Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): On the Virtue of Forgiveness


Maggie: You said previously that you try to work on one virtue each year. What are you working on this year?

John: The virtue of forgiveness.

Maggie: How is it going?

John: It could be going better. This is a challenging virtue.

Maggie: I am actually glad to hear you say that. I find working on these virtues hard, and it is nice to hear you say you struggle also. Why did you choose forgiveness, since it is so challenging for you?

John: For three reasons. First, when we do not forgive others we allow them to have some measure of control over us. I want to control my own thoughts and emotions, and not simply respond to the actions of others. Second, I believe that when we let go of our hurt, anger, resentment, bitterness, and grudges towards others, we grow in peace and gain better mental and physical health. Negative emotions hurt us both mentally and physically, and by forgiving others I can get rid of them. Third, I believe that forgiveness, as a virtue, leads to happiness.

But trust me, forgiveness is not always easy. Sometimes the best I can do is hate. In those times, I find prayer to be helpful. I also turn to the writings of the great examples of forgiveness: the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King, Jr. And, of course, the stories of Christ.

Maggie: Do you really think forgiveness is a virtue, or is it simply an act we do?

John: I think it is a virtue, because it is a habit (or pattern of behavior) that we can develop if we work hard at it. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best when he said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”

Maggie: If it is a virtue, then it is a mean between two extremes. What are the extremes?

John: Forgiveness is a mean between unforgiveness and flattery. The first person—the unforgiving person—holds onto her hurt and anger and resentment. Because she refuses to let these emotions go, they often manifest themselves in external acts towards others, even those who have not hurt her. This person has difficulties managing her anger, she gossips constantly, she tears others down in the workplace and at school, and she often suffers from resentiment (which we discussed in a previous blog post). The second person—the flatterer—easily forgives others, but she does so simply to gain favor. This person is also referred to as a sycophant or a suck-up.

Maggie: I have heard people say that forgiveness is not a virtue, but a sign of weakness.

John: Yes, that unfortunately is a popular viewpoint. It is also a very toxic viewpoint.  

This opinion is most often held by two groups of people: those who want revenge and those who hide behind a façade of justice.

The first group of people—those who seek revenge—respond to people who hurt them by trying to cause pain in return. They do this through acts of physical violence, gossip, lies, or other similar means. When such behaviors become a habit, they often lead to troubles at work, at home, and in personal relationships. In addition, by giving into revenge, these folks fail to control their own thoughts, opinions, and actions, which is a real sign of weakness.

The second group of people—those who claim to want justice—are even worse than the first group. These folks hide behind a pretense of justice to mask their hatred and anger, all the while quietly and secretly dreaming about and seeking revenge. And when harm occurs to the other person, they rejoice and thank the gods for exercising their justice in the world. We often see this behavior in religious people who quote various religious texts on justice to justify their desire for revenge and their joy at seeing others suffer pain.      

But I believe Mahatma Gandhi was correct when he said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” By forgiving people we gain and maintain control over our thoughts, actions, and emotions. By not responding to the hurtful and harmful acts of others with hate and vengeance, we deny them control over our thoughts and actions. That is true strength.

Maggie: You sound very passionate about this.

John: I have struggled with developing this virtue enough to understand the strength that lies in true forgiveness.

Maggie: How are you going about developing the virtue?

John: I have found the process to be very hard and rather time-consuming.

First, I engage in self-appropriation and reflection on the facts at issue. I do so in order to distinguish between those actions of others that resulted in real injury to me, and those actions that caused only a perceived injury. Let me give you two examples.

On the one hand, I can imagine a scenario where someone in my workplace tells a lie about me simply to advance his career. After intense reflection, including self-reflection and reflection on the facts, it is plain to see that this action indeed caused real injury by hurting my reputation. Rather than retaliate, I can chose to forgive this person. Forgiving him will prevent him from having further control over my thoughts and emotions, and it may at some point restore our friendship.

On the other hand, I can imagine a scenario where a friend does not invite me to a particular social event. After intense reflection, again including self-reflection and reflection on the facts, I realize that I don’t have all the information I need to make a good judgment about the situation and that I am being overly sensitive. This person probably has a perfectly logical explanation of which I am simply not aware. And, if it truly continues to bother me, I can talk with this person to find out the real reason why I wasn’t invited.

In other words, self-analysis helps us determine when forgiveness is needed and where we simply need to grow thicker skin. 

Maggie: What if I am not very good at self-analysis?

John: Well, that is where good friends or even a counselor can come in handy. They can help you ask the right questions and point out blind spots (also called scotomas) that you cannot see.

Maggie: I like that word “scotoma.”

John: Me too. It’s a cool word.

Second, I engage in the mental exercise of forgiveness. I mentally forgive the person who wronged me; but this is not a one-time act. I do so over and over again, each time the hurt or anger or bitterness arises. By mentally forgiving him or her many times over, the pain and anger slowly disappears.

I know that this is hard to do. Sometimes we like to take our anger out and play with it, fantasizing about all the acts of revenge we would like to see happen to the person. But we need to be careful of such thoughts, because they can take on a life of their own. When the hurt arises, we need to quickly and thoroughly forgive the other person, and by doing so, we will eventually internalize the forgiveness.

In other words, forgiveness is a process. Sometimes the process is short, and at other times, the process is long and arduous. But if we engage in the process, we will slowly but surely get rid of the hurt and anger and bitterness. And we will be the happier for it.

Maggie: Do you ever talk to the other person?

John: Sometimes I do, if I know the other person well and care about that person. Sometimes I do not, especially if the other person is volatile or violent. Talking to these types of people can make matters worse, or even put you at risk of personal harm. But this is a judgment call that should be made in consultation with other people.

Maggie: Why should I forgive people? It is easier to just hate them.

John: For many reasons, some of which we have touched on here. First, forgiveness is a virtue, and, as we have discussed previously, we can only be truly happy when we are virtuous. Second, forgiving people removes their control over our lives. We no longer respond to their actions, but gain control over our own actions. Third, forgiveness gives us internal peace, and, by doing so, improves our mental (and even physical) health. Fourth, forgiveness does not guarantee that our relationship with the other person will improve. But the relationship can’t improve without it. So forgiveness is the first step in reconciliation with the other person. Lastly, for people of faith like us, forgiveness resembles God’s forgiveness of us, and partakes in that character.

Maggie: What if I am the one that hurt someone and needs forgiveness.

John: You should carefully assess the facts and determine if you really need forgiveness. But don’t judge yourself to harshly.

If you determine that you need forgiveness, you should tell the other person you are sorry for what you did. But don’t expect forgiveness, especially immediately. Others may need time to do so.

Maggie: Well, I forgive you.

John: For what?

Maggie: For whatever you will do in the future to make me mad. I am sixteen, you know, so I am sure you will do something.

John: Well—mea culpa, porcus sum.

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