy what he had with his mother and sister greatly enlarged. He became able to create with possibilities available to him, rather than grind out resentment and angers about what he missed.


Crucial to forgiveness is learning to identify, to empathize with others. An "us" and "them" approach to relationships simply will never allow us to experience ourselves as forgiving people.

Afraid to face ourselves as we are, we project our unacceptable parts onto others, thus creating a separation between them and us--and between our darker and lighter side.

From early on, being brought up by guilt-making parents--themselves, dealing with their own inadequacies, flaws, and shame, projecting them onto us and making us feel responsible for their unhappiness--we learn to attribute our unhappiness to the behaviors of others. This way we don't have to face ourselves. We have plenty of confirmations in the world in which guilt-making is pervasive in everything from politics to rock videos, to self righteous journalism, to the comic pages. We create "the other" as the problem, attempting to take the heat of ourselves.

The hope in identifying with others is to turn our negative projections into positive ones. That we can go deeply enough into ourselves to begin to experience the possibility of respecting ourselves and having compassion on ourselves for our thoughts, feelings and actions that we are not proud of and thus establish a link for knowing and being with others with understanding and acceptance, even as we are learning to be understanding and accepting with ourselves. In this experience forgiveness begins to happen--not because it "should," but because that is the sequence of things--strength, understanding, acceptance, forgiveness. It is possible to make the projection process work for us by projecting a compassionate understanding onto others, as we learn compassion for ourselves. We then can begin to see that, like ourselves, others are only living a moment at a time, choosing their behaviors consciously and unconsciously, not intending to be "bad" or "mean" or "hurtful." Others, like us, are expressing the light and dark side of their persons as they attempt to handle the challenges of the day, to deal with its ambiguities, disappointments and intimidations.

The distance from understanding to acceptance to forgiveness is not a long one. We mirror in ourselves something of every living thing. No part of life is utterly alien to us. Just as our bodies inhale and exhale atoms that have been Socrates, Einstein, Christ and Hitler, so do we incorporate within our hearts fragments of every evil and virtue. Actually, we can know only those patterns in life that match the circuitry's in out brain. We can only know that which already is like us. Our continual fascinations with gangsters, monsters, rebels, killers, and demons, as well as saints, angels, gentle women, kind men, and visionary children manifest the diversity and breadth of our potential to identify and to claim these parts within ourselves.

Acceptance does not imply that we approve of all behaviors either in ourselves or others. Some things people do clearly are not acceptable. However thoroughly we may understand the sociology and psychology of the rapist, we need not move an inch toward condoning his behavior. In fact, understanding him can give us better tools for keeping society safe from him. We are free to act out of knowledge and a plan born of strength and understanding rather than retreat to hysterical fear or repressive measures.

Several years ago, when I was involved in an organization which offered programs to the public, I had a dinner meeting with two people who had contacted me about offering a workshop through our group. From our first moments together, I found them hard to trust, as I felt the connection between us was tentative and unpromising. On the way to the restaurant, I met a colleague and introduced my new acquaintances to her. The next day, my friend, as blunt as she is wise, said to me: "Who were those awful people you introduced me to?" I replied that I had indeed been uncomfortable with them at first, but after spending the evening together and coming to know something of their struggles and joys and values, I found that I became relatively at ease with them, and that I actually liked them. My friend, who is both intuitive and deeply knowing said, "Anybody becomes lovely if you spend three hours with them." In that clipped comment is distilled how the quality of our relationships is transformed through empathy and understanding.


Forgiveness cannot be forced. Forgiveness is fundamentally neither an act of will nor a behavior--though it manifest itself in both these forms. You cannot "decide" to forgive. So many "nice" people, who cannot bear to think of themselves as other than "forgiving" persons attempt to fabricate forgiveness. This never works. For forgiveness is an attitude, a stance inward and outward that grows naturally from confronting one's hurts, discovering one's strengths, and understanding and accepting the other and oneself. It is part of a life development process that values the courage to be happy and belong creatively to others and the world more than it values being "right" or "getting even."

Forgiveness is a pro-active enterprise. Forgiveness takes great courage and assertiveness, for in forgiving we do not react to what others think or do, but act out of our own desires to make our world the sort of place where we can be enriched and content. Such an agenda calls forth from us elaborate positive and creative energies.

Confront selected offenders. Many have hurt us. However, because they are not physically or emotionally available, or because it would be politically unwise, or because they are dead, we neither can nor need to confront them. But if the person is available, and within your orbit of interaction, you may move a great psychic distance toward forgiving them, if you let yourself make known your feelings toward them. Since forgiveness is fundamentally about personal power, you cannot neglect engaging the person who has hurt you without feeling like the proverbial wimp we have been speaking of. It's tough, but it's true. Nothing is more empowering that engaging the one who has hurt you in some sort of acknowledgment of your feeling. This does not mean that you need speak in anger--you may wish to, but that is not the central intention. The point is to come out of hiding, flex your body/mind, risk taking your space, claim your right to respect and consideration, and offer to the other an opportunity to exchange feelings and to apologize. This action establishes you in the world; the response you receive is secondary.

