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The art of forgiveness : a cognitive Action

Freedom in Relationship
Freedom in Relationship

I do not think there is a more oft debated word in the sphere of human relationships than this, forgiveness. Depending on whom you ask, and from what frame of reference said whoms are coming from, you will get just as many different answers. No one has it down to an art nor a satisfactory definition for that matter, and each individual person must usually find their own way in dealing with the need to forgive as well as their need to be forgiven. There are unfathomable degrees to this topic that really do complicate the matter and make forgiveness an individual process, case by case, though there are some commonalities that do make it possible to write about in a semi-encompassing manner.


(Someone just put on the brakes)

Did he just say the need to forgive as well as the need to be forgiven?

Uh…oh. Yes that is an affirmative. The two it seems, are tied hand in hand and the answers of “how to” with regards to the first are linked squarely with our acceptance of the second and will eventually produce my favorite “E” word as the solution to the question of how to go about forgiveness?...Of that I have no doubt. More on the “E” word at the end of the essay. If you are an intuitive sort you will know exactly where this is heading, though the actual decision does in fact come down not to an intuitive or an emotional factor for me (and I am strong in both), but a rational one.

Every single human being on earth has faults and will have at some point hurt someone else in a catastrophic way that alters another persons’ life.


(No, this not another one of my infamous diatribes on expectations chuckle, though it would fit in here quite nicely, no?)

Not a soul on earth, after having reached their moral age of accountability, maintains innocence. I have yet to meet a person who is not accountable in some way to someone else for a tragic hurt at some point in their lives….well maybe not my mom of course, she can’t do any wrong in these eyes even after all these years…but then again, she is momma and is the one human soul still walkin’ the earth who has taught me the most about forgiveness given the tragedy and subsequent redemption in my life and how far she has gone, sacrificing her own health and well-being to love me until I learned to love myself. But I digress. I can chatter on and on about my mom, bless her extraordinarily generous heart.

So…where was I...oh yes, leveling the playing field so to speak. Given that no one has it down (life) and we are all just a group of works in progress as it comes to so august a topic as forgiveness…meaning we have all been real jerks and jerkettes at some point in our history, I will offer up my take on the subject of forgiveness and how I deal with the philosophy of forgiveness as well as the practicality of it in the scope of human relationships. Remember, my number one rule in understanding human behavior is…Life is an Us…everything and everyone for that matter, is connected. There are consequences to every single thing we do. Some are big and some are small, but we have all suffered…and we have all caused suffering. How we address the first will determine how we ourselves are addressed when the second eventually happens or indeed, may have already happened.

As I am fond of saying, take what you will and leave what you do not will. If something resonates? Then it is yours to keep, free of charge. If it does not resonate, than it was never really meant for ya in the first place k? It will be more of an -agree to disagree- kind of a thing at that point.

And so…

First and foremost, for myself that is, the need to be forgiven is the secret to the process (yes it is a process) leading up to the choice (yes it is also a choice) to forgive and of course that is exactly why I led into this topic in the manner that I have.

Secondly, there is a huge asterisk to this subject. There are some acts such as rape, violence, murder, child abuse and the like, that are virtually impossible to handle without help...even then it can take years (up to a lifetime for some) of work to overcome. This essay, although it does concern those terrifying acts (though much more is needed in cases such as these) is meant for the ins and outs of human interactions on a day to day basis that lead up to resentment and fractured relationships that still do have the possibility to heal and reconnect.

A few definitions for my chosen words are at this point, beneficial.

Perceived Bad Behavior* – What we think someone has done to hurt us without understanding the entirety of the given situation. WE ourselves perceive being hurt; the other person in the scenario may not know or understand why something has been damaging nor, in this situation, is it entirely certain there has been a verifiable intent to hurt. It is only our perception that we are using to gather information.

Actual Bad Behavior* – Behavior that in all actuality was damaging in its action as well as its intent. The harm was purposeful and indeed meant to hurt, harm or devalue us in some way, shape or form. Furthermore everyone concerned agrees, or everyone who knows acknowledges the bad intentions involved and the subsequent harm accomplished. It is a given that the something in question was meant to be harmful and damaging.

