One of the most often evoked messages in recovery is the need to forgive. Resentments are heralded as the chief offender, and carrying around unresolved emotional pains, real or imagined slights, and angry or mournful disappointments are seen as sure paths to relapse. Forgiveness is seen as the antidote for these “spiritual ailments” and a sure and necessary component of serenity. I submit, however, that forgiveness must be abandoned as a goal and as a way of life.
Forgiveness and Debt
I visited a Christian blog recently (Ginzo Talk) which offered the following definition of forgiveness:
Forgiveness – a : to give up resentment of or claim to requital for b : to grant relief from payment of
While this blogger expressed a preference for the second definition, I feel that they both have the same failing. That is they are each based on seeing human relations as essentially a series of fundamentally commercial relations. As such, based on one persons behavior they either “owe” something to another, or are “owed” something from the other..
In the case of the second of these two definitions this is obvious: “to grant relief from payment of”. Thus, if I forgive you, I am relieving you an obligation you have to me. The assumption of a sort of commercial activity between people is explicit. You did X and as such you owe me Y. You can either pay Y or I can “forgive” that debt. This I would term “restorative debt”, and thus “restorative debt forgiveness/”
The second part of the first definition, “giving up a claim to requital for”, is slightly more subtle, but amounts to the same thing. A “claim to requital for” is just a fancy way of saying I gave you X and as such you owe me X in return. This often takes the form of “I love you so you should love me.” Again, a sort of commercial transaction. This then constitutes what I’ll term “reciprocal debt” and “reciprocal debt forgiveness.”
Next, lets consider the first part of the first definition: “give up resentment of “. Now to those in 12 Step recovery the term “resentment” has a special and sinister meaning. Resentments are described as the chief offender, certain to lead one to drink again. As such, understanding what a resentment is is doubly important because it helps us understand both that part of the “program” as well as forgiveness.
A simple definition of resentment is “the feeling of displeasure or indignation at some act, remark, person, etc regarded as causing injury or insult” (Dictionary.com) In short, we might say its a feeling caused by another, seen as causing injury or insult.
Now at first glance this definition of forgiveness does not seem to follow the debt model laid out above. One might say that since I’m just giving up my own “feeling” there is no debt at issue. However, this ignores the most basic reason for this “feeling.” That is, we each have a basic belief that we are entitled to NOT feel that displeasure. Thus, If you caused my displeasure X then you have harmed me. This I would term “rehabilitative debt.”
Now, If it is simply a matter of giving up the feeling of displeasure then the question must be asked “Who are we forgiving?” The answer is that we are forgiving ourselves for feeling that way, or the other for causing the feeling. If we conceive of it as forgiving the other the commercial nature of forgiveness is again obvious. What if we are forgiving our selves? Again, this is a commercial relation, we are feeling X; we see that we inappropriately are causing in ourselves X (we resent ourselves); and so we owe ourselves some sort of relief.
If one encounters an injured animal, one that’s scared, one is not surprised if one gets bitten. In this instance we understand that the animal’s action of biting (or clawing or scratching) us is not a malicious act. We also understand that when we come across an injured animal, and we are injured by it, the animal owes us nothing. We have no claim against the animal for requital (we don’t expect it to love us for any aid we offer, or if we do it is easy to see the foolishness of this attitude), we have no claim of repayment from the animal, and we recognize the foolishness of resenting the animal. This is all true because we recognize that the animal’s action arise from it’s own suffering.
Thus, when we recognize that the animal’s action is from it’s own suffering, and that it owes us nothing, not even for any aid we render, we see that we have no need to forgive that animal. Neither restorative, reciprocal, nor rehabilitative debt is owed. The same is true of other people. When we see that their actions are merely their reactions to their own suffering we can feel compassion for that person. Part of that compassion is the understanding that since it was born of their suffering, and they owe us nothing, forgiveness is not necessary.
Living the Model
Living this model means that one need never forgive, because there is nothing to forgive. The benefits of this approach is twofold. First, in specific relationships, one need not spend time, energy, and emotion in the constant economy of emotional debt. One does not focus energy on “you owe me this” or “you owe me for that”, or even “I’m in debt to you for this or that”. One escapes the overlay this crude economy places on relationships, and concern for how and when these debts get paid, whether our payment is accepted or theirs is acceptable. We escape all of this emotional bookkeeping.
Secondly, and more importantly, we escape the more general attitude of seeing people merely as economic actors. By learning to see their slights and injuries to us as manifestations of their own suffering we no longer are centered on ourselves. We are now are able to focus on their pain, their suffering and thus how to serve and assist them. We move away from an ego-centric way of being in the world and become other-centric. If one must, one can see that such a shift does in fact aid us because if their injuries to us arise from their suffering, then alleviating their suffering will dismiss these slights.
In Sum – A Prayer
Forgiveness is unnecessary because no debt is owed. I will endeavor not to forgive you, or myself, because all the “wrongs” I experience are nothing more than evidence of your, or my, pain. I will endeavor not forgive what is not owed. Instead, I will endeavor to see instead the suffering that gives rise to these slights, and work always to aid those who suffer, whether myself or others.