I have always believed in forgiveness, (or at least I think I always thought I had - at the very least as a civilised value). To believe in a value, however, and to practise it are two entirely different things, as I came to find out. Ultimately I came to practise it because I was forced to face the harm that was done to me when I was abused as a child. This was forced upon me by a mental breakdown and it made me realise that I needed to heal from what had been done to me. I found the only way I could do that was through appropriate therapy and ultimately forgiving. As a result I became a social worker and then a therapeutic foster mother for severely abused children, three of whom I adopted. I thought I had always believed in forgiveness but that turned out not to be the case. Or at least not in the way I now understand forgiveness to mean. I came to believe in forgiveness because for me it was the only way out of my mental torment. It was the only choice I had. To give up the anger and hatred and let it go. Let go of the bitterness and the wish I had to hurt the people who had hurt me.
I think here we need to define what I mean by forgiveness. For me it means simply that the desire to take revenge against the event/person who hurt you has been let go of and that the event/person you are forgiving ceases to dominate your life. It means in that sense that you regain your own power again and that you are in charge of your life - not the event/person who hurt you. It means you are free to go forward with peace of mind and not let your life be dominated by hurtful events/persons from the past. It means you still retain the capacity to love.
Most of all you forgive to help heal yourself - not to set the other person free. The only person who can ultimately free that person from their own guilt, (if they feel any), is themselves. It may help them if you let them know that you forgive them and there is nothing to stop you from doing that, (providing you do not get re-abused in the process), but in my view it is not necessary for your own healing. Neither is it a moral imperative.
It is important for me to establish that, for me, forgiveness can never be considered a moral imperative. I believe forgiveness is preferable in the sense that it is a gift you give yourself to help you heal - I believe it is the ultimate gift of love to yourself and in that to the world. However I believe it can never be mandated. It cannot be something that any outside agency tells you you should or must do. That would simply be cruel. It would be putting yet another burden on someone who is already broken and hurting. It is also psychological nonsense. People heal at their own pace and will forgive if, and when, they are ready. It cannot be forced.
Also, forgiving the other person does not mean that you absolve them of any responsibility for what they have done. It if did, what would there be to forgive? It doesn't mean you need to be high and mighty and judgmental either - how can anyone say with certainty that if they had walked in that hurtful persons shoes that they would not have turned out the way they did? I say no-one can say this truly.
It also doesn't mean that you should be high and mighty about the fact that you can forgive when others can't. If anything, the fact they cannot forgive means that they are still hurting. Surely the most loving response when anyone is hurting is to show them compassion? If you can forgive it means you are fortunate, not morally superior.
Forgiveness does not mean that the other person cannot be punished or should not be rehabilitated for what they have done - or that you cannot desire this outcome. That is a desire for justice and not revenge. It would be a poorer world if there was no justice in it.
I think a lot of confusion comes about concerning forgiveness because of the Christian, (and perhaps other religious views), on it. In this I will concentrate on the Christian perspective because it is the one I know best.
A lot of the moral revulsion I think that many people feel concerning forgiveness, (and they do), comes into play because of the Christian take on forgiveness. It leads people to think that forgiveness is what goody two shoes type of people do. To waft around with ones hands in the air saying "I forgive you" to people is morally repugnant and the height of insufferable arrogance. Someone said this to me recently and I commented, "Good for you. I hope it feels good because I do not need your forgiveness. The only forgiveness I need is the forgiveness I give to myself". The man concerned was a fundamentalist Christian and his attitude made me feel physically sick, to put it bluntly.
If he had told me that his God forgave me, I think I would really have put him right. That is because I am a Deist. While I believe there is a Cosmic Intelligence, (or what some might call God), who created the world, he, (for want of a better word), has absolutely no interest in forgiving me or not. That is because he created me with intelligence and Reason by which I could work out that psychologically it was better for my mental health and my life if I did forgive. I have no need of a supernatural agency to forgive me.
I was brought up a Christian and as such was taught the Lord's Prayer. The bit where it says "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" could, in my opinion, be replaced with a more Reasoned Deist understanding and this would be it: "We acknowledge that we cannot expect to live in a world where other people try to live with love and practise forgiveness if we are not at least willing to try and do this ourselves." Note I suggest the intention to try and do these things. People's capacity to love and forgive are variable because of their own situation but at least a willingness to try cannot be expected if we are not willing to try it ourselves.
