Forgiveness and Flourishing

Flourishing is the basic premise of most ethical thought. Ethical commands and prohibitions, warnings and recommendations only make sense to the extent we desire to achieve flourishing, individually and as members of communities. A few years back, I wrote a book that tried to incorporate social science inputs from economics and experimental psychology with fundamental philosophical insights regarding virtue on how best to reach flourishing. I explored the effects of income (both absolute and relative), pleasures and satisfactions, work and leisure, and the quality of institutions (families, religious, and political), among others, on our shared quest for the good life. However, I failed to sufficiently take into account the imperfect, fragile, and oftentimes broken condition of human nature as found and manifested in each of us. I forgot to make room for forgiveness and I now attempt to remedy this major oversight.

Forgiveness differs from merely condoning an offense. To condone is to excuse by bringing oneself to ignore an offense; it’s to look the other way, even to the point of deluding oneself that perhaps the offense never happened. To forgive, by contrast, requires looking at the offense and the offender straight in the eye, face to face, and acknowledging all the evil and hurt they have wrought. To forgive is painful.

Forgiveness also differs from reconciliation. Forgiveness is an internal process by which people come to terms with their suffering and bitterness, and as a result are able to see their offenders in a more positive light. No longer seeking vengeance, they are now capable of moving forward with their own lives. Reconciliation demands a lot more. It entails the possibility of once more imagining a shared future with the offender and reestablishing trust. Thus, it’s perfectly understandable that even after forgiving, some people are unwilling to go the full journey toward reconciliation. It’s possible to forgive without reconciling. Yet although forgiveness and reconciliation may just be different stages in the same trajectory, there’s reason to believe that reconciliation is forgiveness’ most coveted fruit, its highest aspiration or perfection. So let’s not renounce reconciliation too easily and deprive ourselves of its benefits.

Most people turn to forgiveness seeking healing and interior growth initially. Psychotherapists describe a two-step process toward this goal. First is the need of the aggrieved to share their story in a safe, listening environment without being judged. The objective is not so much to receive sympathy or advice as the chance to get an oppressive load of their chest, literally to vent. By sharing the aggrieved are somehow able to put their pain into words and distance themselves from it. Next is the effort to consider the offender’s standpoint, expanding one’s perspective to at least catch a glimpse of the moral complexity behind hurtful decisions and actions. The aim is to allow some space for empathy, without discharging the offender from responsibility or shifting blame onto the victim.

What tends to be overlooked, however, is the mutual dependence for their success between the aggrieved person’s forgiveness and the aggressor’s “self-forgiveness.” Albeit through different paths, both have to be made whole again. To reach “self-forgiveness,” psychotherapists describe traversing different phases: responsibility, remorse, restoration, and renewal. Responsibility means personally owning up to the fault; remorse, embracing guilt; restoration, rebuilding the damage; and renewal, starting life afresh. Indeed, each phase has its own set of challenges, but I will only focus on the last two.

Restoration begins by humbly asking for pardon. Sometimes, full restoration, strict retribution is not possible; the dead cannot be brought back to life nor certain losses adequately compensated, for example. Both parties have to be realistic enough to acknowledge that. Otherwise, the only option is to descend into a bottomless spiral of revenge. That’s why victims and aggressors both have to pin their hopes on the possibility of renewal, when aggressors, from now on, solemnly commit themselves to working toward the victims’ wellbeing, over and above their own, in reparation. Renewal enables the offended to leave vengeful desires for thoughts of compassion, while permitting the offenders to abandon self-condemnation and recover self-respect.

In its forward-looking aspect, renewal is hardly distinguishable from reconciliation. As Arendt observed, drawing from Jesus’ teachings, vengeance is re-active, absolutely determined by past evils, while forgiveness (without ignoring or erasing the past) allows victims and aggressors to act anew, giving them freedom to shape the future afresh. Reconciliation is nothing else but building that future together, transforming former foe into a faithful and dear friend. 

Perhaps there’s nothing of which we stand in greater need in our families, organizations, and communities than forgiveness, weak and broken people as we are, despite our best intentions. Instead of giving in to outrage at offenses, canceling and calling each other out, let us take our chances at reconciliation. Not only is that a way of “drowning evil in an abundance of good,” but it also happens to be a sine qua non of ethical life and flourishing in a world less than ideal.

2 thoughts on “Forgiveness and Flourishing

  1. Beautiful! However, I think that renewal/reconciliation can only take place if the two parties willingly decide (note the mention of the will) to take a leap of faith into a new future. And it’s not just one of the parties but both, or all the people involved. But as humans do not have, or rather have not yet invented a “cardioscopy” or “mindioscope” it’s still very hard to start again when another’s heart and mind has been closed up against you.

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