In my view, true forgiveness is not some sort of religious obligation nor some variety of wishful thinking. I don’t really “get” the mechanics of the act until I begin understanding the person who did me seriously wrong. What was her or his background? What might be her or his motivation, and so forth? Going through this type of evaluation has enabled me to move on. This is not to say that I welcome such people back naively with wide-open arms. If being an acquaintance or cohort with such people creates harm or is in any way endangering, they are unwelcome in my life. This is just the way my brain ticks.
In less serious scenarios, such as an honest misunderstanding, I tell the person that I forgive her or him. What this implies, is that I know the person screwed up and caused harm to me in the process. By saying I forgive that person, I affirm that ethics and justice have been violated but that the particular minor infraction does not “count” in the overall scheme of our relationship.
I like to compare this hierarchy of misdeeds and levels of forgiveness to the State of Nebraska’s drivers license penalty points system. A driver who has zero traffic infractions on her record–a clean slate–has twelve points. If she is convicted of speeding 5 through 10 miles an hour over the limit, she loses one point. If she has driven faster than 35 miles an hour over the limit, she loses four points. If she is convicted of driving while under the influence of a control substance she loses six points, if it is her third conviction, she loses all twelve points. A conviction for vehicular homicide is penalized by subtracting all twelve points. If a driver loses all twelve points, her or his license is suspended.
I should add that I do not “convict” the transgressors as if I was some sort of traffic court judge. My judgment is based upon merit and what sort of character they usually exhibit. Forgiving has little to do with whether or not the person “deserves” it. The act of forgiveness is about healing and moving on. After a certain amount of time spent ruminating about the transgressor and the wrong, nothing is gained by spending mental energy on the situation. Again, this varies loosely on my personal hierarchy of wrongdoings as mentioned above. None of this is set in stone, so there certainly are exceptions because the level and types of transgressions cause various amounts of loss and pain.
Ideally it would be great if the wrongdoer repents and asks for my forgiveness. However, waiting for the wrongdoer to express remorse may take a long time or might not even happen. Waiting a long time for an apology takes away a certain amount of happiness and peace that I would otherwise experience. While I might be churning with resentment inside, the perpetrator might be merrily going about his business with hardly a care.
There’s one type of forgiveness that’s more difficult–self forgiveness. Although an acquaintance or friend may have granted me forgiveness for something wrong I did, my mind mulls things over long afterwards–in some cases decades after the fact. Sometimes, I am my own harshest critic. I might have a flashback about some long ago misdeed. Instantly I feel my face flush and my mood darken. Then I must go through a process of forgiveness all over again. The matter of forgiveness of oneself and of others seems never completed; it’s always a work in progress.
It’s important to remember is that forgiveness is an act that frees oneself to be able to move on with living.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the woman best known as the nine-year-old child depicted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken while she fled a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, Phan Thi Kim Phuc. “When I felt real forgiveness, my heart was set free.”