Some ancient wisdom strikes at the very root of truth. Which is probably why we consider it so wise. Take this modern English version of a line from a lengthy poem by Alexander Pope, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.

Succinct and simple at first glance. Now let us delve into the wisdom buried within.

First a little background. I was browsing the timeline of a simply complex man who walks alongside me on Twitter’s path. That path can be painful at times, studded as it is with uncut gems. @DaveGrigger posted a link to a post regarding forgiveness that you may choose to read.

My subsequent reading of the post referred to caused my own reflection on the nature of forgiveness.  I responded with my own version of the truth:

The only way we humans ever truly forgive, is when we forget.

Do I wish I could forgive? Of course, as forgiveness strikes me as a most worthy thing to do. Unfortunately, there is a caveat that renders forgiveness impossible for any human save a simpleton.


No, simply the truth as I see it. You see, for forgiveness to be real requires that there be no exceptions to it. True forgiveness must be absolutely unconditional. We can’t partially forgive someone. We can’t conditionally forgive someone. We can’t forgive them, with reservations and exceptions. Thus the only way we can ever truly forgive someone who has wronged us, is to completely forget they did. That requires us to be a simpleton who is completely incapable of remembering. I don’t believe such simple humans exist.

Let me use an example to try and clarify my meaning along with my understanding of what I think Alexander Pope meant. I’m unlikely to succeed, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

Someone deliberately deceives us in order to win a contest.

We forgive them.

We enter another contest. They deceive us again, and win again.

If we are truly capable of forgiving, then there is no limit to the number of times they can repeat the wrong they do us. Do you know anyone who is capable of such forgiveness, other than a complete simpleton?

If we truly forgave them the first time they deceived us, then forgiving them again is easy. However that is not the nature of humans anywhere. Though we forgave them the first time, when they repeat their deceit we remember the first occurrence. Since we remember their treachery, we have not truly forgiven it. The most we have done is grant the wrongdoer leniency, while retaining the right to withdraw such leniency.

That is not forgiveness. Not at all.

Forgiveness is far beyond the realm of human behavior. So far beyond that it can only be in the behavior of the divine.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. Forgiving someone who has not wronged us really isn’t forgiveness at all, it is arrogance. It makes countless assumptions about whatever deed we deem worthy of forgiveness, it makes further assumptions about the person or people who were wronged, and it attempts to place us in judgment over the actions of others. What is that, save arrogance?

To forgive requires two things. First, that we are personally wronged. Second, that we completely forget.  I don’t wish either of those on anyone.

Now look back on the number of words in this post.  Compare them to the number of words in Alexander Pope’s poetic line, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”  Honestly, I think Alexander Pope said all I have said and more, in barely a single line…

Ancient wisdom, indeed.

About C.G.Ayling

Musing misuser of words, lover of lyrical literature, author, occasional contrary thoughts. An honorable man’s name, in memoriam.
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5 Responses to Forgiveness.

  1. Katie S says:

    ”Forgiveness is far beyond the realm of human behavior. So far beyond that it can only be in the behavior of the divine.”
    Your divine, may be different from my own beliefs of who the divine is… however I agree with this statement. No human… can ever really, and truly forgive another human. I have heard a saying for as long as I can remember. -To forgive and then forget- I have also heard -To forgive but never forget-….. and as you so stated above that for us to really forget about something we would have to be simpletons. I agree. However, I do try. Since my faith requests it of me. To forgive like my God forgives. Still, at the end of the day, I have a hard time truly forgiving. I have realized while reading your post that I have never really truly forgave anyone. I have let what they have done to me go, from their perspective. I have not let it alter how I am around them. We still hang out and are friends but for me, our friendship and my feelings are never the same. I do not trust them 100 percent. So what do we do? Should we throw our friends away? Since being human there is always going to be mistakes and our friends, as well as ourselves, hurting those we love. We move on. Accepting the person who wronged us back into our lives, is in a way a type of forgiveness? I do not know. Now I am trying to see if maybe, there is a loop hole of sorts. But until the grudge is gone and we forget the act of betrayal made by a loved one…. there will always be the reminder and the small, but evident, spark of anger that comes with the remembrance of the offense. And one day, I hope that I can write a sentence that can hold the meanings of a whole page.

    • C.G.Ayling says:

      Katie, far be it for me to instruct you on the nature of forgiveness. My post isn’t intended to make us shame faced about our inability to truly forgive. Like virtually all my writing, it is intended to reveal something I really believe. The world in which we dwell is filled to overflowing with simplistic platitudes that simply cannot stand up to logical investigation. Sadly many are prone to accepting them without question. Why? Because it is natural to want to feel good about who we are, and to say, or even just to think, that we forgive is a great way to pat ourselves on the back. But do we really forgive? I don’t think we can.

      People make mistakes all the time, and it is easy to forgive a mistake. It is even easy to forgive a mistake repeatedly made. But by my definition that isn’t really forgiveness at all, you see a mistake is not committed with malice. Accidental damage is not a real wrong.

      That is not to say that we shouldn’t try and forgive genuine wrongs. We should. But I think we should only forgive them once.

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  3. vonniecampbell says:

    About forgiveness!!…from my truth.
    There is absolutely never anything to forgive.every time some-one errs, that same-one self destructs a little or a lot out of pure ignorance.

    One should actually pity the person who carried out the particular offence…if the offended is still alive ,he/she should find out why the offence was committed .
    Having an understanding of the offender will give one an insight into the offence…wisdom will then be the end result. Remember there is a purpose for every occurrence under the heavens.
    I think that’s how we grow, and evolve spiritually and physically.

    • C.G.Ayling says:

      I like your sentiment. However there are always at least two parties in any incident that warrants forgiveness. There is the perpetrator, and there is the victim. While some religions foster the belief that we should turn the other cheek, I have come to the conclusion that such a philosophy encourages poor behavior.

      Forgive people for a mistake, yes. But forgive people for a “mistake” repeated multiple times? I don’t think it is wise to do so.

      Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to comment.

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