You’ve probably been told at some point:
Forgive and forget. Let the past be the past. Let bygones be bygones…
Alas, they are all common sayings in our society. But if taken to heart, they can be quite disempowering.
Yes, forgiving others is one of the most empowering acts of kindness. Just a single act of forgiveness can increase your mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, as well as greatly lift the spirits of those around you.
You can’t change the past, but with forgiveness you can change your meaning of the past and how you feel about it.
But when it comes to the philosophy of forgiving and forgetting, truly forgetting people’s harmful actions can be highly destructive.
What Does It Mean To Forgive And Forget?
Essentially, to “forgive and forget” is to act as if a painful situation never happened.
While it is often said with good intention, to forgive and truly forget is an all-too-easy way to avoid conflict, both internally and externally.
The problem with forgiving and forgetting is that people often forget first, and then forget to forgive.
People who forgive and forget are able to bypass the “dirty-work” — the internal and external discussions that have to take place in order to confront an uncomfortable feeling, and work through it.
In reality, confronting your emotions and environment are essential for personal growth and developing the ability to truly forgive.
Lesson On “Forgive And Forget” From Lion King
The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.
— Rafiki, after he bops Simba on the head with his stick in The Lion King
If you don’t remember this powerful scene with Rafiki and Simba, you can watch it here.
The Lion King is a profound and relatable example of what’s wrong with the phrase “forgive and forget.”
Our hero, Simba, spent his childhood and adolescence running from his painful past and trying to forget the death of his father at the hands (ehem, paws) of his uncle.
He attempts to escape his hurtful memories and past trauma by isolating himself from lion-society (with his easy-going friends, Timon and Pumbaa). However, eventually, he experiences a catharsis that inspires him to confront his painful past, forgive, and return to lion-society.
In this catharsis, he stops running from his past, confronts it, and learns valuable lessons in forgiving both himself and his uncle. Simba ultimately grows from the experience to become the Lion King.
The moral of the story is quite clear and applicable to real life:
Forgetting your pain can seem easy, but it catches up to you. Confronting past pain with forgiveness is the only true path to personal growth.
So Disney was spot-on with this one, but can you forgive —but not forget— in real life? If so, how?
Can You Truly Forgive Without Forgetting?
Simply, yes — it is possible to truly forgive without forgiving. But in order to do this, we must be able to balance forgiveness with remembering the past. On the surface, this can seem like a task in cognitive dissonance (holding two opposing ideas at once).
Now, you may be thinking, “Isn’t it better to forgive and forget in order to let go of any painful memories? How is it even possible to forgive someone and move on, yet remember their actions and the pain they caused?”
The answers are rooted in zen philosophy.
Is it better to forgive and forget?
Acknowledging the past is an essential part of truly forgiving someone.
If we forget our pain, there is simply nothing to forgive (and nothing to grow from). But if we only remember our pain (and nothing else), forgiveness will appear as an impossible task.
How Do You Truly Forgive and Forget?
True forgiveness is rooted in ability to let go of ego-based perceptions (like resentment) from an experience, while holding onto objective memories and emotions from an experience. It requires a zen balance of attachment and detachment — to be attached enough to recall an experience, yet unattached enough for it to not be personal.
The zen way is to realize pain and damage are only momentary if we can change our perspective and find a way to grow from it. Instead of remembering how much pain you felt, you can remember how you grew from the experience.
That cop who pulled you over and made you late for work? With forgiveness, that cop could be a great lesson in patience.
The man who tried to steal your phone? If you forgive him and attempt to understand his suffering, he can be a terrific teacher of charity.
The coworker who always belittles you? If you forgive their comments and look deeper they can be a positive affirmation of your tact and your ability to empathize with the pain of others.
When you transform the painful moments in your life into wisdom through forgiveness, you will never want to forget about any of it.
You can turn that sh*t into compost, baby.
But above all, never forget to forgive.
WHEN WE RESPOND TO OUR PAIN AND SUFFERING WITH LOVE, UNDERSTANDING, AND ACCEPTANCE — FOR OURSELVES, AS WELL AS FOR OTHERS — OVER TIME CAN LET GO OF OUR ANGER, EVEN WHEN WE’VE BEEN HURT TO THE CORE. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE EVER FORGET.
— SHARON SALZBERG, REAL LOVE: THE ART OF MINDFUL CONNECTION
To learn more about how to forgive others (and yourself), the true power of forgiveness, and much more, read our guide on all things forgiveness.
What acts of forgiveness have you turned into memorable and meaningful teachings? Share with us in the comments!