Some hurts you may never be able to forgive. Many--perhaps all--of us have wounds that are so profound, that happened so early in life, or when we were regressed and vulnerable, or injured someone we loved, that practically speaking, we will never be able fully to forgive. The hurt is too much a part of who we are. Sexual, or physical, or emotional abuse, whether to ourselves or those we hold in special affection, often are not completely forgivable. Progress toward forgiving can take years of growth and self-work devoted to reinforcing repeatedly the damaged sense of personal worth and power. Abuse makes scars in the brain, and some never heal. It is better for our soul to accept that we are neither ready nor able--and in some instances not even willing to consider--to be forgiving than to pretend to forgive when we do not. Pretension only submerges our anger, and anger not expressed always hires a saboteur. This saboteur knows that, in spite of advertising forgiveness, in truth it is but a rickety facade, behind which rage is eager to launch a lethal ambush.

Forgiveness is not forgetting. We need always to learn from our history, and malevolent injury is an important experience from which to draw meaning. What has happened, happened. We must never deny that it was painful, that we were badly treated, and that we deplore the behavior. Forgiveness has to do with learning not to be controlled by feelings of resentment and revenge, not with reducing our judgments about the heinousness of events. We must not forget: our memories contribute to helping us guard against damaging experiences being repeated.

Don't expect perfection. We never become absolutely strong. We are ever vulnerable to have old hurts recalled as well as being injured anew. We are talking about a process which includes positive and negative forces, and that including negatives rather than denying them is ultimately the way of greatest strength. You will find yourself sometimes able to forgive, and you will find yourself obsessively nursing grudges as you always have. The new possibility is to know that unforgiveness is simply your way of coping, and that now you may have the wherewithal to give yourself the option to accept the other and interact with the other--to the degree you are able--in spite of being wronged, for the "wrong" does not have a great an emotional disfigurement or annihilation power it once had.

Cultivate the life of the spirit. If you are serious about learning forgiveness, spiritual growth will accompany you. If the spiritual way is that of embracing life--all of it, while of course protecting through transformation of energy the destructive elements--then forgiving others and self is a high spiritual path. If spirituality is about oneness, so is forgiveness; these are two names for the same thing. Any study of spirituality will find at the core of the teaching of the seers and guides are paths for the practice of forgiveness. Spirituality is the name we give to uniting with all of experience, forgiveness is the name we give for humans coming back together. Without forgiveness, the life of the spirit is fatally handicapped. Active on the path to forgiveness, we are well on our Way.


In this age of violent entertainments, Les Miserables, a musical play with forgiveness as its central theme, is well on its way to becoming the most celebrated popular production of modern times. The central conflict in the drama is the hunter-hunted relationship between Jean Valjean, a man of monumental compassion and honor and Javert a police inspector of unyielding righteousness. As a youth, Valjean had stolen a loaf of bread to feed a dying sister. Imprisoned for this crime, after several years he had attempted to escape and was recaptured. In all, he served nineteen years--having made another escape one year short of his full sentence. Javert relentlessly pursues him, for he assumes that all lawbreakers are uniformly contemptible and deserve the harshest of punishments society lays on them.

Again and again Valjean, having become a formidable man of means and influence, has opportunity to turn the tables on Javert. However, he is more interested in fulfilling a promise made to a dying woman to take care of her daughter and to a community to be its mayor and business benefactor than in bringing revenge against Javert. In one climactic scene Valjean is given the power to take Javert's life, and knowing that Javert will continue to hound him if he allows him to live, nevertheless lets him go with the word, "You are free; you are only doing what you believe you must."

Javert is agonizingly puzzled. His whole life is devoted to seeing the evil in others and attempting to stamp it out. Yet Javert has been forgiven and given life by a man who knows he will attempt to return him to prison--and perhaps worse. Javert cannot find in himself any softening of his heart even in the face of Valjeans' gracious forgiving act. Javert acts out the inevitable--the final consequence of not being forgiving: he takes his own life. For not to be able to forgive another, not to be able to forgive the self is ultimately suicide; alienation from self, other, life.

Valjean lived to die a natural death, being loved and honored and celebrated by his community with whom he had been a giving and forgiving presence.


Forgiveness is like humility. It is fragile, and to speak of it is to lose it. We are more truly forgiving when we hardly think about being so. Forgiveness is a by-product of strength, and focus, and creativity, and empathy, and love. Only the strong can forgive, and though none of us reach an ideal strength, all of us can become stronger. Forgiveness and strength always travel together. In fact when we are strong and forming well our lives, the power of our hurts will have diminished, and forgiving will be happening. We will not even have to think about it.

Robert Caldwell, M.Div. is a Certified Professional Counselor in Maryland. He has a practice of individual, group and couple psychotherapy in Bethesda, MD. He can be reached at 301-652-6180.