Thursday, January 11, 2007

Guest post: Reconciliation

[Many thanks to Don Jr. for contributing the following essay -- RC.]

Reconciliation, it seems to me, involves putting things back; more specifically, it involves putting things back together. In a word, it is to reunite. Now a thing is in need of re-union only if it has been divided. In the realm of human affairs, divisions are caused, for the most part, because one party has been injured (or feels it has been injured). Reconciliation, then, must be sought either by the party that has injured or by the party that has been injured. It is usually held that the party which has injured—that is, caused the injuring—has the harder job of the two; however, this opinion tends to exist, I believe, because reconciliation—or really forgiveness—is often misunderstood. It is misunderstood (I will clarify later) in the same sense that a child might mistake the band-aid for the actual healing.

I said that reconciliation involves putting things back. But you cannot put something back until you have let it go; and this is where the injured party frequently falls short, for the injured party has the difficult task of having to forgive, of having to put back, to let go. It is often said that one must "forgive and forget," as if the two were distinct. In a sense, though, forgiving is forgetting, for it is agreeing to act as if the thing never happened. It is almost literally to put things back. This is where the misunderstanding occurs. Many are content to forgive for the time being. However, as soon as they are injured again they will bring up, as if they never really forgave them, any past injuries they can recall. But there is no such thing as partial or temporary forgiveness. A band-aid is a temporary fix. However, to stick a band-aid on an injury and act as if it is healed is naive at best. Actual healing needs to take place. And actual healing is nothing more than "putting things back." The same applies to actual forgiveness. Thinking this through, one might begin to see how difficult it is to truly forgive. This is why I think the injured party has the harder task.

Forgiveness, though, is not merely a thing given; it is also a thing received. And in the instance that it is not received, it falls short of being fully complete. Reconciliation is a reunion which requires the efforts of both parties. The injured party, in my opinion, has the more difficult task in that they must not merely strike a line through the record (a line which may subsequently be erased) but must erase the record entirely; they must "put things back." The party that has caused the injury also, though, has a difficult task; they must humble themselves enough to accept the gift of forgiveness — and it is a gift. It is a gift in the sense that it can never be merited. One can never earn the chance to undo time. No number of my rights can ever erase a single wrong. The only ones able to erase those are the persons who were wronged. Unfortunately, most of us have poor erasers.

-- Don Jr.


  1. I have found forgiveness to be a really powerful act in my own life. But there are some acts I do think we should forgive in a temporary fashion, forgive but not forget. If someone steals from me, but is remorseful, I'll forgive that episode and assume it was a temporary error in judgment. I can go on to trust the person again. But if I'm robbed a second time, that act piggybacks on the original transgression immediately. In a survival sense, it's not wise to forget the harm a person causes us because at some point we may need to decide to avoid this person for our own safety.

    This comes from an atheistic perspective, however. If you think the next life brings justice, then you can forgive and forget 7 x 70 times and then some. I'm just trying to keep this life going as long as possible.

  2. I think forgiveness means we will continue to respect and honour the person being forgiven as if the negative act didn't happen. But I don't believe we can actually make ourselves forget anything; we just shove it deeply into our sub-conscious. But it's still there.

    I think forgiveness can be given more than just superficially, and not just to a point in original intention, yet the transgression not totally forgotten, in which case the forgiveness can be withdrawn when the true nature of the beast is revealed. (Does that make sense?) Or, I guess, we can forgive the action, but avoid the person. But if I'm avoiding interacting with someone who steals from me, I haven't forgotten the thefts.

    I agree that both parties need to be involved for reconciliation to occur, but I also think, going beyond the topic, that it's possible to be positively affected by the act of forgiving even without the other party's involvement or even knowledge. I'm thinking of scenarios like an abused child one day years later learning to forgive her father now long dead.

  3. It's interesting to try to work out exactly what forgiveness and reconciliation are. I'm not sure that they must involve the kind of total erasure that Don Jr. implies (though I take his point about their intended permanence).

    At a first pass, I think I'd want to say that reconciliation is a practical commitment to repair a relationship, or to "make things work". I don't think it has to work in exactly the same way as it did before though.

    Forgiveness, on the other hand, seems more abstract - a kind of moral attitude, perhaps. To forgive one for something is to say that you no longer "hold it against them". (Does it further require that your good opinion of them is fully restored? Sage's suggestion looks to be something along these lines...)

    It seems that these two could come apart (even assuming that the other is appropriately apologetic). You could forgive someone their sins without wanting to renew the relationship. Or you could try to reconcile with someone who you either no longer fully respect or, at least, retain some grievance against. (Though the attempt might not work out very well, of course.) Unless, do you think, the respective forgiveness/reconciliation must be less than fully genuine in these cases?

  4. you can find a very interesting analysis of the concept of forgiveness in continental philosophy. ARe you surprised? Check ou Paul Ricoeur Ricordare, dimenticare, perdonare, Il Mulino, Bologna 2004. (I do not know the original title in French.)
    In general the theme of "forgiving" is very useful for philosophy of history. One of the issues in philosophy of history, is, of course, the issue of the function of historical thought, understood as judgment about one's own past and the past of one's own culture or group.


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