Forgive and Forget? No Way!

When folks ask me about my fascination with forgiveness and my dedication to it,  I tell  them that my life has been a laboratory in it.  I have needed forgiveness, and received it, in abundance. I have also suffered injuries that have required its practice if I was to heal.

But I must confess another reason.  I cannot forget.  I remember everything, or so it seems. I remember ancient conversations, can return clearly to places and events,  and am able to access and experience feelings from the past, even the distant past.  Words, phrases, songs, loves, deep pains, disappointments, laughter, heartbreaks, wonders, and warmth–there are a multitude of ways that people and experiences stay with me.

This can be an enormous gift.  Believe me, if you have blessed me in some sensitive  way, if we have had generous conversations, shared friendship, accompanied one another, celebrated meaning great or small, you are a part of me. I will remember.

At the same time, if you and I have had  painful experiences,  deep disappointments, or strained conversations,  I remember them, too. This is a more curious gift.  What shall I do with these memories of you, and us?

  • To forget would be a denial, an amputation, a robbery.
  • At the same time, the understandable fear is that such memories could become a prison of resentment.

I am one who has grown to cherish memories.  I do that best when I perceive and welcome them on a landscape of grace. They all have a place in the life I celebrate today.

More than a quarter century ago, Virgil Elizondo published an essay that has been deeply meaningful to me, entitled, “I Forgive But I Do Not Forget.”  He wrote:

“The thought came to me how Jesus never asked us to forget, yet the central message of his words and his life was the forgiveness of one another. But was it possible to forgive without forgetting?  All of a sudden I realized that the real virtue came in forgiving precisely while remembering.  Yet, if I could forget, I would not have to forgive . . . it would not even be necessary.  But remembering all too well the offence, I could forgive with all my heart.  That is the very point of forgiveness.  For to forgive is not to forget but to be liberated from the inner anger, resentment, and quest for vengeance that consumes every fibre of my being (emphasis mine).”  –(Elizondo, V, 1986)   

To tell people that they “should” forgive or “should not” feel what they, or we, feel, is dangerous and dehumanizing nonsense. It is one more violence done to the human body and spirit. But conversely to have life become defined by the offense or wound leads–quite literally–to the the offender becoming the master of our existence. So to live fully actually requires a grander memory, not a smaller one.

To forgive is not to succumb to injustice; rather it is to engage justice in a liberated way. Elizondo continues:

The real challenge to humanity is not one of forgetting, but one of converting. It is in converting to the way of God through our encounter and subsequent faith in Jesus that we make the radical and definitive break with the natural ways of justice and begin to enjoy the justice of God which in this life repays curse with blessing, injury with pardon, theft with gift, insult with praises, and offence with forgiveness.”

Quotes from: Virgil Elizondo, “I Forgive But I Do Not Forget,” in Floristan, Casiano, and Duquoc, Christian. Forgiveness. T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1986.