“The first pressure of sorrow crushes out from our hearts the best wine; afterwards the constant weight of it brings forth bitterness, the taste and stain from the lees of the vat.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
While vacationing in Hawaii with my friend Jeanette in May of this year, we spoke often about the process of forgiveness. A Professor of Theology and Religious Studies and a feminist liberation theologian, her focus is on worldwide peace and justice. I especially appreciated these discussions because of her work with indigenous peoples in various countries who have suffered unimaginable assaults. We pondered the whys and how’s of forgiveness. The following series of articles stems from these discussions. To begin, I asked Jeanette to help me discern the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
“There is an abundance of literature available about what forgiveness is and the steps necessary to get to it at a psycho-social and spiritual level. In reviewing the common understanding of forgiveness, I looked in Webster’s New World Thesaurus. It’s interesting that they have the words “forgiving,” “forgivable,” “forgive,” “forgiveness.” The words used to unpack this process or this “gift” are pardon, forgive and forget, let pass, excuse, condone. The word forgiven implies to be reinstated, taken back, and welcomed home. The act of forgiving is charitable, open hearted, and generous. That’s quite a challenge for any individual, especially if the offender continues to offend. There are important differences between forgiveness and reconciliation.” (J Rodriguez)
“Forgiveness is a unilateral action. It’s a response to an injury or harm on the part of the injured person. The problem with forgiveness is that it’s not in our immediate first-response nature. When someone hurts us, we get angry and resentful, and we want to strike back. This is a natural and normal response. Therefore, forgiveness is a process of not just letting go, but surrendering to the one-sidedness of the injury. If you chose the process of forgiveness, it is imperative that you understand that it doesn’t involve changing the other person. If the other person would admit to and accept their part in the injury, there possibly could be reconciliation.” (J Rodriguez)
For the purposes of this blog series, I am stressing the independent, one-sided act of forgiveness. I will discuss the myriad of feelings, attitudes, and processes that go into forgiving. People who come out of a religious tradition recognize the ability to forgive as a spiritual act as well as a paradoxical act.
“It’s paradoxical because it requires a different response to what we might normally feel when receiving an injury—perhaps initial feelings of righteousness and justification for the anger and bitterness. Most acts of forgiveness require thoughtfulness toward those initial feelings so that we have choices in the way we ultimately respond.” (J Rodriguez)
Also, in the act of forgiveness, as we let go of the pain and resentment, we might feel our hearts soften as the toxins are released that contribute to feeling trapped in the negativity of blaming others for our feelings. Through forgiveness we are empowered to move forward in our lives.
The act of forgiveness is a healing gift to one’s self, having nothing to do with the offender. It does not require that the other person accept responsibility for their part in the offence. Forgiveness does not require that we have a meeting of the minds as does the process of reconciliation. I want to be clear that forgiveness is not condoning behavior that has been harmful. And it does not mean forgetting.
“Reconciliation is different; it requires the participation of both parties for it to occur. If forgiveness is unilateral, reconciliation is bilateral. Reconciliation requires the offender to accept it, acknowledge it, and take responsibility for the offense.” (J Rodriguez)
One aspect of the forgiveness process is challenging some of your assumptions, decisions and beliefs about what happened. For example, in my book, Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe, I describe several childhood abuses. During my healing process I was able to see that I had made the assumption that ALL men were bad and untrustworthy. It was quite empowering for me when I took responsibility for my beliefs –NOT the actions of the perpetrators. Sometimes we may not feel ready for the pain and discomfort of uncovering the incident but it remains a unilateral process. It takes time to sort through layers of feelings, memories and the complexities of injuries and relationships.
Dr. Terry D. Hargrave, Professor of Marital and Family Therapy and author of several books on forgiveness, states that there are some crucial factors to consider in working through pain that someone has experienced at the hands of another. They include “the severity of the injury, the degree of commitment to the relationship, the degree at which the offender is really sorry, the capacity for forgiveness, and the personalities of each individual.” He discusses the complexities of the human relationship and how to come to forgiveness. I will say more about how to come to forgiveness as the series continues.
I want to reiterate that this series is not about the bilateral process of reconciliation, it is about the unilateral process of forgiveness. This series will focus on helping you learn about the process of forgiveness. These posts are about the ways in which your heart may be tethered to an invisible cross because of old injuries. This is about the degree of freedom in which you want your mind, body and heart to feel as you move through your world free of the bondage of un-forgiveness.
What are your thoughts regarding the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation?
By making the distinctions between the two, does thinking about forgiving or forgiveness seem easier?
Jeanette Rodriguez Ph.D.
Professor Theology and Religious Studies
Cultural Memory: Resistance, Faith and Identity. by Jeanette Rodriguez & Ted Fortier