Why I Stopped Forgiving People… and Maybe You Should, Too

By Paul Thomas Zenki

Forgiveness was turning me into a chump …

Forgive and forget, right? I used to think that. I don’t anymore.

Now look, I know I’m up against some real heavy hitters here when I say maybe you should stop forgiving people. After all, isn’t forgiveness a cornerstone of the major religions?

The Tanakh says that one who forgives an insult keeps a friend (Proverbs 17:9). The Christian New Testament says to forgive, if you have anything against anyone (Mark 11:25). The Qur’an says that one who forgives shall have reward with God (42.40). The Vedas say that forgiveness is the greatest strength (Mahābhārata 5.33.48).

Well, I tried that. For decades, I forgave people who did me wrong. And you know what? It made me feel good about myself. But then one day, I woke up. And I realized that forgiving people was turning me into a chump.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

What changed my mind was Frankie. We met in high school, and despite our differences became friends. But at some point, he started going down roads I didn’t particularly want to be on. It wasn’t just all the New Age stuff he and his girlfriend Hailey were into. It was their physically abusive relationship, which he made no apologies for, along with his white suburban Marxism and what I considered an abuse of psychedelics.

I reached my breaking point one night shortly after his marriage (not to Hailey) when he invited me up to his new place, saying we’d go out and shoot some pool. Turns out, he hadn’t bothered to tell his new wife about these plans, and I found myself cooling my heels out in the hallway while overhearing a knock-down-drag-out argument. Eventually he walked out, cool as a cucumber, and drove us to a pool hall somewhere in Atlanta. Almost as soon as we arrived he excused himself and slipped into the back to score some acid. I ended up playing 9-ball with total strangers for over an hour.

I’d just had the bartender call me a cab, hoping he could find Frankie’s place from my memory of the directions to his house from mine which were on a scrap of paper in my car (this was before cell phones and GPS), when Frankie reappeared, all smiles. His guy didn’t have the stuff, so they’d had to go get it. After that night, I didn’t see Frankie for two or three years.

Until the day he showed up on my front porch. His wife was divorcing him. All his stuff was in his car.

It wasn’t much stuff. He’d sold most of it, including his guitars. “What’d you do,” I asked, “have a yard sale?” Frankie let out a quick “Ha!” Apparently, he had other venues for selling things.

So he stayed a couple weeks.

Back then, I was using the “envelope method” of budgeting, and a couple of times I could swear I’d had more cash in this or that envelope than was now there. But since I didn’t write down the running amounts, I couldn’t be sure. I told myself I was being paranoid, misjudging my friend, letting old scores make me suspicious. Then again, why was it that I, of all people, was seemingly the only option he had to turn to?

A few days after he split, I went to get my checkbook out of my desk. And didn’t see it. Uh-oh. Rummaging around, I found it, and felt ashamed of myself. Until I thought, “Wait, where’s the watch?”

My grandfather’s silver pocket watch. (Yes, like in Pulp Fiction  —  except my grandfather carried his in his vest and never took it to war.) I knew the watch was in that drawer. Except now, it wasn’t. I searched the house. No dice. It was gone. I had no idea where Frankie had lit out to. And I’ve never seen him since.

The Trap of Forgiveness

It took a while, but I forgave Frankie. For the night at the pool hall, the cash in the envelopes, even the watch, which was irreplaceable. Being angry wasn’t doing me any good. And the odds of getting restitution were pretty much zero. It felt like the right thing to do, like it made me a better person.

Then came the day, many years later, when I decided to finally go through all my old photographs, put dates and names on the backs, organize them, and toss out the ones I didn’t want to keep. I pulled out all the photo albums and Fotomat envelopes. And there, in the back of the drawer, was the watch.

That’s when it hit me. Forgiveness had made me a chump.

I realized then that forgiving Frankie hadn’t really made me a better person. It had only made me feel like one. But not just better than who I’d been before. Better than Frankie. It was a way of permanently casting Frankie as the offender and myself as the victim. I got to be blameless, and he got to be the villain.

Truth was, if I was honest with myself, I’d had my own problems in relationships. I wasn’t physically abusive, but I knew how to turn the emotional screws when I wanted to. And come to think of it, I’d pulled a vanishing act on very close friends a couple of times myself, and for no more noble reasons than he had. And, too, I’d taken my own flights of fantasy into strange philosophies and mystical nonsense. And I could be a downright arrogant sumbich.

I was no better than him. After all, we became friends for a reason, didn’t we? But by “forgiving” him, I got pretend to myself that I was. That he was down there and I was up here. My “forgiveness” had never been about him. It had been about me the whole time. It was a shaming moment. And it changed my attitude.

If Not Forgiveness, What?

There are lots of stories told about the Buddha, to illustrate his teachings. In one of them, a man decides to test the Buddha by insulting him. If he were to react with anger, he would show himself to be a fraud. If he did nothing, he would reveal himself as a coward.

So the man found the Buddha sitting with his disciples, walked up to him, and spat right in his face.

The Buddha wiped off the spittle with the hem of his garment, looked up at the man, and said, “What now? What else do you have to say?”

The man was not prepared for this question. He turned and left in silence and went home. And that night, he could not sleep for shame at what he had done.

The next day, he again found the Buddha sitting with his disciples, and he bowed to him and said, “Sir, please forgive me for what I did to you yesterday.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” responded the Buddha. “I cannot forgive you. Because I have no grudge against you. Please, sit down, and let us talk of something else.”

Returning to Here and Now

There is a technique in Buddhist counseling to ask the person seeking help to focus on what is going on at the moment. If a person is angry about an argument they have had with their spouse, they might be asked “So where is your spouse right now?” And then they might be asked “Where is your argument?”

The argument no longer exists. What exists is simply who we are at this moment.

We do not need to “let go of the argument” because there is no argument to let go of. There is only who we are now, where we are now. Once we see this, we can get to the truly important question: What next? What do I choose to do at this time? What karma, what result, do I intend to create?

Doing this, we can escape the trap of forgiveness, the self-serving urge to cast ourselves as the victim and the other as the offender, ourselves as the good guy and the other as the bad guy. We can recognize our responsibility to decide how we are going to act, and let go of our desire to protect our own ego. And believe it or not, we can do this for offenses a lot more heinous than petty larceny (real or imagined). Just ask the Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. For me, it has turned out to be the key to getting past things I am not yet ready to write about, and maybe never will be. I don’t have to carry them anymore.

I have no idea where Frankie is today. I’ll probably never see him again. But wherever you are, Frankie, I owe you one.

Image by Timisu

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.