Oh, forgive up!

Oliver Burkeman wrote about forgiveness in the Guardian on 31 July 2010 (qv), coming largely to the conclusion that it’s somewhat overrated.

There’s a lot to agree with. Ever since I found it years ago, I’ve kept Eric Berne’s thoughts on it close at hand, metaphorically speaking. To paraphrase (and add to) what he wrote in “What Do You Say After You Say Hello?”, the idea of forgiveness has a number of flaws:

1. Who do you think you are to offer forgiveness? From what high moral ground do you make the gift of such pompous largesse? Oliver Burkeman quotes a headline from The Onion, “Pope Forgives Molested Children”.
2. Forgiveness can be withdrawn – ie it can be conditional; it could be a game. Some people, notably practised victims, can re-open old wounds whenever it’s convenient.
3. The “forgiven” can decline to accept the gift, which renders it somewhat meaningless.
4. It’s not clear – is it the person or the act that’s being forgiven?
5. Some people/things simply can’t/shouldn’t be forgiven: genocide, for instance, at one end of the scale, loud shirts at the other.

Berne suggests that a healthier thing to do is to allow either the person or the act (or both) simply to become irrelevant. Move on; leave it behind; let it pass; shake the dust from your feet. Those in the counselling trade might also add that perhaps you should rather forgive yourself – a way of shedding guilt. I’m constantly forgiving myself.

A friend of mine also suggested that the roots of the words might be ‘fore’, as in before, and ‘giving’ as in making the gift; therefore forgiving means returning to the place you were in before the ‘gift’ was made. Which kind of means the same thing as irrelevant, even if the etymology might be slightly dodgy.

So, if you’ve been reading this and quietly fuming, don’t worry about me – forgive yourself.

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