I looked it up - according to Merriam-Webster it means:
a) to give up resentment of or claim to requital for (forgive an insult)
b) to grant relief from payment of (forgive a debt)
c) to cease to feel resentment against an offender : pardon (forgive one's enemies)
But there is a different understanding of forgiveness that I grew up with and which I think is closer to the meaning assigned to the word by many people. Forgiveness is equated with absolution. In fact ‘absolve’ is listed as a synonym for forgive in some definitions of the word. In church I was taught that we are absolved from our sins when we confess them to God (or to a priest), and we are to pray that God “forgive[s] us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. If we seek absolution from God we must grant it to others. There are many instances in life when this type of forgiveness is warranted – but I question its usefulness when it comes to the deep hurts and offences that result in long lasting trauma.
We are urged to forgive as a path to healing. We are told that we must not hold onto past injuries or we will be buried by bitterness and anger. I disagree.
I do not ruminate on the wrongs that have been done to me and those I love – even those that left deep scars on my soul. I do not harbour thoughts of revenge or retaliation. I am not consumed with anger, although one of the emotions connected to the hurt, when I chose to visit that place in my soul, is anger. I trust, I have healthy relationships, I am happy. But I do not absolve those who caused the deepest of hurts to body and soul. And in that sense I do not forgive.
I work with people who have intellectual disabilities. Sadly, the bodies and souls of many of the people who are referred to me for ‘behaviour therapy’ carry the indelible scars of trauma. One woman I worked with shared with me her story of abuse at the hands of her father and her process of healing. She talked of being angry for years – and of how the ways that she expressed that anger were harmful to herself and others. She was repeatedly told to calm down, leave the past in the past, let it go, and to forgive. She told me that a turning point in her life was when someone validated her anger, telling her that she had a right to be angry about what had happened to her. This validation of her anger, and not the giving up of it, was key to healing. She acknowledges that the anger is still there – but it is no longer central and it no longer causes harm.
Recently another young woman, whom I was meeting for the first time, described what she hoped to get out of our time together. She wanted to know how to forgive the man who had betrayed and hurt her when she was a child. She had been told that this was the only way she would be able to move on. And she had tried – really tried – to forgive him, but kept coming back to the fact that what he had done was so horrendous that it could not, must not, be pardoned.
Can she forgive? Perhaps. It may come down to her definition of forgiveness. Can she learn to live without bitterness and anger? I am certain she can. Does her path to healing depend on whether she can ultimately absolve him of his crime against her? I don’t think so.
Forgiveness may be linked to healing for some people, I don’t dispute that. But I think forgiveness is often misunderstood and overrated. I think that the notion one needs to forgive in order to heal can sometimes be a barrier to, rather than a facilitator of, healing.