Should I just forget and move on?
I remember seeing a post on social media from a person who said, “You do not need to forgive, just forget and move on!” I was surprised by the many replies that echoed this sentiment but also understand why people feel this way, however, is it right, and is it helpful to our own wellbeing? When we are hurt or encounter trauma, should we bypass forgiveness and ‘just forget and move on’?
At the beginning of this Insight, perhaps it is important to state that I have experienced trauma and hurt at the hands of others, and that I am writing and speaking out of a place where I have met this issue head on. I am not alone and I am aware that many of you have been deeply hurt by others. I want you to know I acknowledge and respect your experiences and will try to be as empathetic, gentle, and sensitive as possible.
We have no doubt heard the expressions, “forgive and forget,” or, “bury the hatchet,” or, “let bygones be bygones,” all of which are over-simplistic and wash over the pain and emotions caused by others. Forgetting a hurtful or traumatic experience is impossible, and to imply that someone can simply forget and have no lasting memory of an event is to heap guilt and shame on the survivor as they will undoubtedly fail in their attempts to do so. An alternative then, is perhaps to ignore the traumatic or hurtful event, burying or ignoring the resulting thoughts and feelings, however, any psychotherapist will warn you of the long-term dysfunctionality that can be caused by repressing emotions. No, forgetting or ignoring trauma, however sincerely the sentiment is expressed, is not the answer.
A second option then is to get one’s own back. The idiom, “revenge is sweet,” implies that this is the answer to the pain and trauma inflicted on us by others. The premise is that if we retaliate in kind we will be able to move on, but is this true? Any short-lived satisfaction does not deal with the long-term emotional and intellectual effects and, unless we ignore it, we have to face the fact that we are no ‘better’ than the original perpetrator. I have yet to find attractiveness in a person that seeks or has gained revenge, and often the desire to do so is accompanied with bitterness, malice, and a hardness of heart. Does revenge bring the survivor joy and happiness? I do not think so.
But we must move on because no-one wants to stay in a place of pain, hurt, and trauma with all the associated negative feelings, thoughts, moods, and behaviours. For many of us, we will require specialist help — more than can be provided through prayer counselling with a trusted priest or friend. If this is you, then I would encourage you to seek professional counselling or psychotherapy services. For those of us that are Christians, there will be a spiritual dimension to our journey to wholeness and wellbeing, and this Insight is simply to help support that aspect of our recovery.
Forgiveness is central to the gospel message — the good news of Jesus Christ. If you unpack the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples that we call The Lord’s Prayer, he helps us pray for three core human needs: our daily bread (physical needs), the need to forgive and be forgiven (emotional needs), and to resist temptation and be delivered from evil (spiritual needs). In other words, God is reminding us that forgiveness meted and received is central to our emotional wellbeing. Indeed, if we study the life of Jesus, forgiveness is a key aspect of his mission and ministry, extending God’s forgiveness to all.
Interestingly, receiving God’s forgiveness, although vital, is only one half of the story, because God asks us to forgive others as God forgives us. Now, this leads me to, perhaps the most important part of this Insight. Forgiveness is not for the offender but for the survivor — for you. Forgiveness is not to exonerate the perpetrator, to bypass justice, to forget what they have done, or to let them off the hook. Your forgiving them may have no effect on them whatsoever, but it renders a profound change in the most important person in the offender-survivor relationship, and that is you.
You will not feel like forgiving someone, probably not ever. I say probably because God is at work in us and I do not want to discount the possibility of God doing such a work that we readily come to the table feeling flooded with feelings of forgiveness, but the reality is that I have yet to encounter such a saintly person! No, when we are hurt by others and feel anger at the injustice that has been caused, we do not feel readily able to forgive, and this is because forgiveness is not a feeling. It is a decision. Forgiveness is an intellectual exercise that has positive emotional consequences. In other words, we choose to forgive. And because, sometimes the wounds are so deep and their effects so profoundly devastating to our wellbeing, our wilful act of forgiveness is made through gritted teeth and is one that needs to be repeated over and over. For many, if not most of us, forgiveness is both a decision and a process. When Jesus was asked by Peter (Matthew 18:21-22) how many times we should forgive someone Jesus replied, “seventy times seven times!” In other words, with no limit.
However difficult it is to forgive, the power of forgiveness is no less effective. It is the antidote to our own bitterness, resentment, uncontrolled-anger, spitefulness, hard-heartedness, and the need to hold a grudge or seek revenge. Through the continual process of forgiveness we become more loving, kind, gentle, patient, peaceful, and joyful, and who does not want to be those things?
Going back to the reminder that Jesus gave us, he does not only call us to forgive others but receive God’s forgiveness. God does not expect us to be able to forgive others in our own strength for our own tanks would empty pretty quickly! Forgiveness flows from God into us and overflows to others. Of course, we can stop that flow in either direction if we choose to do so, but, for our wholeness and wellbeing we need to continually come to God to intentionally and mindfully receive that forgiveness, and it is why, in our weekly church worship, we give time and space to doing just that.
I am reminded of a time I heard the theologian Jürgen Moltmann speak at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick the UK. The building was one of the very prisoner of war camps where he, as a German soldier, was briefly incarcerated and later returned in 1947 for the first post-war meeting of the Christian Student Movement. To the riveted listeners, he told the story of how some Dutch soldiers took him into an empty room and sat him in a chair. He expected a beating but instead they explained that they were Christians and that they forgave him. He was handed a New Testament and Psalms and his life was forever changed.
The power of forgiveness is profound, and I confess that I have yet to plumb all its depths, yet it is essential for our own health and wellbeing, for our relationship with God, with others, and for the world. So let us not simply forget and move on, but forgive and be forgiven.