Where Are the Limits of Forgiveness? To Forgive Does not Mean to Forget

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) warned: "Do not hide your hatred forever, you who are not eternal yourself." In his words there is a timeless ethical truth: Because man is a transient being in themselves, so should it be with hatred toward someone. It is not worth cultivating negative emotions in oneself, because they can only devour a person from the inside. So what is the remedy to overcome anger and desire for revenge within oneself? What to do to free ourselves from all the emotions related to hatred? Perhaps forgiveness is the antidote.

It is a beautiful and noble act. The Merriam-Webster dictionary explains that to forgive is “to give up resentment of or claim to requital”. In practice, it means the ability to clear one’s mind and even get rid of negative emotions as well as cease retaliation for the harm suffered. This is a very difficult skill for many of us, and even – let’s not be afraid to use this word – an extremely demanding art.

When we have been hurt by someone, unintentionally and unconsciously, and our culprit admits to making an error, regrets, and shows remorse, forgiveness still seems feasible and easy to show. The problem arises when someone intentionally, consciously and deliberately inflicts an evil, which remains like an open wound in us. That is when it is hard to forgive. So how to solve this problem?

To forgive means to understand

The contemporary French philosopher, writer, musicologist, and son of Russian emigrants from Odessa Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903‒1985) comes to the rescue. He devoted the book entitled Forgiveness to the issue of our interest, in which he suggests some valuable clues that are worth following. First, he shows a great understanding of our pain, rage and rebellion against the current situation. For Jankélévitch, “forgiveness in the strict sense of the word is a borderline case. Such as remorse, sacrifice, or the reflex of mercy can be.” The thinker makes it clear that our resistance and difficulties are a natural reaction, and that forgiveness itself is an extremely difficult and demanding act. Perhaps it is worth realizing that forgiveness takes time and is not a one-time deed, but a process for which a person matures.

Jankélévitch’s second valuable remark could be summed up in the statement that “to forgive means to understand.” He explains it as follows: “There is no forgiveness other than knowledge; understanding is the only way to forgive… It is not understanding that absorbs forgiveness, but it is forgiveness that comes from understanding.” The harm we have suffered on the part of another human being often seems inexplicable to us, because the pain it has left does not allow us to think rationally. The passing of time, however, tones down emotions, and then a space for understanding opens up. Why did this person behave this way towards me? What made them do that? What were they guided by? What did they want to achieve with it? Why did they choose this path? These are just examples of questions that can (but do not have to) make us look at the perpetrator from different perspectives.

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The other one is also a man

We can understand even more if we try to look at the wrongdoer as a person, and so try to realize what patterns of behavior they learned at home, in what environment they grew up, who was their example, authority, and what values they passed on to them. Each of us has one’s history, which consists of different experiences. We are subjected to the influence of a variety of factors. The more we see of it, the more we can understand. In this way, knowledge opens us up to the possibility of forgiveness.

The author of Forgiveness gives us yet a third valuable clue, and tells us about certain benefits of forgiveness: “Understanding is not only rational, but it also calms: Understanding makes anger fall, just as fever falls after taking an aspirin, whether it is indignation, irritation, resentment or shame, profound understanding in all cases is an excellent means of soothing; it relieves pain, alleviates bitter grief, eliminates the inflammation of anger, “relaxes” a man tense with anger.” Usually, the natural reaction to the harm suffered is the desire for revenge. It seems to be a satisfaction for the suffering we have experienced and a just payment for the evil inflicted on us.

In many cases, perhaps, revenge helps to relieve internal tension, but it brings us to the same level of doing evil that our abuser is on. We condemn the wrongdoer in our thoughts and emotions, but we become like them. For this reason, among other things, Jankélévitch encourages us to give ourselves time, and after the first, strongest emotions have subsided, he induces us to try to understand, not to retaliate instinctively.

Examination of conscience

It is also worth being aware that none of us is perfect. We also make mistakes ourselves, we often (consciously or unconsciously) harm other people. We regret it or not. After all, we are only humans, and therefore defective beings. If I realize this myself, it is easier for me to look at the other person more favorably, or at least objectively. Albert Schweitzer (1875‒1965), a French-German philosopher, theologian, and physician, wrote about it in The Reverence for Life: “I have to train myself in limitless forgiveness, for in refusing it I would be dishonest with myself, for I would act as if I were not as guilty as someone else who was at fault to me.”

None of us is blameless. One needs to realize that if I do not muster forgiveness myself, then someone who follows my behavior will not forgive me one day (when I need it). Nature abhors a vacuum. The evil done often returns to its sender, just as the good, once shown, comes back to us even after many years from the least expected direction.

Phot.: Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels

Boundaries need to be set

But is it worth it to forgive at all? And why to do it? Forgiveness does not turn back time. What is done cannot be undone. In this sense, to forgive does not mean to forget. Perhaps it is even better to remember to have knowledge that can save me from repeating similar experiences in the future. This raises an important question about the limits of forgiveness. Everything Jankélévitch writes about is important and helpful, but what to do when the behaviors that hurt us are repeated? How many times can a victim of an alcoholic forgive harm suffered during yet another traumatic situation? How many times can the deceived forgive the one who lies to them again (and promises each time that this was the last time)?

For there is a danger of replacing understanding and forgiveness with credulity and pure naivety or simply remaining in illusion. There is, of course, no golden mean that can dispel our doubts and indicate the only right method of demeanor. However, the ability to set boundaries while taking care of one’s comfort is crucial (this can also be interpreted as a healthy self-preservation instinct).

Polish philosopher Józef Tischner (1931‒2000) noted in his book Pomoc w rachunku sumienia (Help in the examination of conscience): “We must remember that forgiveness does not mean acquittal. When I forgive, I am not saying that there was no evil.” On the contrary, I forgive, but I am alert and observe what will happen next – whether the situation will repeat, and how many more times. “Forgiveness purifies me, not my culprit, from the desire for revenge,” adds Tischner. It purifies, but not from the sense of dignity, decency and interpersonal honesty. Every evil we have experienced should therefore remain in our memory as a warning for the future. Forgiving endlessly the same repeated wrongs gives our abuser silent permission to continue the evil once done. If at some point I do not say enough, then the pain and suffering will be inflicted on me again. After all, what would stop them if not a clear and explicit objection on my part?

To forgive myself

And finally, it is worth asking the question, which for many may be the most difficult: Can I forgive myself? The awareness of mistakes made, and wrongs done to other people, and my naivety and thoughtlessness often reach us only after some time. Sometimes it takes months or even years to see and understand something we did not realize before. Remorse, guilt, and anger directed at ourselves can then completely engulf us, taking away the clarity of a view.

For there are situations in which it is easier to forgive someone else than to forgive myself. It is worth trying to understand oneself from years ago, look at oneself through the eyes of the person we were then – with our level of knowledge, experience, emotional and mental construction – and not look from the perspective of me here and now, wiser for subsequent years. Then it will turn out that if it is worth forgiving others, then it is also worth forgiving myself.

Translation: Marcin Brański

Published by

Magdalena Kozak


Deals with contemporary philosophy, mainly French, in the current of existentialism, philosophy of dialogue and relations, and phenomenology. Privately, passionate about Mediterranean vibes, crime stories – preferably Scandinavian and a lover of animals and long walks. In the surrounding world, unfortunately, less and less surprised.

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