Insights: Prof. C. Fred Alford “Forgiveness is Not To Make Us Feel Better”

Today Professor C. Fred Alford gave a very insightful talk about his take on forgiveness in a room filled to the brim. Here are some preliminary insights taken from this lecture. Professor Alford is the author of “Trauma and Forgiveness: Consequences and Communities” (read our review here).

Forgiveness is a mark of human excellence

In popular psychology the focus is mostly on the person who forgives. But according to Professor Alford forgiveness shouldn’t be given in order for the self to feel better, but to actually be better. Forgiveness is a mark of human excellence, a virtue, and shouldn’t be given easily.

Can we ever forgive?

Has only the victim of a crime the right to forgive? Should we look at whether the other has repented? Or should I forgive the other, because otherwise I myself will not be forgiven (by God)? The differences between Jewish and Christian views are large. Is there even a possibility of forgiveness, or is this possibility only a conception of self-help?

The wrong done in the past lasts forever. Bad forgiveness pretends it doesn’t, but good forgiveness, according to Professor Alford, creates sympathetic understanding – but this will never truly happen, the offender will never truly understand the pain of the victim. Coming to terms with this, but creating some general understanding of the suffering of the fellow-human, that is a reasonable expectation of forgiveness.

Forgiveness a cheap solution?

Forgiveness is too often an attempt to regain lost power. The complexity of emotions involved makes it impossible to think of forgiveness as a final stage to bypass over the stages of mourning, loss and trust, and to go from hurt to recovery – that is what bad forgiveness tries to do. The loss of self, the parts of ourselves that remain wounded, cannot simply be transcended by cheap forgiveness that does not give a place for mourning. It is a cheap solution that leads to immediate freedom, a power game that doesn’t make the individual have to look at the difficult messy emotions involved. This is what the psychology of self-deceit makes us believe. Straight to acceptance in order to get on with life, but forgiveness cannot be an acceleration of this process.


Our culture and our time devalues passivity, and forgiveness is the result of us having been put in a position of passivity. The outcome of this approach is that we become disappointed and hurt with ourselves.

Forgiveness as a binding people together

Forgiveness is a unique virtue as it binds each person together. Atonement is remorse in action. Something that the injured party cannot control – even though we might want to. Real forgiveness requires deep atonement from the offender, and leaves the victim in this sense powerless. Atonement is not a performative speech act, but made through deeds and often implies a lot of  suffering. In the end, when real atonement has been given, forgiveness of the other is not always necessary any longer. The act is not forgivable, but the private and sometimes public atonement of the offender can bring about a change that does not diminish the unforgivable nature of the act. This is not quick and popular, but it is perhaps a more real relationship that we can be referred to as forgiveness.

Alternatives to forgiveness

Forgiveness is very demanding. But there are alternatives that recognize the good and the bad that lives in everybody. Mercy. Reconciliation. Acceptance for the sake of both parties. Continuation with life without forgiveness is also possible and can lead to a good life. Clemency. This is not a bipolar world of forgiveness and resentment. So let’s not rush to forgiveness. Forgiveness is precisely a virtue because it requires a lot of time and effort. And some people don’t deserve it. And it should above all not be seen as a strategy of denial and control, focussing on self-empowerment to bypass the more difficult stages of being hurt.

Recognizing that there are alternatives, we make it possible to create time for forgiveness, which comes in its own time. We cannot control forgiveness, but we can be pleased when we reach it. We don’t get forgiveness very often in life. It is a beginning of a new life. But when it appears, we should cherish it.

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Photo Credit: aquigabo! Flickr via Compfight cc.

One Comment
  1. Such an important topic for all of us. We are faced with these issues both personally, in the workplace and as humanity. Very very glad to see this blog. Would love to be able to do web meetings.

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