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Explanations > Behaviors > Blame > Forgiveness

What is forgiveness? | Social forgiveness | True forgiveness | Never having to forgive | See also


Forgiveness and blame are closely related. Here's how they intersect.

What is forgiveness?

The dictionary defines forgiving as 'stopping being angry or resentful towards someone for some offence'. However, this does not really get to the underlying issue, which is that when we perceive someone as having done wrong, we blame them, which includes judging them, concluding guilt and consequent need for punishment.

A simple definition of forgiveness gets to the root of this:

Forgiveness is the cessation of blame

In other words, to forgive, you must first blame. If you have not blamed, then there is nothing to forgive. Blame involves having negative feelings towards the other person. When you forgive, you stop having those negative feelings that were created by blaming.

Social forgiveness

When we verbally forgive people, we do not always really forgive them. Saying 'I forgive you' is often a social signal that you intend to put the matter behind you, at least for now. It does not mean you have forgotten the transgression nor have you stopped blaming them.

There is a ritual in social forgiveness. The first stage is blame. The next is acceptance of guilt by the blamed person. The third stage is remorse, where the blamed person apologises as they seek to show their remorse. They may also have to take actions to make up for their wrong-doing, such as a person accused of laziness working extra hard to show they are now no longer lazy. Finally, forgiveness is offered.

Sometimes forgiveness is offered as an inducement to improve, such as where a parent forgives a child for rudeness, hoping that the child will repay their kindness by being less rude in future.

When a person is socially forgiven yet others still blame them, then a future transgression can lead to even stronger recrimination and blame as the blamer feels a sense of betrayal after their original generosity in forgiveness. If the person blamed does not transgress, then the sense of blame will likely fade and be forgotten.

True forgiveness

True forgiveness involves complete forgiveness where, as defined above, all blame is removed. This can come through acceptance and/or understanding.

Accept remorse

If we accept the person's regret, remorse, apology and compensatory action, then we may fully forgive them. When we do this, we still retain our superior position of judge where we conclude that the person has 'learned their lesson' and is truly trying to improve themselves. 

Accept imperfection

Another form of acceptance is that the person is imperfect, human and hence liable to mistakes and lack of full consideration. We forgive ourselves our transgressions, so it may seem fair to treat others in the same way. We feel good about this as we view ourselves as fair and hence good.

Understand reason

When a person does something, it may seem at first to be wrong, yet if you take time to understand why they did it, you might change your mind and accept their reasoning. For example a person who steals food may seem wrong, but if it is for their starving family, then you may forgive them, giving these extenuating circumstances.

Understand humanity

This is similar to accepting imperfection but is based in understanding psychology rather than having simple faith in humanity. When we understand people, we use a deeper insight into how people truly think and behave (including ourselves). We are evolving beings who are not that far from swinging in the trees and primitive drivers still have a significant, if unconscious, effect on us. Psychological studies have shown how we are strongly affected by bias. Our decisions are also affected by limited knowledge and understanding of others and situations

Never having to forgive

A good position that is often far less stressful is to not blame people. If you do not blame, then you do not have to forgive. This can be achieved by first seeking reason, assuming that despite appearances the person is not bad. This can be helped by studying psychology or just taking a common-sense position of accepting that we are all imperfect.

Not blaming can be a difficult social position as gossip often takes the form of group blaming, where not joining in the blame can result in you being judged and blamed for your 'softness'. Yet at the same time, when you are seen to be thoughtful and generous, you may be forgiven for not blaming due to your kind nature.

See also

Living Without Blame


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