Forgive & Forget… Is It Possible?

I can forgive, but I cannot forget, is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note – torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one.

~ Henry Ward Beecher

RW - Aspire to Inspire

Listen to the discussion on “Aspire To Inspire” based on this quote!

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was an American Congregationalist clergyman and social reformer who worked toward the abolition of slavery. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He supported the Union during the American Civil war, then after the war he supported women’s suffrage and temperance. He had a wide following on the lecture circuit because of his engaging style.

Henry Ward Beecher had very strongly held views about issues that were important to him. Among those was the topic of forgiveness. As part of our Christian heritage we were taught to “forgive and forget”. How often have we heard ourselves or someone else declare that they will forgive something, but can never forget it? I’ve heard it quite often and I tend to agree with Beecher’s first sentence of this quote, where he declares that if we refuse to forget the wrong, then there is no forgiveness.

Clearly, some wrongs are so horrific that it might seem impossible to forgive and forget. Not long ago, I saw a news story where a drunk driver hit a minivan and killed three young children and their grandfather who was driving. The drunk driver emerged unscathed physically, was charged, and pled guilty to all charges. He addressed the court with a tearful apology to the parents of the children. When interviewed later, the mother refused to accept his apology and insisted that it would not bring her family back.

I felt deeply moved by her loss and her agony. Yet, I was uncomfortable listening to her hateful condemnation of the drunk driver. I wondered whether she would ever be able to forgive that man. Could anyone forget this? Putting myself in that mother’s shoes, I don’t think I could forgive, much less forget.

Moving this train of thought closer to home – can I forgive myself for mistakes I make? Do I really accept my own fallibility, or do I withhold forgiveness and become an embittered person? I once came upon a quote by Leonardo Da Vinci about attaining perfection, “Life is pretty simple: You try something. Usually it fails. Sometimes it works. If it works well, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is to keep trying something else.” In his last sentence, Da Vinci is urging us to move on, to move forward. Never making a mistake is a wonderful and lofty goal, but it is terribly unrealistic. If I hold myself to such an unbending standard, then it follows that I will not be able to forgive myself my own errors.

After much thought, I don’t think we can separate the notions of forgiving and forgetting. I think the problem, for most people, is the forgetting part. Don’t we cherish the value of learning from our own mistakes and those of others? One might ask how we can learn from the errors of the past if we make a determined effort to forget them. I believe we need to revisit the Da Vinci quote here. We need to pardon our own errors and and refuse to condemn ourselves. In avoiding self-condemnation, I am free to learn from my errors and take those critically important steps forward. Moving is the essence of living. Moving forward is the essence of living well.

Once I have mastered this process in my own life journey, I have a good chance of applying this same habit to others who may commit errors that injure me in some way. What comes to mind here is the New Testament parable taught by Jesus Christ where he illustrates the virtue of forgiveness through the story of the woman caught in adultery. The law called for her to be publicly stoned to death. Christ said to his followers, “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Christ is saying, condemn the error, not the person.

When someone close to you, hurts you by word or deed, there’s another issue involved besides pardoning the error and moving past the hurt feelings. There is the issue of trust. Trust is a very important element of any friendship, in fact, it is the glue that bonds. If that trust is damaged or broken, can the relationship be salvaged? I believe that trust must be re-established in order for that relationship to survive and then to grow and flourish.

In his final sentence, Beecher states, “Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note…”, and in these words he paints for us the ideal. Earlier, I spoke about forgiving oneself and moving on. Can I love another as I love myself and just move on without carrying the baggage of pain into the future? And what of the stranger in the news story described above? Can the mother who lost her children because of the error of the drunk driver, forgive that error and move on? I honestly don’t have the answers. I agree with Beecher’s ideal, but living it is a huge challenge. Perhaps it really does, as Da Vinci points out, start within ourselves. If we cannot bring ourselves to forgive our own errors, then true forgiveness of others is futile.

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Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December, 2013, and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (http://fiorabooks.com), to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

18 thoughts on “Forgive & Forget… Is It Possible?”

  1. If you don’t forgive for your own sake, the anger will eat away at you and make you a bitter person. Then the perpetrator will have won.

