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The Problem With Forgiveness

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 29, 2021

Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. It's an emotion, it's a state of mind, it's a process.

It's a process that takes at least two parties to even begin to happen.

The problem is that in life and in fiction, this is often misconstrued as something that is done by choice and independently of the situation and the target of the forgiveness.

I'll be more specific.

The cliche (because it is a cliche) goes that when an injury has been done to a person by a perpetrator, this person is the only one responsible for forgiveness. They are supposed to forgive in order to a) be free and b) be superior to the trangressor, both in ethics and integrity of character. This foregiveness is often portrayed as being given without even having been asked.

Everyone has seen scenes where the victim raises up defiantly, and says “I forgive you” to the perpetrator, as if they're uttering some ultimate-move spell. Often this forgiveness just short-circuits the perpetrator and they go insane, or get enraged, or whatever the plot wants them to do.

Alternatively, this “I forgive you” leaves the perpetrator confused, but the victim is swathed in a blissful state of ecstasy of sorts, finally feeling better and now is able to be happy.


Forgiveness is NOT the same as just letting go of a grudge and moving on. I often see it conflated and it sends a bad message.

Forgiveness is something that is half-earned, half-given, and it is done after the perpetrator has actively repented and basically completely changed in disposition and character when it comes to the transgression at hand.

forgiveness done right in ATLA

Forgiveness is something that is mainly asked for through actions, not words. It is given when steps to heal wounds are taken, and the behavior that is to be forgiveness simply does not repeat again.

Teaching through stories and real life that the burden falls on the victim to forgive, because if they don't they are somehow unworthy, petty, or any range of negative qualities to their character, is a type of abuse.

It is also unfair to the perpetrator, because they are taught to be entitled to a waiving of the consequences of their actions. Especially when in stories, the perpetrator goes right back to their usual personality/character/antics that put them in a position to need forgiveness- double points when this is framed as being cute.

Bottom line: forgiveness is a process that takes two parties. The victim needs to heal and the perpetrator needs to contribute to this healing process while they also evolve to become someone who would never commit the transgression they're being forgiven for.

You forgive someone's past self, because they're not that person anymore. Because that is the reward for shedding their skin and developing a new one.

Have you had a forgiveness arc in your stories? If so, how did you handle it?

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paneltastic at 8:39AM, May 30, 2021

I always liked the way Ben Edlund handled this when Tick and Arthur had a falling out. When they came back together, they were still just as petty and bitter with each other, each one wanting to be the one to forgive and not the other. " can't forgive me! I forgive YOU!"

hushicho at 2:24PM, May 29, 2021

It is so good that someone at least pointed out what forgiveness is. It appears to have been utterly misunderstood, dumbed down beyond recognition, and rendered meaningless for a "feel good" moment. I think in real life, many of us have experienced a need to understand what forgiveness really means, especially in the last few years. We need to also understand that not everyone or everything is forgivable, and certainly not if the person hasn't changed and is likely to do the same horrible thing we or the characters hate, over and over again. In fiction, it doesn't have to be quite so strong a stance, but it should at least make sense with the story or at the very least feel right. You can find justification and forgiveness for a character who is consistently entertaining and contributes to the plot. That's a lot harder to do in real life.

usedbooks at 3:31AM, May 29, 2021

Used Books characters carry a LOT of baggage. Lol. The transgressors did very bad things. Some of the protagonists have more evil past deeds than some of the antagonists. Difference is they are heavily repentant. Some feel beyond redemption and are very surprised when met with kindness or forgiveness. (Although, tbh, forgiveness doesn't come from superior characters, mostly from those with their own baggage who are quick to forgive in others what they cannot in themselves.) There really aren't "I forgive you" scenes, more like actions? Like, Fudo's first step in his healing process is getting past his rage for Kaida. She has done some pretty awful things, but he doesn't even remember them, just has the emotion. He refocuses and becomes his own enemy. Mike is a ridiculously repentant character. His "evil" was a rage-induced accident. He seeks forgiveness but is denied because the person he wronged is a sadistic psychopath. So... I guess UB has some pretty weird "forgiveness arcs." :P

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:49AM, May 29, 2021

READ MY PREVIOUS COMMENT BEFORE READING THIS ONE. Nico is going to want Molly to leave him alone and get out of his life. Because it's going to take a looong time before he even consider to forgive what she did to him. And Molly, though she do wish to be forgiven, will understand why he won't do it. And this will become a motivator for what Molly does next. Nico won't give her foregiveness and for all she knows he may never forgive her. She still feel terrible over what she's done and she's in desperate need of some kind of absolution. She needs to forgive herself and that is why she becomes a private investigator, opening her own local detective bureau, helping people by solving their problems, seeking answers for them. Suddenly she's on a path of doing good deeds in the present, to wash off the bad deeds of the past. And once enough time has passed, and Nico has healed enough, and Molly has changed her ways enough, then, and only then, may they both forgive what happened.

Tantz_Aerine at 1:49AM, May 29, 2021

Corruption: great points. It's true that the article is focusing on your 'standard' need for forgiveness- a wrong that was done within the choice/capacities/awareness of the perpetrator (and not due to extreme circumstance) and that the victim would grant forgiveness in good faith if the required healing takes place. All of the variations you mention are very valid, I just wanted to talk about the way sometimes forgiveness is framed as a magic cure-all that doesn't require work (except perhaps from the victim), which imo is a toxic and wrong interpretation of what it is in the first place.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:39AM, May 29, 2021

Okay. SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU'RE READING MOLLY LUSC AND DON'T WISH TO KNOW ANYTHING OF WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN THE STORY, DON'T READ THIS COMMENT. YOU'VE BEEN WARNED. Frankly, many of the things to come in the first issues of the Molly Lusc series is going to be driven by one huge foregiveness arc between Molly and her soon to be ex-husband Nico (yes, he survived). Before not long ago I had Nico setup to forgive Molly's transgressions (comitting adultery, keeping secrets from him and almost getting both of them killed). But then I rewrote it thinking again. NO! Nico cannot forgive Molly. Literally. He's not going to be the better person, ones he wakes up from his concussion from nearly shooting himself in the head, he's going to be a severely damaged person. He's going to be too sad, too angry, too much in pain to forgive her (Even if she did save his life in a split second). Too much disaster has been brought to his life overnight. (Rant continues in next comment.)

Corruption at 1:08AM, May 29, 2021

On the flipside, there are two other issues. One may be a person refuses to grant forgiveness and seek to keep punishing the person even if they change. In this case a Hero can become a Villian. Maybe they think the former villian is just faking and cause problems for them? The other issue is when someone refuses to accept forgiveness. They realize what they did was wrong and don't believe they can make up for it. Of course, the "sin" may be something out of their control and everyone else knows it. For example, taking a kid home from the hospital when the doctors said they could when it turns out the doctors got it wrong and the kid dies because they can't be treated in time when problems occur. These may not be in the posts focus, but also need to be looked at.

Corruption at 1:01AM, May 29, 2021

Forgiveness does take both parties. Sometimes people forgive others not because they have changed and repented, but because they had a reason the one who was wronged understands. For example, say someone who is beaten near death by a gang high on drugs decides to take revenge by beating up each member on their own. One of the gang members or the family of one who died from the beating might forgive the one seeking vengence, seeking as justice for the gang's actions. Maybe they stole money because their father's gambling addiction threatened to have their sister work in a brothel if the debt wasn't paid. In this case they haven't changed their way, but people may forgive them. Forgiveness arcs can be considered mostly the same as redemption arcs, where a person seeks to redeam themself, and forgiveness is part.

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