Let us see the difference between two terms which are often confused: Forgiveness and Reconciliation.
In general, forgiveness is the act or process of pardoning to prevent harmful thoughts from causing damage to one’s mental well-being. It’s an inner response. When anger, resentments and grudges arise because of a past abuse or because of a crime or an accident, by forgiving the wrongdoer we get a chance to let go of these negative emotions. But how can one forgive those who have hurt them? And more importantly, why do it?
In Buddhism, when we forgive someone who has harmed us, we decide not to retaliate, not to seek revenge. We simply unburden ourselves from the weight of grudges, resentment, and retribution. We get it out of the system by shifting how we think about it. We choose to do this for ourselves, for our own healing.
Though it may help the other person as well, but forgiveness involves us and not them. Reconciliation may sometimes follow forgiveness, but it’s possible to forgive without re-establishing or continuing the relationship. We don’t have to like the wrongdoer or even see them again. In fact, we can forgive someone who is dead, because without forgiveness they aren’t really dead in our minds, they remain alive and real.
So the letting go is essentially for our own peace of mind. Whether it’s an abusive parent, an unfaithful partner, a close friend who has backstabbed us, or just a random stranger, we can forgive the person without excusing the act itself. Forgiveness does not mean we justify or condone or minimize their harmful behaviour; it means we choose not be angry or resentful towards them.
Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” He also said, “Forgiveness is the virtue of the brave.” I believe it is also the gift of the wise. We can do it on our own, without having the other party to know or understand why we have done it. The bitter taste of the memory may stay with us forever, but the act of letting go that comes with forgiveness allows us to better ‘deal’ with the memory of the offence. For true healing does not mean erasing the memory or denying the harm done; it’s simply finding a way to overcome the negativity that is linked to it. It’s a heck of a powerful choice. By dropping the weight we are capable of focusing on more positive aspects in our lives, get well, and move on.
There are some elements or steps, however, which need to be achieved before letting go is possible. I have found that Buddhism and Psychotherapy offer more or less the same procedure to healing.
First, acknowledging to the self that wrong was done to it.
The emotion needs to be felt and expressed. Fully experiencing the related feelings and thoughts allows us to be able to expunge them, giving a chance for more positive ones to occupy the mind, body, and overall psyche.
The next is to understand the reason behind the wrongdoing by reflecting on it.
The human brain is almost conditioned to constantly try to look for explanations. At this point, even randomness would suffice to convince it.
Then comes reestablishing safety.
This is done so that the act doesn’t reoccur. Because forgiveness doesn’t mean putting oneself in a position to be harmed again. It also doesn’t mean to literally “forget,” since there would be no lesson learned if we did. At this level, you may decide to no longer see the person, end a relationship, or establish new boundaries. To be able to proceed, safety needs to be re-acquired to a certain reasonable extent.
Note that the above three steps do not have to follow this specific order. They can overlap and the forgiver may keep returning to them interchangeably until he or she is ready to move on with their grieving process.
Then finally comes letting go.
This stage is the hardest because, in a way, it may appear like you’re surrendering power. Though you are not. Again, you do this solely for yourself. You choose to set yourself free. It may actually take months or years to get rid of all the anger, hurt, and resentment. But then when it happens, one becomes liberated from the burden because they fully let go of the transgression — making peace with their past.
Interestingly, in some earlier Buddhist teachings the emphasis was not on forgiving, but on the foolishness of taking offence in the first place. They spoke of transcending the whole experience.
“He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me” — in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease.”
— Dhammapada 1.3–4; trans. Radhakrishnan
On the other hand, reconciliation means a return to amicability. It means restoring the harmony of a relationship you had with another person. It’s a more complex tête-à-tête process that surpasses forgiveness, which is a solo job. Reconciliation requires the reestablishing of trust between both parties by them agreeing to work together in a somewhat friendly manner.
For the trust to be regained and reconciliation achieved, there must be mutual respect and agreement on what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. The offender has to admit that they have hurt the other and that it was wrong to do so. They have to promise to exercise control in the future. Only then can their relationship be reestablishment.
Like forgiveness, reconciliation offers liberation and healing. However, unlike forgiveness, because it involves two parties, it’s a sort of deal and it has seemingly harder steps. That’s why it’s usually more complicated to materialize.
A healthy and lasting reconciliation requires the following:
First, the wrongdoing has to be acknowledged.
Hence, its occurrence accepted.
Second, to understand why it had happened.
If the two parties try to patch things up without getting to the root of the issue, nothing can really heal. Only when the root intentions have been shown to both to be reconcilable and the differences resolved can the healing process begins to take place.
Finally, the offender needs to promise to restrain himself from repeating the wrongdoing in the future. This is when trust gets a chance to be restored, and the deal is closed to some degree.
As we have seen, forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. Forgiveness is about letting go of the past, while reconciliation is about committing to a future. Reconciliation may or may not be possible due to many sorts of obstacles. And when it isn’t possible, forgiveness comes in handy because you can do it on your own and for your own — to let go of YOUR burden.
Both forgiveness and reconciliation could be long processes. They each offer healing and a chance to rebuild oneself or a relationship. Reconciliation is normally more complicated, it may sometimes never happen or, perhaps, it shouldn’t happen in some cases. Still, I hold that forgiveness is only one personal decision away which is worth our emotional and physical health. It is a key to freedom.
Forgive, no need to forget.
*Originally published on Conscious Life News in March, 2014