June 16, 2010

Forgiveness: Atheists Can Do It Too

forgiveness flower

There are not very many ideas routinely characterized as Christian (regardless of their actual origin) that I like, but forgiveness is one of them. Granted, I find all the stuff about divine forgiveness, sin, salvation, heaven, and the like to be laughably absurd. These notions are little more than the most primitive forms of wish fulfillment, and we would do well to abandon them. But the idea that we should strive to forgive others who have wronged us? Well, that does hold some appeal.

Christians are sometimes criticized for pushing forgiveness to unrealistic extremes (e.g., turning the other cheek). Such criticism may be deserved. I think we can all imagine scenarios where forgiving someone might be almost impossible or even contraindicated. And if forgiveness is about absolving the other person of all responsibility for their actions, then we can find countless examples of persons or organizations who do not deserve our forgiveness.

But this view of forgiveness as relieving others of responsibility is misguided. Forgiveness, at least the sort I'm talking about here, is not about others at all; it is about us. Forgiveness is something we can do for ourselves. In some circumstances, striving to forgive others is quite beneficial. When we hold grudges, resentments, or hatred, we invest our own emotional resources in something that typically ends up being toxic for us. Forgiveness, when it is possible, can relieve this burden. It is good for our emotional well-being.

Forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting, and it does not absolve anyone of guilt, blame, or responsibility. I view it as the process of coming to terms with the pain another has inflicted on us. It is a way of reducing the emotional hold the injustice we suffered continues to have on us so that we can get on with our lives. Again, it is something we do for us and not for the person we are forgiving.