THR Blog   /   January 4, 2021

The Fantasy of Self-Forgiveness

Why the concept of forgiveness is not to be played with.

Gordon Marino

( Scene from Boris Eifman’s ballet of The Brothers Karamazov (2019).)

In recent times, a veritable industry has burgeoned around the concept of forgiveness. Go to Amazon, and you will find some 2,000 results for books on the subject. It is not surprising that in an era Christopher Lasch baptized, “the age of narcissism” the primary focus of the forgiveness trade is learning “to forgive ourselves.” Colin Tipping’s 2011 book Radical Forgiveness: The Direct Path to True Self Acceptance epitomizes an understanding of the word that would have been incomprehensible to earlier generations. It amounts to forgiveness as a form of therapy, as a way of moving on with your life. And who can grouse about that? Well, I can—at least about the self-forgiveness part. 

The simple fact is that I have no more right to forgive myself for hurting someone than I have as a third party to forgive someone who has harmed you. If Jack is guilty of slandering Jill, who am I, the uninjured party, to forgive Jack? Only the aggrieved individual can grant forgiveness. If you hope to be forgiven by someone, the best you can do is to acknowledge what you have done and make amends. 

Over the decades, I have made my share of apologies for a variety of peccadillos, but only once or thrice in my adult life have I pled for forgiveness for something serious. I remember making a plea with a friend over the phone, and it was with fear and trembling. My voice was cracking as I brought up a scene I thought had long been buried between us, but he remembered it distinctly. In another instance, I asked to be forgiven by a woman whose trust I had betrayed. She responded with a stinging letter, telling me in no uncertain terms to leave her alone and plead with God for forgiveness! 

This scolding was not the pat on the head I was expecting. Regrettably, I shot back in an angry note, which thirty years later and hopefully a little wiser, I would gladly beg forgiveness for sending. It’s too late now. She’s gone. I have no authority to forgive myself for the lasting soul scars I visited upon her. Then again, as the woman I hurt, my one-time fiancée, reminded me, there is always God’s forgiveness. 

As the Biblical prescription goes, seeking God’s forgiveness is a matter of repenting and resolving to change your ways. But God’s forgiveness is tantamount to third-party forgiveness, unless you are one of the faithful who believe that to hurt someone else is to hurt your Creator. The challenge to such faith is great, as suggested in the searing question that Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, hurls at Alyosha, his monk brother, concerning story of the master who sets his hounds on a little peasant boy. Ivan presses Alyosha: What right does God have to forgive such a monster when it wasn’t God who was torn to pieces?

The concept of forgiveness is not to be played with. Christ was crucified for assuming the burden of atoning for humankind’s sins. In the first essay of his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche, the self-proclaimed Anti-Christ, obliquely argues that the sin-and-forgiveness dialectic is a game, a masked expression of the will to power. By his reckoning, it would be healthier for the injured party to seek sweet revenge. Forgiveness is fool’s gold, a coward’s way of turning a vice into a virtue, or so Nietzsche preaches. Worse yet, the grand master of suspicion harbors no doubt that when we forgive someone we keep their misdeeds in our score book. One of the few philosophers to laud the value of forgetfulness, Nietzsche writes: 

To be incapable of taking one’s enemies, one’s accidents, even one’s misdeeds seriously for very long—that is the sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mold, to recuperate and to forget (a good example of this in modern times is Mirabeau, who had no memory for insults and vile actions done to him and was unable to forgive simply because he forgot).

 

For Nietzsche, true forgiveness is forgetfulness, “even of one’s own deeds.” It is a process of not letting much time pass before subduing the pit bulls of your super-ego and letting go of the time you double crossed someone or you were double crossed. 

Ironically, Kierkegaard, whose life was a meditation on the meaning of faith, also finds a space for forgetfulness, once remarking, “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.” In his Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, Kierkegaard observes: 

One can forget in many ways. One can forget because one gets something else to think about; one can forget thoughtlessly and light mindedly…. But eternal justice can and will forget in only one way, through forgiveness—but then, of course, the believer must not forget either, but he must steadfastly recollect that it is forgiven him. 

As in the Nietzschean formula, God’s forgiveness is forgetfulness, but this forgiveness is a universe away from the self-serving idea of forgiving yourself. Please understand, I am not intimating that we should constantly remind ourselves of our past transgressions. That kind of self-lacerating behavior can lead to substance abuse and more malefactions, if not suicide. Still, we need to preserve a distinction between recognizing our transgressions and resolving to change, on one hand, and imagining that we can forgive ourselves, on the other. Unless we do so, the relational element that is essential to forgiveness is lost in the self-serving fantasy of self-absolution.