We all want to be forgiven. Sooner or later, we all think about saying these words: “I am sorry. Please forgive me.” By the time we choose to say these words, we have often reflected long and hard about our past transgression. When we decide that we are prepared and humble enough, we ask our spouse, our significant other, our deeper Self, our God; we ask to be forgiven.
We ask and hope for this act of kindness. We want to make amends. We want the burden to be lifted. We want our souls to be cleansed. We want to own our mistakes, our errors. We want to set the record straight because we know that we were wrong. We don’t do this only to feel better, but also because we are urged from deep within and yet we are not certain why.
To be forgiven feels good. It is hard work to get prepared psychologically to ask for forgiveness. Asking to be forgiven is humbling. We must put aside pride and ego.
When we genuinely ask for forgiveness and receive it, we might feel that we have grown as a person. We think that maybe we can move on a bit easier with our lives and in our relationships. When we ask for and receive forgiveness, it can bring with it a deepening in our relationships. These can be the rewards for owning our transgressions.
But this article is not about the potentially deeper relationships or positive feelings that can come along with asking and receiving forgiveness. This article is about the psychology of forgiveness and what we can do and what awaits us, when in spite of saying, “I am sorry, please forgive me;” forgiveness never comes.
I know people who for decades have been relentless in the asking for forgiveness and who most of the time, never receive it. Let me explain. I have spent more than twelve years providing mental health evaluations and treatment for incarcerated men found guilty of murder. Through this unique opportunity, I have been a witness to the profound psychological hold that the quest for forgiveness can have on a person’s psyche.
Of course I know that there are some who think and feel that once a murder has been committed, the murderer should never be forgiven, no matter the circumstances or changes that the assailant may have made. I completely understand such views. This article will not directly answer that complex and divisive point. I am not arguing in favor of forgiving the crime of murder, because I have seen the extreme pain and suffering that death caused by murder has on so many of the victims of this crime. But I am also not arguing in favor of never forgiving such crimes. These moral and value judgments are best left to each individual to wrestle with and to decide for him or herself.
The truth is that regardless of one’s feelings about such forgiveness, the general psychology of seeking forgiveness does not go away. People seek it at times like they seek food and shelter.
In the case of incarcerated men found guilty of murder and seeking forgiveness from their victim’s families, the one potential secondary gain that must be considered and which often cannot be ruled out is this: Is the quest for forgiveness only to receive a favorable perception from the parole boards or those people in positions of authority that have the power to grant a man’s release from a life sentence in prison? From my experiences of evaluating and treating hundreds of such men, it appears that it is often the case that the drive and quest for forgiveness comes just as much from within, as it does from without. (Such as for favorable parole board outcomes, etc.)
When these men go before the parole board, they often meet the relatives and loved ones of their victims, who continue to come to these hearings year after year, sometimes continuing for decades. The intensity of emotion in the parole board hearing room can be immeasurable. I have seen cases where the passing of the baton for attending the board hearings is passed to the next generation of relatives and/or state officials so that they can keep the pressure on the parole board to never let the inmate out of prison.
Is there a message that we can take from such extreme examples illustrating the drive for forgiveness in spite of such resistance? I think that there is. I believe the lesson is that the quest for forgiveness is embedded deep within the psyche and it is part of what makes us human. It is archetypal. Furthermore, it can be a necessary part of a deep change process. This drive is also embedded in the greater goal tasked to each of us to make amends for our errors as part of the process of change no matter the transgression.
Interestingly, “making amends” is one of the Twelve Steps inherent in the recovery process for substance abuse problems. This example further illustrates just how much of a presence the quest for forgiveness of past transgressions is interwoven into the nature of who we are, what makes us human, and what can help us to heal.
Another lesson that can be taken from the referenced incarcerated men over time is that the goal is not really about receiving forgiveness. Receiving forgiveness seems to be only a possible by-product of the drive. I believe that a central goal of the quest for forgiveness is that seeking it forces us to reflect upon our behavior. It humbles us, and helps us to learn to carry the “weight” in our lives, not to necessarily get rid of it.
Honoring the drive for forgiveness helps us to become deeper and better human beings. Like the pressure that is necessary to make a diamond, the pressure and weight in our lives, helps to shape us, helps to make us more whole. I have seen this pressure and process time and time again work to change for the better some of the incarcerated men with life prison sentences who were found guilty of murder. I have seen some of them become more caring and pro-social individuals.
When forgiveness never comes, it is like the thorn in our side that we cannot ignore. It seems that continuing to do the inner work of asking, is what matters. This can move us forward in our own process of change. The quest for forgiveness, even when it never comes, is not like Camus’s Sisyphus who sees only the absurdity in his task of pushing the rock up the mountain only to see it fall back down again to have the process repeated.
Layered within the quest for forgiveness are the threads that help us to make necessary changes, to own the wrongs of our past, and to grow as human beings. We discover meaning here. It is a place where grace can enter into our lives. When we do not give up on our inner or outer work to seek forgiveness from those that we have wronged, from those that we love, or from our God, we are shaped over time like the boulder lying in the middle of the mighty river. We do not necessarily need to be forgiven, because we become more like the rock; we learn to withstand the pressure and carry the weight.
© 2012, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.