The KEY Questions: Can we ‘forgive and forget’?

Something that I’ve struggled with over the years – and maybe you have too – is the whole paradox that is the act of forgiveness. It’s such a simple word, to forgive, and it feels right that we should do it. It’s at the heart of the particular religion that I was raised in – Christianity – and I’m sure most other religious leaders preach it as a matter of course. It’s morally correct and it’s good for the soul. To carry around negative thoughts about another human being harms us, while the person we have those thoughts about remains blissfully unaware, completely untouched by our lack of forgiveness. I know all this … but still…

Why is it so hard to forgive? And why is it paradoxical?

One member of my family – I won’t say who – was repeatedly unkind to me as I was growing up, and despite my best intentions and the intervening decades I find it quite hard to come to terms with that fact. Even now, in my dealings with that person I have a strong desire to see a change in their behaviour. But that change never comes, so I’m stuck. What’s the answer?

I listen to my CDs of Sydney Banks’ lectures every single day. I have them on in the car, and his calm voice with its comforting Scottish burr makes a welcome change from the music I regularly tune in to. In one of the CDs he touches on this subject, and one particular phrase he uses always jumps out for me. This is the phrase:

“We all know the expression ‘to forget is to forgive’, and it’s absolutely true …”

The first few times I heard this I thought Syd had got it wrong. Can you see why? It’s not the meaning that feels odd but the order of the words. I kept thinking surely he’s got it the wrong way around. ‘Forgive and forget’, not ‘forget and forgive?’ Well, I thought to myself, Syd was quite old when he gave the lecture that this CD is a record of. If nothing else we can forgive him for muddling up the expression. He was a very wise man, but even the wisest of men can get a bit confused in their old age, right?

Not a bit of it! Syd knew exactly what he meant.

Here’s the paradox, and it came to me in a flash just the other day. I was having one of my usual semi rants about that ‘bad behaviour’ when my wife Anna called me on it. ‘Why’, she asked, ‘are you so surprised that it’s still happening, when it’s always been that way? Why do you keep wanting it to change?’ Of course she was right. I was stuck in a negative loop, railing against something that I had no control over, someone else’s bad behaviour, created for them by the circumstances of their own upbringing. As long as I continued on this path, forgiveness would never come.

Then came the revelation: all learning is unconscious! But we think we can forgive someone consciously. And what happens? It’s all just words. We find it easy – and morally correct – to say the words ‘I forgive you’. We may even congratulate ourselves for having said it, while deep inside we innocently hold on to our resentment of that person exactly as before. With the best will in the world if this happens to you, you may find you have to ‘forgive’ on a daily, if not an hourly basis, because forgiving cannot actually be done this way. It’s a paradox. Even saying ‘I forgive you’ implies the opposite.

There is no ‘act of forgiveness’.

And so I finally realise what Syd was trying to teach me with his words. The past is dead and gone. It doesn’t exist. Forgiving comes as a by-product of simply forgetting what we consider has been done to us by another. In this version of reality there is no need to consciously forgive (as it’s impossible anyway) because it happens by itself when we focus on this moment, this instant, and the joy that it brings. Our thoughts will chase one another if we allow them to, and no amount of ‘correct’ thinking will change that. Yes it’s good to want to forgive and move on. We all know that harbouring resentment is bad for us, but as with so many things in life we have it the wrong way around.

Don’t be surprised when someone who has always let you down continues to let you down. They have their problems, and those problems are none of your concern.

‘Forget and forgive’.