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  • Marie Trout

The Confusing Moral Compass of Forgiveness

I am sure you’ve been there too: suckered into forgiving someone, who just turns around and takes advantage of you again.

To forgive and be forgiven are key pillars in our moral universe. Yet, because it is often misunderstood, it also drives us, and our culture with it, into murky waters. Here, moral compasses spin rather than offer any meaningful direction.

Because our understanding of forgiveness is often misused, it sabotages us.

We find ourselves in continual loops of feel-bad transgression, shame, confession, feel-good forgiveness followed by resentment. And the confusion from such loopy dysfunction blurs our ability to trust. Here is an example:

Keith’s brother, Max made off with Keith’s share of several hundred thousand dollars after selling off their deceased father’s estate.

When Keith found out, he was devastated. He had not only lost his inheritance, he had lost trust in a brother, he idolized. Riding waves of hurt and disbelief, he decided to break off all ties to Max.

A few decades later, their paths crossed on a beach in Hawaii. As gentle waves rhythmically caressed their bare feet in the shallow surf, they looked out to the horizon and stood in silence. The ocean appeared golden from the setting sun, and as the tension increased, Max fell to his knees and tearfully begged forgiveness. Although he never specified, what he had done, Keith was moved at his brother’s sudden prostration. He reached out, offered his hand, and helped Max to his feet. Keith forgave Max. They hugged and cried.

Keith felt good in that moment. He was convinced that forgiving his brother was the right thing to do.

He was tired of carrying a grudge and wanted to give his brother a second chance. The two brothers celebrated over dinner. Keith picked up the tab, and ended up paying for Max’ hotel stay as well.

Three months later, Keith received a call from Max in which Max asked to borrow four thousand dollars. When Keith refused, Max became hostile:

“Blood is thicker than water, I cannot believe you won’t help your own brother in need. My wife sent gifts when you had your son a few weeks ago, and we prayed for you. I guess your forgiveness was just words. You are a hypocrite and a liar!”

Keith found himself in an impossible situation: if he did not lend Max the money, it was evidence that his forgiveness had not been sincere. If he did, he opened himself up to more disappointment and distress.

The problem with the typical practice of forgiveness is that we are not taught how to practice it meaningfully. We assume that forgiveness is a fresh start, and, some like Max, take advantage: they rinse and repeat.

When their apologies and pleas for forgiveness eventually fall on deaf ears, they kick into second gear: they gaslight and accuse.

Over time, it gets too demanding, and too complicated, to face their shame. Instead they deflect attention from themselves and make others doubt their reality.

Those who are wronged add to the problem when they feel that their faith or social graces require them to turn the other cheek.

They end up being enablers and contributors to continuing harmful behavior. Their sense of obligation trump better judgment. Eventually, their increasingly strained forgiveness becomes mired in resentment and hatred, which bring about feelings of inadequacy and shame. Endless loops of dysfunction piggyback on mistaken notions of forgiveness.

Forgiveness can even be toxic if the person asking for it does not also seek to understand how his or her actions have affected others, and demonstrate willingness and ability to change their behavior in the future.

Otherwise, over time, the dysfunction of easily attained forgiveness becomes evident. The transgressor convinces him or herself that admitting guilt “only complicates matters,” or “hurts others needlessly” This rationale covers that admitting guilt would make attaining selfish goals more difficult. They decide that they can always repent on their deathbed, just like the criminals on the cross next to Jesus did. It is, according to the Bible, never too late to obtain forgiveness. But this kind of forgiveness is only useful if one is convinced that it will help bribe tough doormen guarding the disco of Eternity; it does little to further closeness among mere mortals.

Forgiveness divorced from accountability is as efficient at salvaging relationships, as is holding one’s breath under water to prevent drowning.

As an example, let’s assume that Max had handled his reunion with Keith differently. Instead of begging forgiveness, he had had the guts to confess that not only had he indeed made off with Keith’s inheritance money, he had also lost it all in bad business deals, and was now waist-deep in debt. After Max‘s confession, Keith might stand silent. He would need time to allow the many conflicting feelings in him to settle. He might ask for time as he was struggling with his feelings. He would go back and forth feeling he would need to cut off Max forever, because the pain was just too deep. But his love for his brother, and respect for his willingness to come clean, might also have made Keith eventually decide that he would want to explore if he could have Max in his life again.

He might then call Max to a meeting. Here, Max does defend or explain his actions. He does not reason with Keith, or tell him that he is overreacting, when Keith details the consequences of Max’ deceit in his life. Let’s pretend that Max had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous, and had learned about how addictive behavior leads one to make horrible choices. He would know therefore, also from watching others struggle through similar issues, that Keith would not be interested in reasons for what happened in Max’ childhood, or who peed on his parade in high school. What Keith needs, is for Max to express sincerely that he understands the consequences of his actions: that due to his deceit, Keith’s emotional and financial universe was changed — upended even. Finally, one day, as Max continues to shoulder the pain with Keith, accept his role in it, and show him (and not just talk about it) that he is not just willing, but able to change his behavior by continually working on accountability, the miracle might happen:

Keith might begin to trust again. It would be made possible by Max’ acknowledgment of the consequences of what he did combined with his demonstrated courage to forge new patterns of behavior.

