“Father, I can forgive, but I cannot forget”.
This is a very common lament made by many people who have experiences of being hurt, often by loved ones, and seem to come to a wall or a roadblock in their spiritual growth, even when the guilty parties have expressed contrition and sought forgiveness. To me, that one cannot forget simply indicates that the person has no sign of dementia, and is not suffering from any form of memory loss. And this is could be good.
It is a misconception that when we forgive, it means that we should automatically forget. If this is the case, there is very little true forgiveness in the world, because our history books are filled with records of past hurts, violence and hatred that has caused much suffering and turmoil in the generations before us.
It is nowhere stated in the Sacred Scriptures that we are to forget either, when we forgive. Jesus never taught that, and the very fact that as Catholics, one of our greatest symbols of God’s love for us is the crucifix, where we carry around our necks the image of a bleeding, bruised, bloodied and dying man, shows that not only should we remember, but that we NEED to remember just what true love and forgiveness is. And while bejeweled crosses, adorned with precious stones may be pretty, it doesn’t strike one as something that was once used to publicly execute and shame an innocent man who was nailed to it for our sake. No, we need to remember, and if we don’t, we become lesser people for it.
So what is forgiveness then? In a nutshell, I’d say that forgiveness is when I can look at the whole memory of what had happened in the past, and there is an ability within me to not hold this against the person or persons involved. It’s not a denial of what had happened. Denial always has a negative impact on us, and in time, it will surface and cause us new problems in different aspects of our lives. But healthy forgiveness is when I can see the landscape of what had happened, and look with new eyes at the person with whom I had that issue. I look with the eyes of compassion, and see a new possibility of living from that point on with a newness and with hope.
Perhaps an example would help. In this tiny island republic of Singapore, we have insufficient fresh water to cater to our population. To supplement our water supply, we have what is called NEWater, which is purified water. Used water undergoes stringent purification and treatment process using advanced dual-membrane (microfiltration and reverse osmosis) and ultraviolet technologies. Singapore is not the only country in the world to do this, as this is already practiced in some places in the United States for some 20 years already.
Many Singaporeans have an aversion to NEWater. They tend to only see what the water was before it was purified. So, in their minds, they see the water’s past, which in our case, is water from our sewage. There seems to be a psychological block that prevents them from looking at the purified water (which is extremely clean and pure) separate from its past. In other words, they have not ‘forgiven’ the water’s past.
But if we see the potential of this purified water from the moment of its purification, there is a lot of ‘hope’ for it. It can be made into unlimited other types of beverages, sustaining life and providing hydration, which is vital to anything living.
While I am not advocating that drinkers of NEWater always have the image of putrid and stinking sewers in their minds when they hold a bottle in their hands, it may help if we see the potential that this water has from the time its purification ended and it was bottled. That something from an almost toxic past could become good and usable for us now, must give us a newness in embracing it in its present form.
The same goes for forgiveness of others and their past. Perhaps many people harbouring a hurt past are still stuck in their ‘sewers’. To see a new potential, especially when there is sincere remorse and a heartfelt conversion in others is to get mired in an unpurified past that doesn’t give life and certainly is toxic.
I know all analogies are imperfect, and this one must count as one of them. But at the heart of it is our shared need to take in with compassion the past, present and the future of everyone with new eyes of faith. Only this will allow us to truly be people who usher in the Kingdom of God.
So, should we forgive? Certainly. But forgetting may endanger our committing the same horrors and pains to others.