Knox Box of Miscellany

Dawn Knox – A rearranger of words into something hopefully meaningful…

We All Know What Forgiveness Is – Don’t We?

Define forgiveness without using the word forgive? Hmmm

Define forgiveness without using the word forgive? Hmmm

We all know what forgiveness is, don’t we?

But what actually is it?

If you’d been asked to explain to an alien what makes humans tick, and she was particularly interested in the concept of forgiveness, what would you tell her? As you can undoubtedly see, I’m not a fast thinker. I was pondering this question last year – not for the benefit of an alien of course – and I realised it’s quite hard to define, without actually using the word forgive. And if you don’t know what forgive means, then…

So, it occurred to me that one way of explaining it would be to describe the steps taken when you’re forgiving someone – a step by step guide to forgiveness, or perhaps Forgiveness for Dummies.

Okay, you have a go and remember you can’t use the words forgiveness or forgive. So, step one is…

I couldn’t think of step one. Could you? If you could, please let me know.

So, I decided to think about everything that I knew – or thought I knew – about forgiveness. Firstly, it should bring peace to the forgiver. Harbouring a grudge can result in pain for the person who has already suffered. The one who needs to be forgiven may not be bothered if they’re forgiven or not and in some instances may be unaware of whether they’ve been forgiven. So, forgiveness is important to the potential forgiver but not so crucial to the potential forgivee (I’m not even sure there is a word forgivee, so I hope you see what I’m getting at)

Secondly, forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, despite them often being put together. Isn’t there a phrase ‘Forgive and Forget’? I think the forget aspect of this phrase often puts people off the forgiving part. After all, if someone has hurt you, it’s very hard to forget, especially if you’ve got a good memory. There are no rules that I am aware of which state that you have to do both together – it’s up to you whether you forgive, forget or do both at the same time. However, for me, it’s easier to forgive than forget. Of course, you may have other ideas about forgiving and forgetting!

Did any of that help? No, not really. So, I decided to consider how I would know if I had forgiven someone. Well, the answer to that is obvious, isn’t it? I would just know.

But would I? If I couldn’t define the steps I needed to take to forgive someone, how would I know when I’d achieved them?

I’m still none the wiser. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s an inbuilt knowledge that doesn’t need explaining. Perhaps…



  1. Hi Dawn
    Forgiveness is as complex as most human emotions but there is another view. A view taken by Nelson Mandela on practical political terms, that the best interests of his people and country was served by avoiding a bloodbath of the white regime. The chaos that would have gone on for years would have negated all his efforts to transform South Africa into a valued member of the World social and economic community. It would also avoid the mistakes of both the Russian Revolution and Robert Mugabe in Zimbawe, that of destroying the pool of management expertise before it could be replaced.

    It could be argued that the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement could not have happened without the lessons of foregiveness of Mandela. For here there was not the single religious underpinning given by Archbishop Tutu, instead the entrenched Catholic versus Protestant conflict made generationally worse by sectarian schooling.

    So, on one level forgiveness is a powerful social moderator, but on a personal level?

    If someone attacked my Grandchildren, could I ‘understand’ and forgive them? Probably not.

    • Hi Colin, thanks for the comment. So, are you saying that forgiveness can be a deliberate suspension of the resentment that one feels when pain has been inflicted? I think you hit on a very important point about understanding. Perhaps it’s easier to forgive someone when you understand why they acted in a certain way. An apology is usually accompanied by an explanation of the particular behaviour. It’s harder to forgive when there is no explanation or indeed no apology at all. Good points.

  2. I think there is a different level of pressure on a personal decision to forgive or not and that is where there is a religious connection. If you follow a particular religion that declares forgiveness is praiseworthy, or even essential, then an inability to feel forgiveness will set up a conflict which may, in itself be destructive.

    Other religions may suggest the opposite, an eye for an eye, honour revenge and so on.

    Then there is nurture. How does forgiveness play with contemporary society, family, peer groups? You were right to start with, it is a very confusing area, but no different to other emotions felt by every human being, it comes down to ‘going with the flow’ or making up your own mind what is right for you.