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Forgive and Forget?

On the Virtues of Anger and Vices of Resentment

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The principle of forgiveness is commonly taught in both traditional religions and secular philosophies as being an important virtue. We are supposed to forgive others because that makes us better people, while failing or refusing to forgive supposedly means that we are giving in to baser and more violent instincts. Is this true? Why and in what sense is forgiveness something we should value and strive for?

There are two primary senses for the word "forgive" generally used in this context: to excuse a fault or pardon (which means to release a person from punishment or penalty), and to renounce anger and resentment against a person. I suggest that the first sense is the technical or legal meaning while the second is the more personal one - and the meaning which tends to be most emphasized when we talk about forgiveness being a virtue.

This is not to say that forgiveness as pardoning someone from punishment is not relevant. However, the question of whether and how an offender is pardoned and punished is in our society today a matter left largely to the more impersonal legal system. That legal system is supposed to act without anger, so it doesn't make much sense to talk about it renouncing resentment.

The primacy of the personal sense of forgiveness can further be seen in the fact that a person could conceivably renounce anger without also pardoning from punishment - one does not necessarily entail the other. On the other hand, while a victim could plead for someone to be pardoned, it is very unlikely that this would occur unless the person had also made a commitment to forgiveness in the personal sense.

Thus, if we are to discuss the place of forgiveness as a human virtue, we must look first and foremost to what occurs within the human mind and heart that would lead one to the renunciation of anger and resentment, and then second to the possible effect of excusing or pardoning someone who has done them wrong. The question before us becomes: is it a virtue to renounce anger and resentment felt towards someone who has wronged us?

It cannot be merely the absence of anger or resentment that we are talking about - after all, no one applies the labels of virtue or forgiveness to a person who fails to be outraged or angered over some grievous injury that has been done to them. We also don't counsel forgiveness when a person is angry and resentful over something trivial or something that didn't really occur. We should be able to see here that what is crucial is that one has experienced justified anger but nevertheless chooses to give up that anger and adopt a different attitude.

For Aristotle, the notion of virtue was upon the idea that virtuous conduct occupies some middle ground between behavior that is excessive and behavior that is deficient. Aristotle called this concept the "Golden Mean," and so a person of moral maturity is one who seeks that mean in all that she does. It isn't difficult to see how forgiveness might qualify as a virtue under this conception.

On the one hand, it is arguably excessive for a person to deliberately hold on to anger and resentment for all of their life, regardless of the wrong that has been done to them. That anger itself certainly doesn't serve to punish or harm the offender - the only person who loses anything is the victim. On the other hand, not feeling any anger when that emotion is justified is arguably quite deficient, so much so that the absence of any hard feelings makes a person seem almost inhuman or pathological.

As mentioned above, forgiveness as a virtue requires the prior existence of a justified anger over some wrong. How much anger a person is justified in feeling is unstated, but more interesting is how long the anger persists. Is forgiveness more of a virtue if done immediately or if one waits a while, perhaps a year or two? What about a decade or two? Surely there is no hard and fast rule: how quickly a person can or should forgive depends upon the circumstances of their situation. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to say that if forgiveness is a virtue, a person shouldn't wait too long or act too quickly.

But which case is the side of excess and which is the side of deficiency? Perhaps waiting too long is the side of deficiency in love while forgiving too quickly is an excess in love. It is often an error to force human experience into rigid, arbitrary philosophical models, but my dissatisfaction with that explanation may be based in the fact that it wouldn't fit the model of a virtue lying between an excess of one thing and a deficiency of another.

I believe that a better position is to argue that waiting too long to forgive is the side of excess - an excess of anger, which means that forgiving too quickly is a deficiency in... what? Just anger? Righteous wrath? When people complain about what they perceive as unjustified demands of forgiveness on their part, this is what I think they are talking about.

Forgiveness depends upon the existence of justified anger, and if anger is justified then it is unreasonable to ask a person to renounce it too quickly or in the wrong circumstances. Indeed, such a request is arguably unjustified because it involves asking a person to abandon a proper and fair emotional response to what has happened to them. If that anger is not allowed to run its course, providing a person with the ability to come to terms with their experiences, then that would be a deficiency - one which might seriously impede the long-term development of their moral and social character.

On the other hand, the very idea that anger and resentment should be allowed to run their course presumes that there is a beginning, middle, and end to those emotions. In other words, the anger must eventually peter out, placing the individual in a new position that they did not exist in before. This cannot happen if one holds on to their anger and resentment - it's not unlike a car stuck in the mud or snow with the wheels spinning furiously. The person no longer exists where they started the journey, but they are also unable to move on to their destination.

And what about forgetting? "Forgive and forget," the old saying goes, attempting to link the two in terms of virtuous conduct - but while forgiveness, properly balanced, may be a virtue, I'm not so sure that the same can be said of forgetting. The simplest point to make here is to note that if forgetting is a virtue that lies between two extremes, we can only seem to identify one of them: dwelling and obsessing over some wrong that has occurred. What is supposed to lie at the other end of the scale?

The more complex point to make is that perhaps the act of forgetting is itself the extreme we are looking for - forgetting is not a virtue because it takes a valid point (it is excessive to constantly obsess over some wrong or harm) and takes it too far. Forgetting completely is a deficiency - one which does a disservice both to the victim and to the offender simultaneously.

This takes us back to an issue about forgiveness that I have thus far managed to avoid: if forgiving means renouncing our anger, then what emotional perspective is supposed to replace it? Some religious philosophies would insert "love" into this ethical equation, but I'm not sure that it is appropriate; at the very least, it is asking an awful lot of many victims.

A basic minimum, it seems to me, would be something along the lines of cautious but optimistic neutrality. A person who has wronged you has earned a negative prejudice about future intentions and actions - in essence, you stop trusting them. To forgive, however, means to renounce resentment and try to restore your attitude to that which you might hopefully show a stranger: optimistic with some trust, but neutral because you don't trust them too far. You are neither excessively positive nor excessively negative.

So why is forgetting a deficiency rather than a virtue? Because if the person you have forgiven eventually earns more trust than when you started out in your neutrality, that means that he has gone much farther than a stranger. Whereas his offense was a mark against his character, his ability to move so far is a genuine mark in favor of it - but if you forget, you do him a disservice by failing to note just how far he has come.

Forgiveness, when it doesn't occur too quickly and doesn't tarry too long, is a virtue because it helps us to grow as moral and social individuals. Forgetfulness, on the other hand, impedes our own growth and our ability to understand those around us. Forgive, when the time is appropriate - but don't forget.

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