I want to begin with as simple a phrasing as I can. Things are going to get so messy that I want to have something to look back at, as I would look back at my own innocent youth if I had had one like that. The simple phrasing is: Is forgiveness a good idea?”
There are some old notions of forgiveness that refer to social processes. These were not that complicated because they meant one thing rather than many things simultaneously and because they were transacted in public. When a debt was “forgiven,” you were no longer expected to pay it and you also did not go to debtor’s prison or into slavery. All of those are really clear. No one asked whether you were “really forgiven” of the debt. (Notice that “of;” we will need it again and I want you to know where I parked it.)
But no one was expected to loan money to that person either. He was not declared to be a good risk on the grounds that he no longer owed money. Giving money to people who don’t have any and need some might be a really good idea, but good or not, it would be called charity. Loaning money to people who are not at all likely to have the resources to repay you is just stupid. We are talking about loans here, not gifts.
All these transactions are, in principle, public transactions. The rich person—we are not considering branch managers here—who makes the loan and the poor person who gets the loan are characters in a public drama. Let me illustrate by citing the word “bankrupt.” Its literal meaning is “broken bench.” You were lending money in the marketplace. You had a bench that served as your place of business. When you were no longer had the resources to be a moneylender, they came and broke your bench. You were “bench-broken;” bankrupt.
Mostly, though, when we talk about “forgiveness,” we are talking about being released from an offense and the altered relationships the offense has caused. This is not a public process. It is not publically understood and supported by social sanctions. It is private—although often it is not as private as we think it is—and personal. And that is why we need that “of,” which I parked back at the end of the second paragraph.
To be forgiven “of” an offense means something different that “being forgiven.” (I’m going to introduce “forgiven for” in a little while to make that clear.) What does it mean to forgive “a person” as opposed to forgiving a person of an offense? It doesn’t mean anything at all to me. I think it is just an unfortunate contraction of the words we use. I think it would be clumsy always to say, “I forgive him his offense (having an offense in particular in mind)” and it is much easier to say, “I forgive him.” But now we have committed ourselves to a phrasing that is hard to understand. It is personal and private; it is no longer specific; it is emotionally volatile. And we have given up a phrasing that is interpersonal and public; it is more specific; and it is not quite so emotionally volatile because it has to do more with doing and not just with feeling. Maybe that’s why I like it so much better.
In this setting, as in so many others, we have individualized and interiorized a meaning that was once social and public. There is value, I think, in keeping the old meanings in mind. I don’t think we are able to mean them anymore, but knowing what they once meant might help us. It’s a little like Ariadne’s thread, which helps us find our way back out of the mazes we have built for ourselves and in which we often get lost.
Please allow me a brief detour. I have a lot of theologically astute friends who might just put this down in disgust if I do not make it plain from the outset that this piece is not theological. At all. Maybe I should have written about God’s forgiveness of us and our consequent obligation to forgive each other. And maybe I will. But not today. This is mostly a psychological and linguistic consideration, leaning heavily on the social processes that underlie the psychology and the language we use.
So, what do we mean by “forgiveness?” I don’t think we mean that “it” is forgotten. I put “it” in quotes because there is no abstract way to say just what is to be forgotten. In my classes, I have often made use of a series that goes like this: a) an action, b) a trait, c) a person’s character, and d) human nature. I don’t know all that much about human nature and I look with wariness on anyone who says he does. I put “human nature” there to mark the end of the series. The rest of the series is pretty unremarkable. There’s a) an act, like forgetting an appointment; then there’s b) a trait (a series of acts) like “forgetfulness.” I would probably call it “irresponsibility” because it would irk me so. A cluster of traits could be assembled. He is genuine or simpleminded or single-minded or cruel or pathetically eager to please; I would call that c) “character.” Does it make any sense to think of “forgiving” a character? I don’t think so.
I think it is foolishness to go to naively a meeting with a guy who misses half his appointments and not to make other plans. Take your computer with you; you can blog while you are waiting. You may have forgiven him—in a sense I am getting to in just a moment—but you have not forgotten that he is not good about appointments. The fact that you remember is a good thing. It means you might leave an email reminding him of the appointment or call an hour before or keep a side line of communication with his wife. You could do any of those things with a good spirit, even if you wished you didn’t have to do them.
It is when you go to meet your friend carrying your resentment with you, that you know you have not forgiven him. When you tell the story to others, making light of his difficulties, you have not forgiven him. It’s fine to remember “what he is like.” How, otherwise, could you mitigate the effects. But when you remember for the purpose of keeping the grievance fresh and “sharing it” with others, you are refusing to forgive.