(The asterisk…this thing --> (*) …means the words we speak, sometimes the most damaging behavior of all, are included in the word “behavior”)

Forgiveness as a Philosophical Idea – An Accounting Direction

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first, shall we?

Perceived Harmful Behavior
If someone didn’t or doesn’t actually have bad intentions to hurt another person (and yet they still do) then their crime if you will, is more one of ignorance…a lack of knowledge regarding the issue at hand, and is usually given more grace. This kind of stuff is easy to accept for most of us. We all do this kind of thing to others. This is the perceived bad behavior that for all intents and purposes, can only be judged as a learning experience for them and for us. It is much easier to forgive someone when they may in fact be lacking in understanding; maybe even thought they were doing something good for that matter or perhaps were simply acting in an absentminded fashion, not paying attention, to keep it simple. When any one particular situation is clarified there very well may not be a need for volitional acts of forgiveness and amends, only understanding and a decent apology. That truly, is the only rational way to handle this kind of situation.

Learn. Accept. Grow….Done.

Simple huh?

Yah. Simple is good.

Actual Bad Behavior and Hurt
Forgiveness, more often than not, is seen as an emotional idea. That is precisely why it is difficult to grasp. I am suggesting that the big picture of forgiveness is better suited (and easier to accomplish) when it is viewed as an accounting idea, a legal idea if you will; one that is sourced in the thought world and not the world of emotions where anger and resentment tend to hold sway and bias the way we view people and the various situations with which we are involved. Have ya ever heard of certain ideas that relationships must have equity? That there must be a give and take for relationships (family, friends and romantic) to be successful? These are accounting ideas and thus are the basis for my essay.

In our personal relationships forgiveness means letting go of the pain debt for lack of better words, we are accumulating due to others’ hurtful behavior and will therefore no longer be holding them to account. We stop judging, essentially. When we are hurt by someone important to us (it is usually those closest to us that hurt us the most) it gives us a moral ability and right to act as both judge (determining guilt and sentence) as well as the proverbial executioner, essentially the one responsible for carrying out said sentence; the sentence we ourselves determined as judge, until the equilibrium of the relationship is reestablished and our pain debt is satisfied resulting in…a forgiveness of debt.

See why there might be a problem with this cycle? We are already hurtin'. There is absolutely no WAY we can be an objective judge. When both personal and emotional pain are involved, the kind that usually destroys relationships; ie. broken trust, infidelity, lying, various forms of theft, betrayal, gossip etc. you know, all the usual suspects?….when pain of this magnitude is involved, objectivity flies out the window right along with our ability to judge fairly, measure for measure. It can’t be done. Not when anger and/or fear are involved.

Ever said “I have a right to feel the way I do. Look at what he or she has done?” This is an example of a moral right. However, we tend to avoid following this statement up with the sentencing details describing how long we shall punish the other person involved and to what degree, thereby giving clear goals and expectations for all involved. Forgiveness is an open ended idea to most of us. Most of us usually wait until we feel better, until the pain subsides. We hold on to the right even when we no longer have a right…to have the right…if ya ken? Letting emotions determine how long we hold others accountable without forgiveness can be as cruel (to ourselves and to others) as the original case of misconduct. Without forgiveness we run the risk of controlling as well as shame based retribution when we leave the end goal of forgiveness open to our own determining discretions.

Furthermore, we end up facing Karma herself as the double-edged sword she wields turns back in our direction because our judgments are imbalanced, biased in our favor, hurting others more than we ourselves were originally hurt.

It isn’t productive to rely upon how we feel in order to make a decision to forgive. Exacting effective behavior change (That really is what human judging is supposed to be about is it not?) requires good and knowable measures; emotions, as fun and exciting as they are (I tend to thrive on my emotions) are not good and knowable measures. Emotions, if you haven’t noticed, can line-dance all over the map when pain and anger are involved.

Now, in the case of actual purposeful acts of hurt and or abusiveness, it becomes increasingly harder to forgive. Forgiveness means…letting go of the moral ability and right to judge others as owing a debt to us, saying ya know? I am letting this pass. It takes a big heart and one full of maturity and love to do this for another. It means dealing with the possibility of being vulnerable again. It isn’t easy especially because yes, there is emotional and physical pain involved, sometimes tremendous. The drive to get back at someone is powerful. Humans like to get even do we not? Can I get an amen? Chuckle. I have always wanted to say that. Sorry, momentary lapse of clarity there.

