In an earlier blog post (https://suzannebarbieri.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/if-it-hurts-its-not-love/) I touched on the modern-day flawed understanding of forgiveness, and how nowadays it seems as if an apology, sincere or otherwise, must not only be accepted, but also considered to have righted all wrongs.
We have all heard of cases where a criminal has escaped a custodial sentence by, for example, writing a letter of apology to their victim. The real reason for this is to do with costs, prison over-crowding, etc., but the message it sends is that by merely writing or uttering the magic word ‘sorry’, all is put right and the wrongdoer has learned their lesson and reformed.
There is a world of difference between saying sorry and being sorry; fear of consequences is not remorse; and claiming to have learned a lesson doesn’t mean you have, or that you have even understood what the lesson is.
We are also told that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold resentments; as if, once more, the victim is to blame for their suffering at the hands of another. Not forgiving, however, is not the same as harbouring resentments. It’s quite possible to let something go without absolving any guilty party.
And forgiveness without there first being some kind of atonement helps no one. The whole point about forgiveness is that it has to be earned for it to mean anything at all. The real lesson to be learned is one of empathy. For someone to commit a wilful act of harm on another there must be a lack of empathy. And where such a lack exists, there can be no genuine remorse.
For an ordinary, empathetic person, imagine how mortified you’d feel if, for example, you accidentally trod on a child’s foot. They’re crying, you feel awful, you’re sorry – truly sorry – even though you didn’t mean to do it, and you’d do anything to make them feel better.
Now imagine you’re a non-empathetic person in court for mugging an elderly person and stealing their pension. The judge says if you say sorry and make it up to him/her you won’t get jail time. You think, ‘So if I say a simple word and maybe paint his/her fence, I’ve got away with it? Result!’
What has happened is that because there was no punishment for the crime the event has activated the reward centre of the criminal’s brain. He/she has completed a Big Brother style task: letter written, fence painted, so he/she will still be able to stay in the main house.
This is how it should work. Person A does something bad to Person B. Person A gets away with it and goes on their way. Person B’s life is in tatters. At first Person A thinks, this is great, no consequences; if they think about it all. As time goes by Person A starts to think about what they did to Person B and realises it was a pretty bad thing to do. Guilt eats away at them, they can’t sleep and they try to think of ways to make amends. Maybe they could confess, that’d be a start. Of course, if they confess, there’s a chance that they’ll go to prison. But that doesn’t matter to them any more. All they care about is to atone for what they did. Prison is the least they deserve. And it still doesn’t guarantee forgiveness, and even if it did, it wouldn’t mean they could forgive themselves.
That would be a lesson learned in remorse.
And for something that illustrates this point very well, you could do worse than see ‘The Machinist’ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0361862/
I’m not saying that wrong-doers should be punished for all eternity, but let us not forget that their victims often are, and empty apologies do nothing to help them move on, and the first duty of care should always be towards the innocent.