‘To err is human, to forgive divine.’ I’m sure you’re familiar with the quote, since Alexander Pope’s immortal line is lodged in our folk memory.
But why does it resonate so powerfully with us? Is it because it appears to offer us a cop-out from the need to forgive? ‘Oh well, we’re all human, we all err, so what? We can leave forgiveness for our failings to the Almighty.’ Was that Pope’s message?
Far from it. Pope’s point was that our capacity to forgive each other is one of the noblest and loveliest of human qualities; an aspect of our species’ behaviour that is so inspiring, it seems like a sign of the ‘divine spark’ within us.
Forgiveness is so remarkable because, in one hit, it offers potent therapeutic benefits to both the forgiver and the forgiven. US researchers Loren Toussaint and Everest Worthington, among others, have shown that forgiving someone is an effective way of reducing your stress level and lowering your blood pressure, and that failing to forgive – nursing a grudge, harbouring a bitter resentment – has adverse consequences for your mental health.
If those health benefits to the forgiver seem considerable, consider the benefits to the forgiven. When we know we have wronged or offended someone, guilt is our natural reaction, since guilt is the sign that our moral machinery is in working order. But no one enjoys living with guilt, which is why we are prepared to swallow our pride and apologise, in the hope of receiving forgiveness from the person we have wronged.
When we are forgiven, the burden of guilt is lifted and our emotional equilibrium is restored. But when forgiveness is withheld, guilt can fester – sometimes for years. In that way, the withholding of forgiveness is a way of inflicting additional suffering on an already-guilty person. It’s unhealthy for them; it’s unhealthy for us.
Yet, in spite of the compelling evidence about the mutual therapeutic benefits of forgiveness, some of us deliberately fail to forgive because we seem to enjoy wallowing in the sense of having been wronged, as if we are determined to incorporate our resentment or outrage or victimhood into our sense of self: ‘Poor me! What have I done to deserve such bad treatment?’
Since everything we know about the psychological mechanism of forgiveness says that withholding it is bad for us, why do we hesitate? Why do so many of us find it so hard to forgive?
The answer is that forgiveness – like other acts of human kindness like attentive and sensitive listening, or the making of a sincere apology – does not come easily. In fact, it’s easier, and seems more natural, to plot our revenge, or to let the guilty one squirm. It’s especially hard to forgive someone who appears totally unburdened by guilt, has never apologised and is simply getting on with their life, possibly cocooned by arrogance or insensitivity, or possibly because they have no idea how badly they have hurt us, or simply don’t care.
Yet forgiveness, like compassion, is one of those disciplines that is fundamental to the operation of a civilised and harmonious society. It’s not easy: like any other expression of our most positive and admirable human qualities, it calls on deep reserves of moral strength and courage – the courage to break out of the spiral of self-pity; the courage to set aside resentment; the courage to rise above bitterness; the courage to act well, even when all our instincts call on us to act badly.1
Such courage is tempered by humility. After all, forgiveness amounts to a tacit admission that all of us err. I don’t forgive you out of some lofty position of unimpeachable moral superiority; I forgive you because I see my own frailty reflected in you. I forgive you because I understand what it means to be human.
1 Forgive and forget? Absolutely not. Forgiving someone is a generous and compassionate thing to do, but it doesn’t obliterate our memory of the action that called for forgiveness. It doesn’t wipe the slate clean – that would make a mockery of the forgiveness. When we forgive, we are not saying, ‘Let’s go on as if nothing has happened’; rather, we’re saying, ‘We know this has happened and yet we will go on. I won’t live as if I’ve forgotten what happened; I’ll live as if I’ve truly forgiven you.’