Do we have a right to get back at someone who has hurt us? Meaning actually and purposefully hurt us with bad intentions? Yes…and…ummm…no. Not much clarity there huh? Well, if you hadn’t noticed human relationships are messy and complicated, even in the best of situations. Yes, we do have a right. It makes sense to defend ourselves if we are feeling threatened. Everybody does it, or has done it at some point. I would even suggest it is human nature. It is quite predictable, to be perfectly honest. All one has to do is watch a bunch of toddlers in preschool trying to play together for one to recognize how easily (and early) we resort to “biting back.” Once we do this however, we open ourselves up to the same sort of retribution in a vicious back cycle of return if we do not judge the situation and our responses to it in an appropriate and just manner. Do you follow my meaning on that? The scale must be equalized, not tipped entirely in the other direction for judgment without forgiveness in a relationship to be productive.

It simply cannot be done.

Human beings are terrible judges. We overkill most things that harm us and are quick to give ourselves the proverbial free pass on anything that might implicate ourselves. That’s called a Fundamental Attribution Error by the way. It is sooo prevalent it has its own psych definition. We don’t know how to judge others properly as we are usually (heck who am I kidding)…we are absolutely certain at that point, to be thinking of ourselves more than the other person. It stands to reason. We are hurting and contemplating getting even and could really care less how the other person feels as long as it is bad…or guilty…or ashamed. We are hurt, and we seek to find the cause of said hurt and disarm it, at all costs…even to ourselves.

No single individual however, has any specific long term ability to judge others before it turns to resentment; that is just human nature and a guarantee. People who hold on to past hurts, myself included, will literally turn into hurtful people. It gets to us all. It may take longer for some than others, but emotional hurt almost exclusively ends up as resentment when unaddressed over time.

This is the number one fundamental reason, philosophically and practically, why forgiveness is a necessary component in any successful relationship. We can’t handle the responsibility of being a judge for much longer than it takes to bite back.

Forgiveness is necessary to keep us from turning into that which has hurt us. necessary for our own sanity.

Without forgiveness, relationships fester…withering on a vine.

Forgiveness is a requirement…because it is the only option we have in order to maintain our own equilibrium and identity.

Otherwise, we become someone else.

Sorry folks, some won’t like the way that sounds. Hey, I myself have enjoyed hanging on to things, watching other people squirm under my scrutiny; making sure they are aware of my displeasure; causing them to be regretful in the face of my wrath...right up until I got lost in it and became that which I was defending myself against, essentially transforming into they that have harmed me. I have also felt the distinct sting of becoming the one scrutinized as an unjust scrutinizer, chuckle, which of course is called hypocrisy…and that leads us right into the practical details of forgiveness.

That is the big picture of forgiveness in my mind. It is a little heavy handed, but hey, I now have your attention.

Forgiveness as a Practical Matter
Forgiveness between individuals must be a Cognitive action; meaning…a decision or a choice, if it is to be productive. I would actually argue that if it isn’t a cognitive action, it isn’t forgiveness. Emotionally, the pain of things may subside over time (that is the process I referred to earlier) but the resentment will remain if the choice to let go of the debt (forgiveness) has not been made. This is precisely why certain people or situations we come across frighten us or simply just “piss us off” in a proverbial sense, even if we haven’t a clue as to why. Something about the situation or person (even strangers) is triggering the emotional response that we ourselves, have never entirely let go of. The pain has turned into resentment and has largely speaking settled into our subconscious thought world for the long haul, coming out sideways in situations that may in fact have nothing to do with the people involved. It has everything to do with us, however. We just can’t see it. We have chosen to hold on to the pain which has morphed into resentment so as to protect ourselves from ever being hurt again. Ever heard those words before? Ever SAID those words before? Most of us have.

Forgiveness, or the act of forgiveness itself, isn’t an emotion; though emotion is largely speaking, the beginning of the process towards forgiveness. We get hurt. We feel vulnerable. We use anger and resentment (even fear) to buttress our self-defenses. We decide to hold the other person accountable for however long it takes in order to gain back ground on whatever vulnerability has been compromised, and we eventually decide to let go because we care about the individual (and the relationship with that individual) more than we do about the pain debt acquired (as well as the attachment our pride has to the pain debt ie. control) and hence, we prepare to let go. If the other person has made amends, or is willing to make amends, we can then follow through and express our desire to let go and subsequently WE (both parties involved) move on. That, basically, is the role emotion plays in a healthy forgiveness cycle…according to dear ol’ Trav of course.