Let’s come back now to that “of.” We started by looking at a usage like “forgiven OF a debt.” The way I am looking at this, you can always forgive a friend (or an enemy) OF an act. You might forgive him OF a trait: something he often does and therefore is likely to do again. When we get to the next larger collection, character, it gets harder to keep the phrasing “forgive OF.” When you get to what a person’s character is like, we might begin the think of forgiving FOR. “He’s a heartless bastard and he made my adolescent years a living hell, but I forgive him FOR that.” Note 1: I’m not saying that’s a good idea. I’m just distinguishing between “forgiving of” and “forgiving for.” Note 2: I’m not saying it’s a bad idea either.
Here’s an episode I thought was surprisingly apt. This is from the first two pages of Robert Parker’s Stranger in Paradise. Jesse Stone is chief of police; Molly Crane is the office dispatcher; Wilson Cromartie is a professional criminal.
Molly Crane stuck her head in the doorway to Jesse’s office.
“Man here to see you,” she said. “Says his name’s Wilson Cromartie.”
Jesse looked up. His eyes met Molly’s. Neither of them said anything. Then Jesse stood. His gun was in its holster on the file cabinet behind him. He took the gun from the holster and sat back down and put the gun in the top right-hand drawer of his desk and left the drawer open.
“Show him in,” Jesse said.
Molly went and in a moment returned with the man.
Jesse nodded his head.
“Crow,” he said. “Jesse Stone,” Crow said.
Jesse pointed at a chair. Crow sat. He looked at the file cabinet.
“Empty holster,” he said. “Gun’s in my desk drawer,” Jesse said. “And the drawer’s open,” Crow said. “Uh-huh.”
“No need,” Crow said.
“Good to know,” Jesse said.
“But you’re not shutting the drawer,” Crow said.
“No,” Jesse said.
“Nothing wrong with cautious,” Crow said.
The two lines I like best are Crow’s “No need” [You don’t need to be that careful about me] and Jesse Stone’s “Good to know” [Nice of you to say that. I’m leaving the gun right where it is.]
Jesse has not been nursing his resentment of the havoc Crow caused the last time he was in town. On the other hand, he is not discounting the possibility that he is in town to cause a little more havoc. Jesse is ready, but he is not resentful. In the way I’m using the words, I would say Jesse has forgiven Crow of his actions; he has forgiven Crow for being an exceptionally competent killer. On his own behalf, he is going to keep his gun handy. On the town’s behalf, he is going to do everything he can to find a way to charge him with the crimes he committed the last time he was in town.
My idea is that you can tell whether you have forgiven someone by watching what you do. If you feed the smoldering fire of resentment—if you don’t feed it, it goes out eventually—you have not forgiven. If you tell jokes or recall stories or distort other relationships as a way to freshen up your hostility, you have not forgiven.
We talk about “carrying” a grudge. I think that’s a very evocative metaphor. I’ve heard it likened to carrying rocks in your backpack. Every time the guy you are resenting does something else, you put another rock in your pack. That’ll show him you’re nobody to mess with! And if he does it again, you’ll put ANOTHER rock in the pack. You can get really tired “carrying” grudges.
One final tricky turn yet and I’ll wrap this up. All the ways I have illustrated the lack of forgiveness are active. They are things you do. You actively feed resentment and you actively tell stories and so on. But there are passive ways, too, of reminding yourself not to forgive and of displaying your lack of forgiveness to your friend (or your enemy). Choosing active punishment or passive punishment is just a matter of what tools are at hand or of your own preference for active or passive means. One isn’t any better than another. They are both bad.
On the other hand, you might choose not to meet with a guy who blows the meeting off half the time. You might just keep a prudent distance from someone who delights in tormenting you. You might just stop denying what his arrogance costs you—everyone else knows it anyway—and admit that it hurts every time he does it and cut down, as you are able, on his opportunities to keep doing it.
Every one of those, as I see it, is compatible with “having forgiven him OF” the actions of the past and with “having forgiven him FOR” who he is. You aren’t carrying the weight. You aren’t feeding the fires. You are at peace with how you have responded and with how you are responding. And you’ve made the decision not to be stupid.
 My academic study has been a study of the reasons people give for why something happens. “Reason giving” is changed significantly by referring to the action of a person, for instance, or the character of a person.
 I had an episode of depression in 2006—still unexplained—during which I was a bad appointment risk. I went so far as to tell a friend that I had every intention of meeting him, but I would ask him to call an hour before just to get a current assessment of whether I could manage it. It was an extraordinary act of kindness for a friend to do that, but I never had the sense that it was begrudged. And I have had friends since then who have found themselves in that kind of bind and I am the one who calls an hour ahead to be sure. I have never had the least sense that I am doing something I “shouldn’t have to do” or that I begrudged. Possibly…probably…because it was done for me.
 The best movie depiction of this process I know is in Pay it Forward, where Arlene McKinney meets here mother, Grace, in the railroad yard where Grace lives for the purpose of forgiving her for the abusive and neglectful childhood the mother had laid on her. The dialogue just stops and we see the face of a woman who is being deeply forgiven for many awful things she has done. It helps that she is, at the same time, invited to her grandson’s birthday party—but only if she can manage to be sober for it.