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Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better Not to Forgive


Posted February 1, 2003

Forgive and Forget?

Linda-Ann Stewart

Years ago, I followed the spiritual teaching that said to truly forgive, you must forget the offense. At the time, I was in a relationship and each time we had an argument, I'd forgive and literally forget about the incident. Months later, I was re-reading my journal and noticed a pattern. Each argument, though about different topics, all had an element of attempting to demean or control me in some way. I was shocked at the recurring nature of the arguments. When I tried to discuss it with my significant other, he brushed it off. This opened a chasm between us that eventually ended the relationship.

Because of this experience, and others like it, I disagree with many spiritual teachers about the concept of forgiving and forgetting. If we forget the occurrence, we don't integrate what we've learned from the event. It would be like lighting a match, letting it burn down until the flame singed our finger, then forgetting the pain, injury and what had happened. Then every time we light a match, we run the risk of being burned again. Without the memory, we could easily find ourselves in the same situation (as I did) time after time.

This doesn't mean that we have to hold onto the emotional baggage of the situation. We can forgive by releasing, resolving or working through the anger, but that doesn't mean that we just wipe the information out of our minds. We can remember the incident without the emotional charge on it, like a caution sign that can warn us of possible danger. This way, we can recognize any negative patterns that we need to know about, and figure out what actions to take.

In a later relationship, my significant other lived a distance away, and didn't have a phone. We'd make an appointment to meet at a central location and drive together from there to wherever we were going. The only problem was that he had a habit of being significantly late. After every meeting, he'd promise to change his behavior, but he'd do the same thing the very next time. He always had a reasonable excuse. But one time, he kept me waiting for almost two hours in ninety-degree heat. I forgave him, but from that point on, if he didn't show up within fifteen minutes of the time we'd agree on, I'd leave. He soon learned to be on time. I didn't absolve his actions, but I didn't hold onto the anger, either. Because I noticed the pattern, I figured out what would be appropriate, self-supporting action on my part.

Just because we remember the details doesn't mean that we use it to batter the person in a later disagreement. If you've truly forgiven, the only thing left from the event is the knowledge you've acquired and the facts. There's no need to bring it up in later arguments in an attempt to bolster your position or shame the person. Deal with it at the time of the original event with the person, release the anger, then recall the incident only as a yardstick of how the person treats you or as history of what's happened. If you've done this successfully, you'll recall the incident without any uncomfortable emotions. Then, if you notice a pattern, decide what's the best thing for you to do about it.

We can't change the other person; we can only change how we respond to the situation. Forgiving a person may be the ultimate of spiritual practice, but forgetting can sometimes be self-destructive because you destroy valuable information that should be used to enhance your well-being.

I forgive any offenses against me, and forgive myself for anything I've done to offend others. By forgiving, I let go of the anger against the offender. I allow myself to remember the facts of the incident, without the emotional baggage, knowing that they're just history. If the situation repeats itself or I notice a pattern, I decide on what appropriate, self-affirming action to take that supports my ultimate well being.


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