We care.

We care enough about the other person or people involved to let go of those things that may have hurt us.

Here is the trick however. See those two italicized decisions in the previous…ish paragraph? We can and do decide to hold the other people accountable (quite regularly in fact)…it is less common that we decide to let go once the debt is legitimately paid through various acts of contrition and change. People, generally speaking, don’t like letting go of control and holding an emotional debt over someone has everything to do with control; shame, guilt and the like. That’s not so easy huh?

Forgiveness is not an emotional decision. There is no way it can be. Have you noticed that emotions can and do change from one minute to the next, given the various situations we are in? Even the strongest of thinkers vary in moods and tempers given their assessments of the world on any given day. Without cognitive stimulation the strongest and least emotional among us become incredibly cranky I have noticed, when things aren’t going well. chuckle. Some of my best friends are strong thinkers and can be prone to anger when given half a chance and the right (or wrong) situations. Everyone has varying emotions, though not everyone knows how to completely map them, including myself, and I have been doing just that for years. If forgiveness were an emotion, not a soul on earth would forgive and not be tempted to un-forgive when times get tough, as they always seem to do in relationships.

Nor is forgiveness something that just happens the way that emotions tend to appear within us. In fact, it is our emotions that tend to get us in trouble in the first place over the long haul. Pride plays a big role in this; though it isn’t exactly pride that causes the anger or resentment. It is our emotional red flags that tell us we are hurt. Our emotions get involved because they tell us something is wrong, they tell us we are being threatened somehow. Our red flag emotions of pain tell us…

They tell us What exactly?

They tell us we are vulnerable.

We don’t like being vulnerable and…

…and therefore, we do not follow through on the second italicized decision and let go of the pain debt when it is essentially, paid off. Generally speaking, we choose to hang on well beyond what is necessary to balance the scales so to speak, and morph on over into teaching people lessons…torturing them in many respects, into a kind of submission; making sure they never do the same thing to us again. We never actually give them a chance to succeed, which would mean becoming vulnerable; we just remind them of their failures repeatedly.

A little dramatic? I dunno. Look at your most significant hang ups with regards to forgiving someone else, an enemy perhaps or a lost friend, and you tell me? What is the nature of your thoughts concerning said individuals in question? Are you finding happy thoughts? Filled with peace and prosperity for the other? Or are you wishing and hoping Karma does its thing (according to what you need it to do) and does it in a way that you can see the other person suffer?

Karma is a cruel task master for those that deal in cruelty.

I am laying it out in one simple phrase…

Without forgiveness, we become that which hurt us.

Forgiveness is about maintaining our own sanity as much if not more than it concerns letting people off the hook for their bad behavior. There are a plethora of memes and phrases that tout this idea, and indeed they are correct. Forgiveness means caring enough about ourselves to not allow other people to change us. To choose to maintain our own balance in spite of what people do throughout the varying degrees of life and life’s pain. Forgiveness is the process by which we maintain our own identities, growing closer to our own sense of morality and honor; of trust and commitment; strength and courage.

Forgiveness is as much a process of self-defense as the anger that keeps us from forgiving, more so even.

So how does one even begin to break through the walls of anger and hurt that divide us after something fractures the relationship? Well? That’s easy…though it is easier said than done. Remember that strongly worded lecture at the beginning of this column where I essentially leveled the playing field?


Empathy can answer many of life’s complex questions and forgiveness, or the how to of forgiveness, is one of them. It is the starting point, at least for me, down the process of gaining my own freedom back from those who have done their worst. We have all been on the wrong side of someone’s heart. Every single person on earth has had a need to be forgiven at some point, desperately even. All it takes is a walk down our own memory lane to see what it might be like for the other person involved. It doesn’t take much to see our own missteps in order to understand the missteps of others. For the most part, they are the same. For the most part, people are who they are because of where they have been. It matters to walk the walk in someone elses' shoes, why?

So that we might see again

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