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
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.