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  2. Great post (and great Aspire to Inspire show!) discussing forgiveness, John. The especially tricky part is that of trust. Once someone has shown you who they really are by abusing your trust and friendship, then it is best to forgive and move on by moving away. In this case, forgetting only opens one up to further abuse.

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    1. Thanks, Blaire, but I disagree in that such a decision is really tantamount to what Beecher is saying – that the refusal to forget is a refusal to forgive. As I said in an earlier comment, this forgiveness business is very challenging! Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the discussion!

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  3. John, the point of your inspiration that touched me most is this: “Christ is saying, condemn the error, not the person.” Looking at things this way, forgiving and forgetting begin to make real sense. Why it is difficult to forget, sometimes, is because we see the person and his error as one and the same. By separating the person from his error, one can see how forgetting can become very easy. Thank you for this insightfulness.

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    1. There certainly is nothing easy about any of this, Joy. I agree, separating the error from the person is truly the key. Remarkably, this exact same process is necessary in order to forgive ourselves. Thanks for visiting and lending your wisdom to the discussion!

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  4. John, thank you for this post on forgiveness. I don’t know what it says about me, but not sure that I would be able to forgive someone who has hurt or murdered one of my children. I think you have to be a really big person to go to that place, and so I’m going to be honest…I’m not that big yet. I pray that one day I might be, but let’s not hold our breaths.

    If you missed John’s ASPIRE TO INSPIRE show on this topic with co-hosts Gwen Plano and John Howell, I would strongly suggest you tune in to the link above. It was great!!!!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your honest reaction, Nonnie! I think we’re all works in progress. I don’t know that I could be big enough to forgive someone who committed a horrible wrong against myself or my family. I’m confident that if I can’t master the art of self-forgiveness, then I’ll never be able to forgive others. Thanks for your kind words about the Aspire To Inspire show!

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  5. A complicated topic as Gwen pointed out, and yet one that resonates with me. I’ve never suffered a wrong like that mother but I have run into situations that have made it difficult to forgive and forget. I think we all struggle with that. When I can’t forgive, I ask God to help me do it. I’ve had to call on a higher power several times in my quest to pardon, but with His assistance, I have been able to put wounds behind me.

    Your posts are always so thought-provoking. BTW, I picked up Passion & Struggle. It looks intense! …although I would expect no less 🙂

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    1. It is complicated, Mae – I wrestled with it for quite a while before writing this reflection. What I love about our show “Aspire To Inspire” is that Gwen, John Howell and I get to exchange our ideas and learn from each other. I think we’ve all had a very hard time with the art of forgiveness. Thanks for picking up Passion & Struggle – I hope you enjoy it! Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. Mae and John, I feel that ASPIRE TO INSPIRE is really changing lives…I know after reading John’s posts here and listening to his show, I’m always left “thinking” about ways that I can improve on me. Thanks, John for sharing YOUR INSPIRATION with the world! We all need it!

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  6. Loved the debate on Monday, so it’s great to see the article that sparked it.
    I would say that, with effort, anything can be forgiven. This is based on my research on the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. A few years on from the dreadful atrocities that saw almost 1 million people killed in just 3 months, often ‘up close and personal using knives and garden implements, the perpetrators were being released and ‘rehabilitated’ back into the very communities they had torn apart.
    The reason for this amnesty was both simple and terrible – Rwanda had murdered it’s own workforce, leaving the survivors orphaned, weakened by trauma illnesses or HIV/AIDs as a result of rape, or mutilated and physically unable to support themselves, get in crops or work. They needed every able-bodied person available to help those most in need.
    These were the ‘ordinary’ killers – the ringleaders and psychopaths were executed early on in the aftermath of the war or after trial once government was back in place. Somehow it worked, mainly because the convicts were literally the next door neighbours of their victims and had lived with them amicably before the madness descended. Whether there was ‘forgetting’ involved on either side is probably moot, since they all see the outcome of their crimes every day, but they at least could move on and with degree of atonement.
    Human being are remarkably resilient in all kinds of ways. We all can do anything, even the ‘unthinkable’, if we set our minds to it.

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    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting here, Jan. I can only imagine how horrific that instance of genocide was in Africa. Yes, history does prove that humans are very resilient! One thing is certain, true forgiveness is not an easy thing.

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