Monday, April 18, 2011

What is Forgiveness?

Say you’re standing in line at the Post office and someone accidentally steps on your toe. They quickly move back and say “Sorry!” and you say “No problem”. It’s over and quickly forgotten. But what if they say “Sorry!” and then continue to stand on your toe? Are you still going to say No problem?

What exactly is forgiveness?  Is it condoning the other person’s behavior? Denying your own pain so another person can feel better?  Letting another off the hook, and then carrying their shame for them? Is it as simple as letting go of a balloon that floats away into the atmosphere? I think it is much more complex than that.

Forgiveness is a huge buzzword these days. Everyone says you should do it. Oprah says you should do it. Doctors say you’ll be healthier if you do it. Jesus did it on the cross. Stanford University even has a “Forgiveness Project”, where researchers say it is a skill that can be learned, a decision you simply make. But I don’t see it as a decision any more than falling in love is a decision.

Forgiveness is a spontaneous shift in the heart, and like love, it can’t be forced. It is an unwritten contract between two souls. A door of genuine understanding and remorse must be opened before you can cross the threshold of forgiveness. You can’t bang that door down yourself. In other words, forgiveness is not a one-way street.

To me there is nothing worse than an empty apology. I remember on one occasion that I actually got my mother to show up for therapy, my therapist asked if she could apologize for lying to me, because her lies had affected my life and damaged my trust. The best she could muster up was an indignant, “I’m sorry you see it that way.” But she wasn’t sorry, and therefore no shift could take place on either side.

A forced forgiveness serves no one. Remember when you were a little kid, fighting with your sister, and your mom forced you to hug and say sorry, but behind her back you were sticking your tongues out at each other? I recently read about a woman who at 15 had been raped by her Sunday school teacher. Her pastor told her that she had to forgive him, it was the Christian thing to do. So she went to the rapist/Sunday school teacher and forgave him. And he would later rape her again. So what good did forgiving do? It wasn’t true forgiveness, therefore nothing changed, and no one was healed.

On the other hand, when a person is sincere in opening that door, you feel it in your soul and it changes you. True forgiveness is grace in action. I know because I have experienced this.

In 1995, after my house burned down and I lost everything, my best friend dumped me. I needed her more than ever, but she turned her back and never told me why. I was beyond devastated. Losing my home and all my possessions was nothing compared to losing my best friend. It was a hurt that took years, and much therapy, to get over. Eleven years later we bumped into each other in a record store. She seemed so happy to see me, while I was ambivalent. She hugged me with real feeling, and asked if I would meet her that week to talk, and I agreed.

We met at a Starbucks. As soon as I sat down, she took my hand, looked me right in the eye, and said tearfully, “I love you.” She squeezed my hand hard, not bothering to wipe away the tears rolling down her cheeks “and I have missed you in my life, so much. I am so sorry for the way I treated you. I don’t know why I acted that way back then, I guess I was afraid. Afraid of what was happening to you, and how it was affecting me. If you can forgive me, I really want another chance to be in your life, as the person I am now.” I felt the instant shift in my heart. Forgiveness. It wasn’t hard to do, because she opened the door. I knew her life had been turned upside down in the years that had passed. Her marriage fell apart, her career ended. Her heart had been broken open, and I was able to get in. That was four years ago and our friendship is still going strong.

What is forgiveness? I don’t know that I could encapsulate it into simple words. Like love, I know it when I feel it. When it happens, it is a beautiful miracle, like a butterfly landing on my shoulder. But I think it is a different experience for each person.

I’d love to know what forgiveness means to you, and how it feels.

But if you don’t comment today, that’s okay. I forgive you.


  1. Great post Hollye! I believe forgiveness starts with ownership. When a person begins to own their actions and through that ownership understands how the actions may have affected someone negatively, then forgiveness can begin. Wonderful! I have awarded you the Versatile Blogger Award!! Go to my site to pick it up!

