‘It’s important to forgive and forget’ is a widely used piece of folk wisdom. However, it’s not that simple. For someone to feel under pressure to forgive, they must have been hurt, betrayed or abused in some way. It is therefore questionable how realistic it is to expect someone to be able to find forgiveness in those circumstances. It can be not only unrealistic, but also unfair. To put someone under pressure to forgive when they are wrestling with the pain and insecurity they are experiencing can be seen as unhelpful and even as cruel. When they are already feeling ‘wronged’, they can then be made to feel that they are ‘in the wrong’ for continuing to hold feelings of resentment towards the person(s) who brought about the problem in the first place.
It also assumes that there can be no action or attitude that is unforgivable, that whatever happens can (and should) be forgiven. This is a very big assumption to make and a highly problematic one. The bland advice that we should forgive and forget is therefore not one that should be accepted uncritically.
So, am I suggesting that forgiveness is over-rated and is not something we should bother with? No, that is not the case at all. There are certainly many situations where forgiveness is quite appropriate and to be encouraged. The problem comes when this idea is overgeneralised, when it is assumed that forgiveness is in all cases the appropriate response.
So, does this mean that brooding resentment should be the order of the day because forgiveness is not a realistic expectation in the circumstances? No, that is not what I am suggesting either. This is where the idea of ‘letting go’ comes in. What this refers to is the ability to (and desirability of) putting the hurts behind us when we are ready. The ‘when we are ready’ bit is important, as the more hurtful the experience has been, the longer it is likely to be before we can readily countenance the idea of putting it behind us. Trying to do this too soon is unlikely to be helpful, and putting people under pressure to do so before they are ready can be counterproductive, and even positively harmful.
I was once fortunate enough to be in the audience when former athlete and TV presenter, Kriss Akabusi, was giving an inspiring speech about his troubled childhood and how he not only survived it, but managed to thrive. One important point he made about his childhood was that ‘the past is somewhere to visit, not somewhere to live’. In other words, he had managed to put those hurts behind him. That would not have happened straight away, of course, and anyone trying to pressurise him into achieving this before he was ready would have been more of a hindrance than a help.
Letting go means not allowing the hurt to control us, to undermine us or to disempower us. It means acknowledging that what was done was done (no denial), recognising the extent and severity of the hurt that was caused (no minimising or playing down), but not keeping that hurt alive by feeding the flames of resentment. It means letting those flames cool down at their own rate and then, when it is safe and reasonably comfortable to do so, to translate them from current hurts to past experiences – that is, to put them behind us, with or without forgiveness. This enables us to move on, to face new challenges and not be held back by what has gone before. That way we can be freed up to focus on the present and future, while learning the lessons from the past.