psychology

Sometimes, you don’t have to forgive people.

Morality and institutionalised religion has long suggested that we should “forgive because we have been forgiven”. That indeed makes for some excellent comedy because, if we’re all of flawed and unforgiveable origin, it is surely an aligned idea that we don’t actually have to forgive each other on the same basis. It further makes sense on this track of thought, that some actions are truly unforgiveable; some things cannot be changed, sometimes a situation cannot be made better and the effects of it cannot be transformed with a simple “I forgive you”. The damage can take years and years of work to unravel and attempt to patch-repair.

It works for some. But sometimes – you don’t have to forgive people.

In a nonsensical world that feels more and more like a simulation everyday – it might seem that the more you plod on in life, the less empathetic, caring, and rational humans are. That is probably true – humans remain emotional creatures driven by primal needs which sit in a hierarchy based on getting them met, and how quickly they can be met. In meeting said basic needs, humans will often hurt other humans. Sometimes they do this one-on-one, other times they will create pain at scale. And, a bit like useless robots, we go about accepting pain which can sometimes mean setting ourselves up for destruction by adopting thought processes and models that ultimately do not serve us.

Accept yourself – don’t accept that people are allowed hurt you

For example, accepting that a situation has happened to us, and accepting that “it’s OK” can often be conflated and confused. They are not the same ideas. Why? Because is not OK for people to inflict pain on us – but it is also true that we may have played a part in this pain existing. We have to be able to accept either, or both of these ideas.

Each of us is given the raw, horrible resources – whether we like it or not – to create our own morality. And although religion might teach that morality is a structure of thought which applies to all, the existence of the inequality of all people ensures that said structures are doomed to fail. As such, we create our own rules. For me personally, murder is unforgiveable. Domestic violence is unforgiveable. Rape is unforgiveable. Assault is unforgiveable. Abuse of any kind is unforgiveable. And – in the same way, you don’t have to forgive the people that engage these horrendous behaviours. The damage caused by them often cannot – realistically with every effort – ever be repaired but that isn’t the same as not being able to be a whole person, after a traumatic event. The idea that you then become an entity in need of repair is a fallacy that “forgive all” seems to perpetuate.

Truth is, you might just need to forgive yourself.

What is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is not reliably defined in a global or consistent way. In English, forgiveness is:

forgiveness/fəˈɡɪvnɪs/

Learn to pronounce noun
  1. the action or process of forgiving or being forgiven. “she is quick to ask forgiveness when she has overstepped the line.”

Well look at that. Even the Oxford English Dictionary thinks forgiveness is joke. If forgiveness is a process given by someone else or yourself, perhaps we should reframe this idea as one in which we take back our own power – and apply the idea of exoneration to ourselves, instead of asking for it.

It is a paradigm change away from how the idea of forgiveness usually proceeds. Forgiveness seems to have two parties. For example, in German, we see the noun “die Vergebung” – stylised like a proper noun that defines as an act of pardon or dispensation, both which intrinsically indicate a level of sacrifice. This is more sensible – a sacrifice is already provided when one is a victim. A victim owes no more.

Greek has three words (arguably five) for forgiveness, and there are three in Hebrew – one of which is only ‘allowed’ to be used in reference to a God.

In Ancient Greek, we translate forgiveness as συγγνώμη – a word that is now more constant with “disclosure” and “acceptance or lenience”. But we also see:

αμνησικακία ('forgiving-ness')

— It is a noun in the present continuous tense. That might be something that you won’t be used to in English, where ordinarily only verbs – or actions which require players – can be of this state. Forgivingness is an idea we may conclude to be an ongoing attitude. This would make sense further as the word itself which sees roots in ‘memory’, or “μνήμη“.

So maybe forgiveness is accepting that we can become victims, but we must not be a victim of our own memory – our μνήμη – of trauma or guilt. This seems to sit better with the inherent need humans have to survive psychologically in an unfair world.

Replace forgiveness with moving on, beyond your pain

In the same way that we can adopt forgivingness – a continuous present state of being – we can set ourselves free by living beyond the pain. We can acknowledge pain, but our minds do not need to be consumed by it in order to forgive someone else’s actions – otherwise we end up in an existential loop. The ‘lenience’ we give to others then, should really be used to save ourselves.

Why you don’t have to forgive people


“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.”

– Jane Austen

Contrary to popular advice, forgiveness is pasted up like a psychological panacea, or some form of a trauma cure-all.

You know – often it doesn’t actually work. And as we have seen in languages beyond English, it doesn’t have to be something you do – it may exist better as a state of being that we give as a gift to ourselves, in order to survive.

As per the (while fictional, but still a frank) observation from Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice – the more you see people settle for less; go about their daily lives having “forgiven” the pain bestowed on them but smile through gritted teeth and then, overeat, undereat, self-medicate, self-flagellate – the more it seems clear that blanket forgiveness is a behaviour at odds with the natural inconsistency of human behaviour, and the inequality we can expect in society.

Taking each situation in our lives subjectively, on a case-by-case basis, with a logical head is often painted as “cold”. Perhaps the cold is really a fear of the psychological work that we must do for ourselves. And what if we were to embrace this approach – thinking about the grace in our own lives, for ourselves? Perhaps we might see more fairness, justice and equality than we do now.

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