godless questions

Which is more difficult: asking for forgiveness or forgiving someone else?

I think they’re both tough, so let’s focus on me for a second while you ruminate.

It’s humbling to ask someone to forgive me because it requires a public admission of wrong that could have otherwise been swept under a rug somewhere and forgotten. I don’t like bringing something to someone’s attention if they didn’t know about it already. Even if they are fully aware that I’ve done something stupid, it’s still hard for me to suck it up, swallow my pride, and focus on that mistake, blunder, or vile action. I fear embarrassment, and would really enjoy being right all the time (even though I rarely am). What can I say? I have a ridiculous ego. Asking for forgiveness means doing the hard work to repair a broken trust and relationship. It means owning up to one’s darkest behaviors and thoughts. It’s difficult.

Granting forgiveness to someone else challenges another part of my me. I don’t often hold grudges, but when I have been deeply hurt, I tend to pick at the emotional scar until it bleeds all over again. I have the kind of mind that dwells on or over-thinks words others have spoken or ways I’ve been treated. And when I scratch those painful scars, they never get the chance to heal even if I know that letting them fade away would be best. As strange as this sounds, I must want to feel angry and hurt if I keep rehashing those old wounds over and over again. Forgiveness means letting go completely that need to over-think and dwell upon old pain. It means taking the biggest step towards letting go. It means moving on and giving freedom to the person who owes a debt to me. I’ll admit that sometimes being able to forgive is hard.

So what about you? Which do you think is the most difficult to do: asking or giving?

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11 thoughts on “On Forgiveness”

mcbender · November 29, 2010 at 11:09 pm

It’s a very interesting question you raise here, and I’m not sure how to answer it. I think the first thing I need to do is figure out what is meant by “forgiveness”.

My gut reaction, before thinking about this, was to say “asking forgiveness, of course; a good rationalist should have no problem admitting error”. However, I don’t think that’s really “asking for forgiveness” in the sense you mean (using the, for lack of a better term, religious/Christian idea of forgiveness). What I tend to ask for, and to grant, is understanding – “here’s a list of the factors that led up to what happened, can you see where I’m coming from?”

I have no problem admitting fault, but I don’t expect to be “forgiven” for it. I think it’s only proper to admit to our mistakes and allow them to be held against us; how else can we learn from them?

I had an experience recently that illustrates what I mean here. It’s a bit of a long story, but I’ll tell it because I think it’s illustrative.

I recently applied to a Ph.D. program at my university. Given that I was completing my undergraduate work here and am on a first-name basis with many of the professors, and that I had one willing to be my advisor, I didn’t anticipate much trouble. However, I was told that one professor, whom I knew and had previously worked with, was telling them that he had doubts about my ability to produce results and wasn’t sure I was a good choice for the program. He said this because of a misunderstanding we’d had the previous summer – I’d been supposed to work on a research project for him, but he never made clear to me what he wanted me to do… so I was waiting to be told what to do, while he believed he had and was waiting for results from me.

I didn’t hold this against him. While I think his conclusion is mistaken, I understand how the situation looked from his end, and therefore I think his misgivings are honest. I can’t fault him for telling the truth as he sees it, even if it’s at my expense – and I know he has nothing against me personally, as it hasn’t affected his interactions with me.

Would I ask him to “forgive” me for not getting him the results I expected? No, I made an honest mistake and he’s right to hold it against me. Do I feel the need to “forgive” him for his comments? No; I understand where they come from, and that’s enough. It doesn’t stop the comments from hurting – and it shouldn’t. The fact that the comments cause me emotional pain will encourage me not to repeat the same mistake.

(For the record, my application was accepted, so his comments did me no permanent harm. I do wonder if I’d be able to take this stance if things had gone otherwise…).

I’m not sure my little anecdote really illustrates what I’m trying to get at here either. I’m not exactly sure how my approach is consistent with what most people mean when they use the word “forgiveness”. Perhaps I am and I don’t know it. But the Christian idea of forgiveness seems to hinge on the fact that it’s unjustified/underserved but you do it anyway, whereas I’m explicitly saying that understanding the rational/situational justification for somebody’s actions makes “forgiveness” unnecessary (because the consequences are similar).

I’m rambling here and I have no idea whether or not I’m making sense, and I think I contradicted myself somewhere in there, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead (am I ahead?).

    Godless Girl · November 30, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Hmm… the way I read your example, it seems to be a simple case of misunderstanding one another. I wouldn’t group that too close with actually hurting and wronging someone since once the misunderstanding is recognized, it can fairly simply be talked out between the two parties and cleared up mutually. Perhaps this takes some “forgiveness” in the fact that both parties have to admit not understanding one another properly and taking actions based on those incorrect interpretations that may have caused the other problems. It takes some humility on both ends.