My commitment to forgiveness was tested to the limit when on the 7th July 2005 I was on the platform of a tube station when it was bombed. I was severely injured and still to all intents and purposes I cannot walk to this day. (I can hobble a few feet in pain and with assistance). I am effectively confined to a mobility scooter when I go out and a wheelchair when inside and am in constant but variable pain. The bombings of the 7th July 2005 also ultimately killed my husband who I loved very much. It also injured a close friend of mine who is now my principal caregiver. But could I forgive?
I have to admit it has been a long and hard struggle but I finally have come to know that I forgive my attackers. And I know it for the simple reason I would never wish what happened to me to happen to them or anyone else and it has made my commitment to non-violence, except in situations of self-defence, absolutely resolute. I would not wish the pain I felt and still feel even on my worst enemy. And for me that is my understanding of forgiveness. I am at some sort of peace now. And my physical pain eases when I forgive and am not full of anger.
I have come to learn though that forgiven is not a static state. It is a dynamic state. It is not a destination. It is a journey and on my journey I explored reasons as to why what had happened to me actually did happen to me. What was the ultimate meaning of it?
On my journey to find answers to this question I went on a spiritual quest and investigated most of the world's religions and belief systems and I rejected them all. I was not bombed because it was my "karma" and had been bad in a previous life. I had not been bombed because my soul required "lessons" and I had "attracted" it. I was not bombed because of Satan being in the world, (he doesn't exist by the way), and I had not been bombed because it was an act of God. Why would a loving God want me to be bombed - to strengthen my character as some religious people suggested? Would any loving parent deliberately hurt their child so their "character" got strengthened? My Reasoned answer would be no.
No, the reason I got bombed was because there are evil people in the world and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and the bombs obeyed the laws of physics. Laws that had been put in place by our Creator and had been misused by people with warped minds. How could anyone claiming to follow a religion "revealed" by God plant a bomb to maim and kill ordinary people just going about their everyday life? (And in this I am not singling out Islam. All of the three so called "revealed" Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a history of bloodshed and violence - so no-one in this respect is historically morally superior to the other).
However, it made me think there must be a problem because if the God of love, (which I trust our Creator is), could not be found in the "revealed" religions or in any of the other belief systems, all of which have their own superstitions of faith healing, miracles and supernatural entities etc., where could he be found?
I loved and marvelled at Nature. I also believed in Science. I tried to become an Atheist because, truthfully, I had met some marvellous and loving Atheists who helped me in my healing from the bombing and losing my husband. I knew because of them that belief in religion and supernatural entities were not needed to be kind and loving. It seemed to be an inherent, (if somewhat collectively underdeveloped), quality of human nature. Yet where had that human nature come from? Why didn't conscious beings, if they were just collections of chemicals subject to physical laws just turn out to be violent, self - centered and aggressive?
Also why were these conscious beings endowed with Reason? Where did that come from? A collection of chemicals does not need to develop either consciousness or Reason. Also, I still saw an Intelligence in Nature. Nature did not create itself. So there must have been behind all that a Creator of some kind.
It was paradoxically whilst reading the book "The God Delusion" by the famous English Atheist Richard Dawkins that I first came across the concept of Deism. That lead me to the Internet and the World Union of Deists. And I knew I had come home. That's what I was - I was a Deist and the rest, as they say, is history.
I knew that God had given me Reason that had lead me to work out that forgiveness was the way out of my mental hell caused by the bombings. And Reason, that caused me to be able to garner my emotions and rise above my baser instincts, was my evidence of God. It was also in the science and evidence based conventional and complimentary medicine that was helping to heal my physical pain.
So now, still, every day I am on the journey of forgiveness but I know that my God given reason will help me through. That then is what forgiveness is for me as a Deist. A function of Reason. Our Creator's most precious gift after life itself.
It was given to us by our Creator to help us heal, not given as a moral mandate. Forgiveness was given to us as a gift to, through Reason, help heal us. But only we, including Deists, can choose whether we make use of that gift or not.