This is the only way that trust can be earned again after having been broken. At this point, Keith might begin to see that he, too, had been careless in letting others handle his father’s estate by signing off all responsibility for the paperwork to his brother. True closeness, and mutual growth would now have a chance.

Rest assured however, that forgiveness by itself can not open this path to restored closeness.

Trust and integrity are built through honesty, consistent behavior, knowhow, and communication. These elements combined form the language of conviction, integrity, and commitment. We hear this language modeled to us far too infrequently.

We often hear, however, a perverted version of it: a sad, lackluster, superficial, and utterly meaningless imitation use of semantics that mistakes trust, commitment, and integrity for patriotic phrases, tribal talking points, and habitual assumptions.

It is clear from watching leaders in commerce, finance, faith, and politics that this charade is not just common, it is accepted and even expected. This phony language masquerading as trust rests on appearance, habitual thinking, calculation, and a dangerous notion of allegiance to agenda over truth. Leaders using it send a signal that what matters most is not whether they do wrong, sin, or transgress. What matters is simply that they are not caught.

Even with mounting evidence to the contrary, these leaders with no moral spine continue to deny, deflect, and distract.

We have moved so far into a world of moral relativism that forgiveness does not even enter the equation, because some of our supposed moral leaders refuse to admit any wrongdoing. In a societal and political environment that is increasingly tribal, morally ambiguous, confusing, and based on fear of the other side, it is becoming accepted to refuse to see the beam in the eye of one’s own, while pointing the finger at those with specks in theirs on the other side.

When our leaders behave like that, they set an unfortunate example .

It is increasingly not wrongdoing or transgressions that matter. Even if some of our leaders are caught with solid evidence showing their mistakes, they simply continue the charade of empty words and promises. They know that they will be supported in keeping the truth from emerging. Their supporters will offer easy forgiveness, even if their observable moral compass indicates that they are upside down and way out to sea.

The greater moral agenda is increasingly not one guided by facts or truth.

The prevailing ethical dilemma of today is: own agenda versus others’; it is increasingly seen as paramount that “our people” win and not those on “the other side.”

It is like a smoke screen blurring the moral directionality of people who have grown up with a ambivalent relationship to accountability. They have watched others get away with what they themselves were punished for. They have been betrayed, abused, molested and lied to. Since they have learned that they cannot expect integrity, trust, and honesty, they accept fraudulent, make-believe versions that sound good. They have customarily been presented with mirages of authenticity and integrity that disappear when inspected closely. But they do not know where to look to find the genuine article.

They have been easily “forgiven” in their own lives when they hurt others, only to experience that it is followed by never-ending resentment.

Theirs is a world, in which nobody cared, or had the time, energy, or know-how, to address transgressions honestly and comprehensively. Lessons have never been learned, and accountability has become as foreign as a town in Russia.

Eventually, they start doing to others what was done to them. They lie, cheat, molest, abuse, and gaslight. They lead lives expecting to find cynicism and coldness rather than integrity and connection. When push comes to shove, and if they are finally caught with their pants down, they can always use forgiveness as the final device in their integrity-masquerading, conviction-faking, and reality-denying tool kit.

Such forgiveness is utterly meaningless. It is a sham and a hoax.

It furthers cynicism and feelings of betrayal that already run rampant in our populace today. People who lie and deceive, and finally get caught and ask for forgiveness do not intend to listen to the pain their actions inflicted upon others. They do not wish to change their behavior. They use forgiveness as a final I-am-up-against-the-wall, get-out-of-jail-free card. And this is exactly the problem: the beautiful, restorative, loving concept of forgiveness becomes nothing but a final strategy to absolve morally suspect repeat offenders.

We see it when CEOs who have bankrupted shareholders get bonuses and golden parachutes. We see it when corrupt political leaders get pardoned or show up as featured talk show hosts. We see it, when sexual abuse traits in our leaders mean nothing and get overlooked, because “boys will be boys,” or “it is just locker room banter.”

We all make mistakes. When we do, there are immense learning opportunities for the perpetrator, and, if approached sincerely and honestly, also for the wronged party. Mistakes and transgressions can then be openers to new closeness, increased understanding, new patterns of behavior, and spectacular outcomes.

We need to stop focusing on blame and its confusing shame-filled mirages, as seen through the lens of unenlightened, convenient, and superficial forgiveness. We would gain much by demanding that wrongdoers on all levels learn to listen deeply to those they have hurt, take responsibility for their actions, experience the consequences of the pain they inflicted, and are only redeemed when they demonstrate consistent change. We may, then, begin to unearth trust and integrity as north and south poles on our moral compass once again so we together can chart a deliberate, meaningful course.

We are, after all, aboard the same ship, and everyone benefits if we can see clearly where we are going.

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