    What would you say to a true wrong against someone else like a verbally abusive father whose daughter has held a grudge against him since childhood even though he’s sought to repair their relationship as adults? Does rational/situational justification make forgiveness necessary in these types of scenarios?

      mcbender · November 30, 2010 at 11:01 am

      I think I would have to argue that any situation boils down to one of the following:

      (a) a rationally/situationally justifiable scenario, or misunderstanding, wherein “forgiveness” is a natural consequence

      (b) a scenario in which the behaviour was unjustifiable, in which forgiveness would be an inappropriate response (not only unnecessary, but wrong)

      I’ll try to clarify what I mean.

      In the scenario of the woman with the previously abusive but repentant father – I’d say she shouldn’t “forgive” him. That doesn’t mean they can’t try to rebuild a relationship, but such an effort needs to be *informed by* the fact that the previous wrongdoing occurred. You can’t start over.

      I guess it all depends what you mean by forgiveness. As I’ve always seen it, that concept includes a sort of pretending that the event being forgiven never happened in the first place, which I think is immoral. Perhaps I’m reading too much into that, but that seems to be what Christians mean by “forgiveness”, especially when they’re talking about God/Jesus doing it, and that’s not a concept I can get behind.

      In other words, the daughter can recognise that her father wants to change and is trying to change, and feel better about associating with him, but she can’t fully negate the fact that he previously mistreated her in order to wash their relationship clean and return them to a blank slate.

      Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I think we need to unpack the baggage of the term “forgiveness” before we can really have a serious discussion about it.

greateighthsin · November 29, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Definitely giving forgiveness. I am one to easily suck up my pride and apologize in hopes they forgive, but I am not one to easily let an old wound go until they apologize. Even then, I would weigh the severity of their actions and determine if they are truly worthy of either my instant forgiveness, if time will just have to heal things, or if I can never face that person again in the same way. Only two people in my life have seen the latter, though.

TheSecretAtheist · November 30, 2010 at 12:52 am

For me asking for forgiveness is harder than giving it. I have never really had a problem with the latter, in fact I often have forgotten about something shortly after it happened. I don’t really see the point in holding grudges or carrying a chip on your shoulder.

Godless Girl · November 30, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I wonder what makes one action easier than the other to one person or another. I mean, how do we all see it so differently? It’s fascinating 🙂

Three Ninjas · November 30, 2010 at 4:38 pm

I try to cut as much slack as possible, because I know that I’ll soon need slack cut for me. So forgiving someone is easy for me. Probably because I’m a “nice guy” or whatever, and it wouldn’t be too hard for me to let someone walk all over me. If someone expresses genuine remorse, I find it almost impossible not to let it slide. Perhaps this ability comes from years of church?

But alerting someone to something I’ve done wrong is so hard. In general, saying things I need to say to the people who need to hear it is so hard for me. When I’ve done something wrong I feel like I don’t deserve to live or to be loved, and I expect the other person to hate me. But it almost always ends up being not a big deal.

The solution is to try really hard not to do anything wrong, and to not put myself in situations in which I know I’ll probably fuck up. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s not.

Travis Morgan · December 1, 2010 at 8:07 am

I find it harder to ask for forgiveness than to give it. It is easy for me to forgive people becuase I understand that people are conditioned and ultimately determined to behave the way they do by environmental and biological influences. I have control over foriving them, but I have no control over whether they will forgive me. I am very empathetic, but I am harder on myself than I am on others even though I know that just like them, I have been conditioned and ultimately determined to behave the way I do by my environmental and biological conditions. Also, I don’t want to have to ask them for forgiveness, I want the other party to forgive me on their own, not just because I ask them to. If they are doing it only because I ask them to, it doesn’t seem to be as sincere. So for me, asking for forgiveness is more difficult.

    Jacob · December 1, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    I think it can be easier to give forgiveness because in some ways it lets us feel like we have the upperhand. It restores our dignity often. But then, I think true forgiveness is acknowledging that your care for a person goes beyond what damages are caused. It’s allowing them THEIR dignity not just keeping our own.

    On asking forgiveness, I would agree with you, GGirl, that is so hard because it make’s us vulnerable. The person has every right to refuse forgiveness and in the mean time we have made public the hurt and therefore a “weakness” in our self.

    I would say both though, when genuine, really free us up from invisible chains. I heard it said that anytime we put someone in jail for the wrong they’ve done to us, it’s us who has to stand there 24 hours and guard the jail. Indeed, we end up in the jail right next to them as long as we will keep them there.

    Great blog idea though, that’s a tough subject to really give thought to!

      Godless Girl · December 2, 2010 at 12:37 am

      Quite a thoughtful insight! I appreciate yours (and everyone’s) answers on this personal subject.

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