You Don’t Have to Forgive to Forget

Dr. Hurd: “Forgive” in the Oxford dictionary is defined as  “verb: stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake.” Why would any therapist advise anyone to remain bitter and resentful towards anyone? Is that sound psychological advice?

Dr. Hurd replies: I love how people ask the question, “What kind of psychologist would advise ….” The question always finishes with something the person asking the question doesn’t like. This is how most people utilize mental health professionals. When the mental health professional says something they want to hear, the response is, “Oh, this is the professional. He had years of schooling. Don’t question him.” But the moment something is said that you don’t like, watch out. It seems like a better option would simply be to stand by your own conclusions with facts and reason — assuming you have those things — rather than hiding under the professional skirts of someone else.

The premise of this question is that you have two choices. One, forgive, unconditionally and regardless of circumstance. Or, two, “remain bitter and resentful” towards someone. The person asking the question frames the choice this way — not me. The person who assumes this is wrong.

We’ve all heard that stale directive to “forgive and forget.” The implication is that unless you forgive, you cannot forget. That’s also untrue. You can forget about somebody eventually if you’re done with them. One of the reasons you choose to be done with them is that they have done something unforgivable. That’s why you remove them from your life, isn’t it? Sure, from time to time their memory might surface, for whatever reason, and you might temporarily feel angry or upset. But so what? There’s no way to shield yourself from this. And it sure would be no improvement to keep that person in your life and pretend that what he or she did was forgivable, when in fact it wasn’t. What kind of therapist would encourage people to engage in pretense, evasion and denial?

I believe that everything I’m saying here is just plain common sense. Everybody knows it. Anyone who doesn’t is struggling to evade these obvious truths, and isn’t honestly ignorant. I maintain that the person who harps on the need for forgiveness has something he or she feels guilty about. There’s a personal investment in advancing the cause of forgiveness when you, yourself, stand to benefit from such a policy.

Years ago, I remember the Pope was shot. He survived the shooting and the shooter was eventually captured and jailed. A famous picture was displayed throughout the world, in which the Pope sat with the shooter, in his prison cell, offering forgiveness. This was hailed as the ultimate example of forgiveness, and it was claimed that if the Pope can forgive his would-be killer, the rest of us can forgive anyone. My question then, as now, is: “Oh really?” The Pope met with his would-be killer in the context of a prison cell. If the shooter decided to try again, he would be stopped by probably the world’s best prison guards and body guards, those charged with guarding the Pope. Most of us would not have that luxury, for one thing. For another, what kind of model is this for forgiveness, and walking the talk, when the Pope doesn’t have to even let his killer go free?

Granted, this is a more unusual situation. But it illustrates the absurd fantasy of the forgiveness principle. The only way the Pope could “forgive” his killer, and turn the other cheek, was to lock him up in a jail cell. That’s not forgiveness. Forgiveness, as it’s preached, would mean, quite literally, turning the other cheek. “Shoot me, and get those armed guards out of here.” There would be no need for a photo-op, either — nor time for one.

What kind of psychologist advocates not having to forgive others? I’ll tell you what kind. The kind who advocates self-esteem, self-respect and rational self-interest above the course of self-deceit and self-destruction. The kind who favors justice, and holding people responsible for their actions. The kind who favors a benevolent universe where the irrational and the unforgivable need have no power, and where you’re free to eliminate such people from your lives (or put them in jail when it’s called for, as the Pope appropriately did with his shooter.) The kind of psychologist who says you don’t have to pretend, you don’t have to fake reality, and you don’t have to engage in the pretense of toxic relationships with toxic people who bring you no value other than to tear you down.

What would you say about a therapist who encouraged a victim of child abuse to forgive his abuser, even if his abuser wasn’t sorry, or pretended it never happened (as is most often the case)? Whiners in favor of forgiveness would be the first to scream: “What kind of therapist are you, harming and blaming the victim like that?” You want your forgiveness, but you want to be able to eat it too. Such is the outcome of any logical fallacy or contradiction.

The real question here isn’t what kind of psychologist would not embrace the fallacy and futility of forgiveness. The real question is: What sort of person has a personal stake in advancing it? Forgiveness does not benefit the forgiver. That’s another lie. Forgiveness can only benefit one type of person: The person who has done something which, in fact, is unforgivable. The kind of person who wants a blank check — morally and psychologically speaking, although probably financially speaking as well — is the only one with anything to gain from forgiveness.