1. What is forgiveness?

There are many wonderful definitions of forgiveness:

Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.

   ~ Unknown

Forgiveness is intrapersonal, prosocial change towards a perceived transgressor that is situated within a specific interpersonal context.

   ~ McCullough, Pargament, & Thoreson 

The Paragate Project uses this expanded version of the second defintion as the basis of its work:

Forgiveness is intrapersonal active or passive relinquishment of anger, resentment and the desire for retribution or revenge towards a perceived transgressor that is situated within a specific interpersonal context.   

2.  How do I know if I’m ready to think about forgiveness?

Anger is a natural reaction when we are harmed.  Some of us find that anger, however, has diminishing returns in our lives.  The time to explore forgiveness is ripe when you notice that your anger – even if it’s righteous anger – isn’t in your best interests anymore.  Maybe you’re noticing that your anger no longer serves you, or is even harming you and your relationships.  If you’ve begun to wonder if you might benefit in letting go of that anger, it's a good time to explore the possibility of forgiveness.

3.  I want to let go of my anger, but I don’t want the person who hurt me to think what they did was okay.  Doesn’t forgiveness let people off the hook?

When someone says they have forgiven me, they are pointing out that I have done something wrong.  If I was truly at fault, I’ll need to do something to regain my moral standing before I’m able to forgive myself and let the matter go, too.  Sometimes a genuine apology is all that is needed for that to happen.  Sometimes it’s more.

Accountability and forgiveness are different things.  Let’s say someone steals $200 from her friend.  Her friend might forgive her, but she still has an obligation to repay the $200 or do something else to make it up to her friend.  And until she's made a genuine effort to repair the situation, she’ll still be living with the moral imbalance in the relationship, and probably with feelings of guilt and shame. 

We have met prisoners who have been forgiven for terrible crimes by their victims but still can't forgive themselves.   This alone shows that forgiveness doesn’t let people off the hook.

Possibly you’ve been harmed by someone who denies or downplays what they did to you, and you worry that your forgiveness will encourage them to keep denying responsibility.  Under those circumstances, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to tell anyone that you’ve forgiven him or her.

4.  Can I forgive someone who will never take responsibility for what they’ve done to me?  What about forgiving the dead?

Because forgiveness is an individual act by the person who chooses to forgive, it requires nothing from the person who harmed you.  However, forgiveness comes more easily when the person who harmed you takes responsibility for what they’ve done.  A genuine apology can go a long way for setting the stage for forgiveness.  Acts to help repair the harm may make it even easier to forgive.   But none of this is required for you to forgive.  The experience of forgiveness belongs to you.

5.  Are some things simply unforgivable?

The power to forgive lies with the person who was harmed.  Some people are able to forgive seemingly unforgivable acts – the murder of their child, rape, torture, sexual abuse, even, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, efforts to systematically destroy his people, religion, and culture. 

That doesn’t mean that you're a failure if you don't forgive.  Forgiveness is often described as a journey, and no one should judge themselves about where they are on that journey.

6.  My mother says she’s forgiven my ex-husband.  Can someone forgive for you?

Sometimes people want us to let go of harm we suffered, and claim that the matter is closed because they've forgiven for you.  However, no one can forgive for someone else. 

What your mother may be saying is that she has forgiven him for the harm she suffered when he harmed you; parents often suffer greatly when they see their children hurt, and have their own journeys to forgiveness based on that pain.  But that does not mean that he has been forgiven for you.

7.  I’m having trouble forgiving something that was done to me, but I want to.  Are there things I can do to work toward forgiveness?

There are many excellent books and workshops on forgiveness.  You can start by reading some of the books in the “Suggested Readings” link on this web site.  Several of the authors listed in that section also offer workshops on forgiveness.

The Paragate Project offer forgiveness workshops which incorporate the advice sujatha baliga received from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1996.  At that time, she was 24 years old and struggling with rage at her father for having sexually abused her when she was a child.  By following His Holiness’ advice, she was able to forgive her father.  The one- to three-day workshops, as well as multi-week “Forgiveness Circles,” use exercises and meditations that incorporate His Holiness’ advice and the lessons sujatha and others have learned about forgiveness over the past 15 years.  To learn more, click on the Forgiveness Workshops tab.

8.  Can I forgive myself even if the person I hurt will never forgive me?

Yes, you can.  Self-forgiveness, like all forgiveness, belongs to the person who forgives.  When you harm others, you harm yourself, and you can learn to forgive yourself for the damage your bad choices have done to your own life and others. 

Holding onto anger and hatred at yourself is particularly dangerous.  This is what we told the incarcerated men labeled “violent offenders” who went through a 5 month Forgiveness Circle together, “If you keep seeing yourselves as monsters you are going to continue to behave like monsters.  Better that we bring what we've done into the light, learn where it came from, develop compassion for the roots of our terrible choices, and find better ways of meeting our unmet needs.” 

9.  What does forgiveness feel like?

Most people say it's a feeling of freedom or of being unburdened.  Others say that it’s a noticeable absence of the negative feelings they had before; an open space which anger, mistrust, or rage had previously occupied.  This is how sujatha describes the experience:

For me, when I recall the terrible acts I’ve forgiven, I simply feel no anger.  Forgiveness released a tight, heavy knot I'd carried in my chest for many years.  What replaced it was space, like the open sky, wide and clear enough to carry more love, trust, creativity, and joy than I'd previously known or ever dreamed I could feel.