I was halfway through the one-hour class on forgiveness at a local county prison when his hand went up and the inmate responded to a point in the lesson with, “I never forgive anyone.” I asked him to say more about that.
His answer was interesting. He stated that holding a grudge against someone was a good way of reminding him not to commit a similar wrong against someone else. “If I forgive,” he said, “I will have no incentive to hold myself to a higher standard. Holding a grudge helps me not to do the thoughtless, harmful things to someone else that have been done to me.”
I have heard numerous arguments against forgiving, but I must admit I have never heard this one.
We had been talking about a man who had spent much of his life blaming his father for being an alcoholic, for beating his mother, for being a terrible father. Whenever something went wrong in his life, the son blamed the father. He justified his own irresponsibility by blaming his father.
But his perspective dramatically changed when he became a father. He realized that his father had not set out to be a bad father. He imagined that his father experienced the same feelings of love toward him as he felt toward his own son. He worried that if he did not forgive his father, he might somehow be doomed to repeat the same bad fathering toward his son as he had experienced growing up. So standing there beside his son’s crib, he forgave his father.
The inmate in my class had his own explanation of why the son forgave his father. “I think he forgave his father so that when he screwed up later in life he could let himself off the hook and lay the blame back on his father.” The inmate added this: “Holding a grudge is a powerful incentive not to repeat the wrong that has been done to you. Forgiving the person who wronged you is nothing more than a psychological game in which you give yourself an excuse somewhere down the road to be just like the person who hurt you.”
I responded that this was precisely the opposite of what I had experienced. My experience, I said, was that when I judged someone for the wrong he had done to me, refusing to forgive, I invariably sinned against someone else in the same way this other person had sinned against me.
His response was something like this: “You saying that doesn’t make it so.”