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Sociability • Social Virtues

How to Forgive

It can be so hard to forgive because – so often – we simply are in the right and the scale of the folly, thoughtlessness and meanness of others seems utterly beyond our own measure. But there are two inviolable ideas which should nevertheless, in the face of the grossest behaviour, be kept in mind to increase our chances of cutting others a little slack.

Firstly: we must remember how the other person got there, to this place of idiocy and cruelty. Every irritating fault in another person has a long history behind it. They have become like this because of flaws in their development, which they did not choose for themselves. They were shaped by troubles which we cannot see but which we can know exist. The arrogant person was trapped (at some key point in their personal evolution) in an environment where being modest and reasonable seemed to guarantee they’d be trampled on. The hyper-critical individual has lived too much, as their personality was growing, around people who couldn’t take a gentle hint – so they came to rely on blunt assertions. The frustratingly timid, mousy person was (at some stage) terrified; the show-off learned their irritating manner around people who were hard to please. Behind every failing – behind everything that’s wrong and infuriating about those we meet – is a decisive trauma encountered before someone could cope with it properly. They are maddening but they got to be this way without meaning to. To forgive is to understand the origins of evil and and cruelty.

Secondly, and very strangely, there are difficult things about you too. Of course, not in this area. Not in any area remotely connected to the sort of lapses that destroy your faith in humanity. But in some areas, quiet areas that you forget about as soon as you’ve travelled through them, you too are a deeply imperfect and questionable individual. Gently, you have – in your own way – betrayed. Nicely, you have been a coward. Modestly, you have forgotten your privileges. Unthinkingly, you have added salt to the wounds of others. We don’t need to know anything about you to know this as a certainty. We must forgive because – not right now, not over this, but one day, over something – we need to be forgiven.

We would – in the past – regularly have looked up to the heavens for this forgiveness. We do that less and less. But that doesn’t attenuate the need for some moments when we limber up to utter that most implausible word ‘sorry’ – or indeed stretch our ethical imagination in order to pronounce those even more arduous and unnatural words, ‘I forgive you.’

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