Do you think it’s possible to forgive someone completely?

A student wrote in to ask:

Do you think it’s possible to forgive someone completely? Especially when the person has hurt you a lot a lot. I tried to recall back the painful past and tell myself to let go and move forward but it’s so hard. But then a lot of resources on the Internet tell people to let go, move forward so you can have a better future and all. Do you agree? For me I feel like me having this pain and not letting go motivates me to do better and better so that I wouldn’t be looked down on again. However sometimes I feel like that just makes me a person stuck in the past, full of hatred.

This was a very heartfelt question, so I took quite a long time thinking about an answer:

Thank you for having the courage to ask this question. I know it’s not easy. And I want you to know that I too am going through a very similar situation as I’m writing this. So, I totally feel you on this matter!

Firstly, the advice to “forgive and forget” is complete bullshit. It is not forgiveness if you forgot the event. There is nothing to forgive if you cannot remember it. It is perfectly ok to remember the hurt and the pain. We are the sum of our experiences. All the good things that has happened to us, as well as all the hurts, betrayals, tragedies and dramas. The good and the bad: they shape us to be who we are.

What’s more important is to transform that pain, that hurtful memory into one of loving acceptance: this is me now, this is who I am, and I’m ok with it.

How do we do that? We need to give ourselves time and space to grieve, to cry, to emo, and also to process it. The reason why hurt and pain linger for so long (and maybe even fester in our hearts) is because we haven’t given ourselves the chance to let the emotions run their necessary course, by bottling it up, or simply avoid facing up to it.

So let me reiterate: It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to emo and cry. It’s ok to feel the hurt. Let it flow through you and out of you.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know what you mean by “having this pain and not letting go motivates me to do better and better so that I wouldn’t be looked down on again.” It sounds like one of those gongfu movies. You know, the kind where some villain came and slaughtered your entire village when you were a child, but you were spared because you were hiding inside a cupboard or something. So you spend the next 2-3 decades of your life cultivating that hatred in you so that one day you can have the satisfaction of revenge.

My question for you would be: What is the emotion that’s driving you to do better? Is it anger? If it is, that’s not healthy. You can’t maintain anger throughout all your life. It will affect how you interact with other people, and it will affect your mental/physical health. You still can be just as motivated if you allow yourself the chance to grieve and process the hurt.

I’ll say one more thing. Time does heal all wounds – physical and emotional. I used to do a lot of shit in the past. And it never ceases to amaze me how, after 2-3 years later, many of these people don’t hold my past failings against them. I was incredibly relieved. The experience of being given a second chance by other people was such a moving experience. And it did inspire me to do likewise. If I like and desire to be forgiven and given a second chance, then I too should do the same to others. It is only right.

But you need to be clear what you mean by forgiveness. Minimally, forgiveness (and not forgetting) means you won’t hold their past faults against them. It is akin to saying: I know you have hurt me, and you might hurt me the same way again, but I am going to give you a second chance and I trust that you won’t let me down.

Sometimes, giving the person a second chance doesn’t mean a chance at the same thing. E.g. if it was a bad romantic relationship, then don’t go back to a romantic relationship – a second chance can just be the chance to be friends again. Or if you’re unsure, at least the second chance means a chance to reconnect and see where you go from there.

But give yourself plenty of time and space. There is no hurry to forgive. We all recover from our hurts at different rates.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.