For some reason, the topic of “forgive but never forget” has come up a number of times with friends in the last few weeks, which is why I’ve decided to address it today.
“Forgive but never forget” is one of those little phrases that has crept into our daily language and thought. Seems like common sense. So I consistently encounter surprise from my clients when I disagree with this “wisdom,” urging them to forgive a past wrong. People tell me: “How could I forget what he/she did to me? It was so painful. If I forget, then the same thing is likely to happen to me the next time.”
Let’s take a look at what’s generally considered one of the most horrendous acts ever committed by humans: the Holocaust. That descent into insanity by a supposedly civilized people became the “poster child” of “Forgive but Never Forget.” 9/11 is also used to justify that stance; the endless showing of jets crashing into the Twin Towers help insure that forgetting is virtually impossible.
But can we honestly say that wariness (i.e. not forgetting) will prevent something terrible from happening again? Ask the millions of people slaughtered in Rwanda or Darfur, even though the whole world knew that genocide was occurring, just as it did in the Holocaust. The excuse often given for the world’s inaction in those places was that they happened to people too different, living in too different an environment, for Westerners to really understand and care about what was happening, and to some degree that’s true. But the fact remains that millions of people have died in those two parts of Africa. As for 9/11, were we wise in spending hundreds of billions of dollars on Homeland Security, driven by the fear of a repeat of a massive terrorist action? What might have happened if even a fraction of that money was spent on, for example, health care (where that amount could well have saved hundreds of thousands of lives)?
Let’s turn from this macro view of the forgiving – forgetting spectrum (I apologize for being a history buff) to a micro view; how can this concept benefit your most important relationships, particularly your romantic ones. First, recognize that people tend to project meaning onto situations. If you call someone I don't know very well and she ends your conversation rather abruptly, I might attribute that to a) her being interrupted by something important; b) a lack of interest in talking right now; or c) plain rudeness. the choice of what cause to attribute the action to is mine. Although you probably know your spouse well, be careful of blindly assuming that a shoulder shrug means "I don't care" or the meaning of hrt not phoning you until 4:00 when she knew you had an important meeting that morning. Your relationship history with her will certainly impact the meaning you give her action. Try to leave at least a little space for an alternative explanation.
Never forgetting can mean that we see events through a static, inaccurate lens, because it is a lens fashioned from a past event that took place in a very different context. What’s really meant by “Never Forget” is “give special emphasis to this past wrong; it’s worthy of extra attention”. That emphasis leads us to view events from a perspective very strongly informed by the past, which has certain advantages (we do in fact learn from our mistakes) but also skews our perspective on what is currently happening, preventing us from observing objectively and making the best possible choice. ( I frequently encounter stuck, unforgiving attitudes in my work as a career counselor and life coach, more so in Washington DC than I did in L.A. Why this might be so may be the subject of an upcoming blog ).
So if wariness can’t reliably protect us from a repetition of the same injury, what can?
I’d like to propose a way of thinking about forgiveness that entails forgetting in the sense of not paying special attention to a past wrong. Forgiveness can be thought of as acceptance of what has been. Not approval, but acceptance. And acceptance can be practiced constantly throughout the day, without the necessity of speaking to anyone. Any time ANYTHING bothers you, try to remind yourself that if it's not changeable (the weather, your boss, the time it takes to commute to work, what city you live in, your mother-in-law), it's not worth losing your cool over. ACCEPT (or, in terms of this article) FORGIVE. And FORGET! A famous quote by Paul Boese summarizes the advantage of forgiveness nicely: “Forgiveness doesn’t change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”