  2. I loved where you said "forgiveness is a spontaneous shift in the heart, and like love, it can’t be forced. It is an unwritten contract between two souls." Exactly! A perfect description. Gave me the chills.

  3. I love how we can feel true forgiveness when it happens, in us and around us. Thank you Hollye for reminding us about the benefits of following our hearts, and about the benefits that follow.

  4. hi hollye! Great post. and as i am writing this i am also listening to you read from your own book about being a 9 year old meeting with a psychiatrist. What has happened to your memoir? I would like to read it. And I thank you for leaving a comment on my blog. Where can i get 'all good things'?


  5. hi hollye! this is a great post. i also took a listen to you reading about your little 9 year old self speaking to the psychiatrist. I want to read the book. Where could I get it? IT's a memoir, i wanna do a memoir. Where can I get it???
    love deb

  6. I have said in the past that I don't understand forgiveness -- but as you define and explain it, with both parties involved, THAT is forgiveness. The inclusion of remorse and repair, leading to forgiveness -- that is forgiveness I can understand and live with. Thank you, Hollye. xoxoxo Tamara

  7. Food for thought indeed. Apology and forgiveness is a complicated act. If someone stepped on my toe in the post office I know I'd apologize for being in the way, much to my detriment...

  8. Hollye,
    I have known forgiveness only once but it was life altering for me. I have to say that it was probably the most important event of my adult life, maybe my entire life, when I think about it. This gift was given so freely to me and I am so grateful for it's giving. It is a precious gift to recieve but I unfortunately have never been able to give this gift to myself. I once knew a man that was at My Lai. He could not forgive himself and as his punnishment he denied himself shoes even in the dead of winter. I tell you this only to illustrate that there are some things that do not deserve forgiveness.
    Thank you,

  9. Lovely thoughts Hollye.

  10. That person I was telling you about? She just took me to Starbucks and we had a similar conversation (okay, "love' wasn't mentioned. But "sorry" was. Which is HUGE for her.) I shifted too. Fascinating, fascinating.
    xo B

  11. enough with the flowery thoughts and feelings,
    when I truly forgive it's not because i feel things are lovely.
    I am angry and hurt, and cannot expect people to change to suit my feelings, To me i see that the wrong is not my baggage to carry. and by letting it be the offending parties "baggage" I release myself from any culpability in guilt. and am free to make my own mistakes.
    In essence , i release myself from their guilt and continue with my life the wiser.
    God bless you all.

  12. Thank you so much for this post. I'm in the uncomfortable situation of having a former friend ask for forgiveness and I DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS. Your description makes sense to me. People say "forgive and forget". People don't know what they're talking about. Why is it up to the wronged party to forget? In the past, I have been asked for forgiveness without any background, context or remorse. This is not forgiveness. One may as well be asking for a hall pass: "I would like to regain your trust without earning it".

    1. I believe you'll know when it feels right to forgive. Until then, don't try to force it. Trust your own feelings!

  13. nicely expressed..
    I was trying to find out its meaning from last some time..
    This post gave me most satisfactory answers..:)

  14. personally, and now this has been on my mind the last 24 hours, i believe that forgiveness starts by forgiving yourself, for condemning another of their actions, words..etc. whose to say whats right or whats wrong? however, when you live your truth, what you know you stand for and by and what that means to you. when that gets crossed, its nothing personal, because the other person may not be thinking about your truth or what trutly matters to you, so with that being said. taking things personally, by reacting to their actions, or their words, and then condemning them, the first act of forgiveness starts with you. then you can go on by forgiving the other by their actions. they know not what they do... unless its personally directed to you. then stand up and speak your truth. live by it, and remind yourself... are you being fueled by your ego, or by love. i always try and remind myself to let love lead, and its hard to not take anything personally, or start making assumptions. it takes practise, and i think that forgiveness falls into that category as well.


I love hearing your point of view- thank you for taking the time to comment and be part of the conversation!