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Is Forgiveness the Only Way Forward?

Jan/23/2023 / by Anjali Bindra Patel
Image credits: Shutterstock

It’s OK if you can’t do it on command; we all process emotion differently

It’s my nature to analyze things, whether it involves significant issues like finding the best parenting advice or little things like choosing which socks I should order on Amazon. 

I’m like a pot of water that takes forever to boil. I sit. I ponder. I question. I struggle.

When SEEMA reached out for my opinions on forgiveness, I stopped in my tracks. I wasn’t even sure I had an obvious idea of what it means to forgive.

Of course, I’m familiar with many famous sayings about forgiveness, like the one from Nelson Mandela where he stated that not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I’ve always loved that quote but felt equally unsettled by it, wondering what the “forgiving” part entailed. Does it mean we should extend mercy, even if the person doesn’t deserve it? Does it mean forgetting the act of betrayal, hurt, pain, or damage? Does it mean we should pretend to be okay even if we’re not? 

I found countless definitions for forgiveness, some of which used the word “forgive” to define the term (unforgivable!). In contrast, other explanations around forgiveness included actions like showing empathy and learning to let go of the pain the incident has caused us. 

Though my quest for a singular definition of forgiveness went unfulfilled, I did uncover extensive research about the positive impacts of forgiveness, especially on the person doing the forgiving.

As someone whose work revolves around people and organizational cultures, I was heartened to read about the increased well-being and productivity in professional settings when we exercise our ability to forgive. 

Still, I couldn’t seem to move past that nagging voice in my head: what if forgiveness is not in the cards? What do we do when we feel pressured to forgive but can’t get there? 

Let’s put the issue of forgiveness into a workplace setting. Pretend that someone repeatedly belittled you for your culture, your ethnicity, your gender, your family status, or anything else that you consider a fundamentally important part of your identity. The comments, once a trickle, started feeling more like a tsunami, coming in fast and furious. 

Unable to work productively in this dysfunctional and toxic environment, you filed a complaint and reported the issue to your Human Resources Officer, who then referred the perpetrator to a code of conduct training. After the person attended the mandatory training, their external insults were replaced by more insidious passive-aggressive behavior, something much harder to pinpoint or report. Feeling that you had exhausted all your options, you decided you had no choice but to leave a position and an organization you once loved. 

What now? Perhaps you thought about the need to forgive the harassing colleague so you could move on, but what if it was too difficult to do so? What would be another way forward if forgiveness isn’t going to happen? 

Might it be enough to aim for acceptance? Do we have to forgive to move on? What if we released the pressure to forgive and worked on simply “unburdening” and accepting the things we can’t change? We could assess the incident and see what we might have learned from the experience. Second, we could recognize our emotions. We might have been, and may still be, feeling angry, betrayed, embarrassed, hurt, or a combination of these things, and maybe all of that is okay. 

Often, we see the word compassion in discussions of forgiveness. It’s great if we are in a position to offer to understand another person. Sometimes, that compassion might be better directed towards ourselves, so we can allow ourselves time to process and cope with the things or people that have brought us down. 

Forgiveness will mean different things to different people, and if the term “forgiveness” resonates with you, it’s great to lean into it. If you feel ready and the situation warrants forgiveness, you should do so. Forgiveness might be a more challenging concept to unpack for others, and they may be unable to excuse, condone, dismiss, or release another’s actions so quickly. It’s OK if you can’t forgive on command. Like fingerprints, no two people will process their life’s occurrences identically. We all love differently. We all grow differently. And we all process emotions differently.

I’m reminded of a quote by one of my all-time favorite musical artists, Tupac Shukar, who said:

“You can spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months over-analyzing a situation; trying to put the pieces together on what someone did, justifying what could’ve or would’ve happened…, or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move on.”

Healing is very personal. When anger, hurt, betrayal, or memories no longer serve us, here’s hoping that we can find the strength to release it. Maybe we will forgive, but perhaps we won’t. Maybe we will accept things, and maybe we won’t. Whoever you are and however you cope, here’s hoping for one thing: that we can all find the ability to free ourselves and keep moving on.

Anjali Bindra Patel is a lawyer, diversity and inclusion strategist, mom, and author of the bestseller “Humanity at Work: Diversity, Inclusion, and Wellbeing in an Increasingly Distributed Workforce.”