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In the Wake of the Humboldt Broncos Sentencing, We Need to Talk About Forgiveness

"The goal here isn’t to compare pain and punishment or to decide who deserves forgiveness; it’s to question whether we think about forgiveness at all."

Earlier this year, Jaskirat Sidhu, the truck driver responsible for the tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash in April 2018 (which killed 16 people and injured another 13 in Saskatchewan), pleaded guilty to all charges against him. “I can’t make things any better, but I certainly don’t want to make things worse by having a trial,” he said through his lawyer.

At that point, it was probably the least he could do for the families and the community dealing with the loss. Taking responsibility like that isn’t exactly common, and for some, it was enough to earn their compassion, if not their complete forgiveness. “If he spends a day, if he spends 10 years, time is irrelevant. He was guilty. He acknowledged that. That’s all I needed to hear,” said one of the fathers, who lost a son, to the Toronto Star.

“If he spends a day, if he spends 10 years, time is irrelevant. He was guilty. He acknowledged that. That’s all I needed to hear,”

“I want to tell you I forgive you,” said another parent in her victim impact statement. “I have been forgiven for things when I didn’t deserve it, so I will do the same.”

As the victim impact statements continued, it became clear that not all grieving parents felt the same way. “I despise you for taking my baby away from me,” said one mother, who refused to consider Sidhu’s actions an accident. “You don’t deserve my forgiveness. You shouldn’t have been driving.”

“You don’t deserve my forgiveness. You shouldn’t have been driving.”

We look for hope after a tragedy. As such, we search for—and most often find—at least one example of superhuman compassion. The church members in Charleston, S.C., forgiving Dylann Roof for his racist mass shooting, for instance, got more media attention than the justifiably-still-raging victims. The press latch onto these rare stories because, whether or not we admit it out loud, we want them to. We want reassurance that the world isn’t such a horrible place. Of course, these post-tragedy examples of forgiveness aren’t the norm. It’s understandable that after your son dies in a senseless bus accident, you might not be ready or willing to forgive the man responsible right away. Or ever.

In January of this year, Janeane Garofalo defended disgraced comedian Louis C.K.—likely the first of the #MeToo men to make deliberate steps back toward the spotlight—on a feminist pop culture podcast. “He’s been my friend since 1985, and I think he has suffered,” she said. “If you can find no compassion for him, which I think you should, think about how his daughters, who hear all of this stuff, feel.” To the surprise of no one—including Garofalo—her message wasn’t well received. Standing up for villains is rarely a popular position. Except, I guess, when it is.

“The goal here isn’t to compare pain and punishment or to decide who deserves forgiveness; it’s to question whether we think about forgiveness at all.”

There are clear differences between these two case studies—in terms of severity, contrition and cultural significance. Sidhu caused more damage and pain, yet, from my privileged distance, it feels easier to show him compassion. Maybe because the Humboldt collision was unambiguous and apolitical, whereas a celebrity’s deliberate sexual misconduct is a part of a larger system—a symptom of inequality that everyone has to wrestle with. Either way, the goal here isn’t to compare pain and punishment or to decide who deserves forgiveness; it’s to question whether we think about forgiveness at all.

The idea of forgiveness hovers like a ghost around so many stories in our culture now—from #MeToo to immigration, from justice reform to casting decisions—even if we rarely use the word. Such are the times in which we live that even talking about forgiveness feels controversial. Still, it looms large in our cultural conversation precisely because it’s absent, like when the background music in a department store stops and the silence becomes unsettling.

“Catharsis can feel so good, and so can the strong sense of identity that comes with knowing who is with you and who is against you—whether this is true or not.”

The problem with talking about forgiveness is that it can too easily be mistaken for advocacy. Even Garofalo stopped short of saying that. She only wanted people to have enough compassion to move the conversation along. Yet there’s this feeling that forgiveness is like the Lay’s potato chips of virtues—if you give it to one person, you have to give it to everybody else. And from a religious standpoint, that may be the ideal. But is it smart—or healthy—to be so forgiving?

Outrage, ironically, is a more effective unifier than forgiveness. “People enjoy sharing in consensus, especially when it allows us to indulge a guilty pleasure,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson writes in her 2018 book of essays called What Are We Doing Here? “Catharsis can feel so good, and so can the strong sense of identity that comes with knowing who is with you and who is against you—whether this is true or not.

“What is good for us is opening our mouths and letting it out, permitting ourselves to feel it and say it and think it and act on it and integrate it into our lives, just as we integrate joy and sadness and worry and optimism.”

And there might be personal benefits to not being forgiving. While she stresses that her experience is not universal, Rebecca Traister ends her book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by revealing how good she felt—physically, spiritually, mentally—as she took her anger more seriously. She ate better, communicated better, exercised more and had better sex. “I confess that I am now suspicious of nearly every attempt to code anger as unhealthy, no matter how well meaning or persuasive the source,” she writes. “What is good for us is opening our mouths and letting it out, permitting ourselves to feel it and say it and think it and act on it and integrate it into our lives, just as we integrate joy and sadness and worry and optimism.”

This raises the question: Is being angry the same as being unforgiving? They aren’t exactly synonyms, but it’s rare to find one without the other. One of the reasons we don’t talk about forgiving others (because we do talk a lot about forgiving ourselves) is because we aren’t all working off the same definition. Forgiveness, for example, isn’t the same as reconciliation. Forgiving an ex-spouse doesn’t mean you have to get married again. And despite the cliché, it does not consist of forgetting the offence, either. Broadly, forgiveness is letting go of negative feelings and maybe—just maybe—replacing them with compassion, empathy or at least understanding.

In a 2005 article published in The Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers found that those who considered themselves the forgiving type had increased health in five measures: physical symptoms, the number of medications used, sleep quality, fatigue and medical complaints.

Increased personal happiness has always been the sell line for forgiveness—at least if you don’t believe in a God who commands it. And despite Traister’s experience, there are multiple studies that show a range of benefits associated with being forgiving. In a 2005 article published in The Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers found that those who considered themselves the forgiving type had increased health in five measures: physical symptoms, the number of medications used, sleep quality, fatigue and medical complaints. Then there’s cortisol. The stress hormone, in high, steady doses, can lead to cognitive problems, poor sex drive and digestive issues. Holding a grudge is a great way to increase cortisol.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with The Good Place. It’s a sitcom about a woman who finds herself in Heaven even though she knows she doesn’t belong there. While the premise of the show has changed over the three seasons, it’s still about people learning what it means to be morally good. It has made me think about that, too. I assumed that being forgiving is a requirement, even on a purely secular level.

“Forgiveness is usually presented as something optional, something you may give, and that it can be generous and admirable to give, but not something you have a duty to give.”

According to Thomas Hurka, who holds the Jackman Distinguished Chair in Philosophical Studies at the University of Toronto, you can be a moral person without forgiveness. “First, even if being forgiving is one virtue, it’s not the only one,” he explains. “You could be a good person without being forgiving if you have enough of the other virtues, just as you could be a good person if you have all the other virtues but not, say, courage. More importantly, though, forgiveness is usually presented as something optional, something you may give, and that it can be generous and admirable to give, but not something you have a duty to give. Would Jews who didn’t forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust be failing to be good people? Arguably not.”

Dr. Diana Brecher, clinical psychologist and scholar in residence for positive psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, is similarly unconvinced of the necessity for forgiveness. It’s part of a process, she says, that comes after a necessary period of contriteness, lest the forgiver be seen as condoning bad behaviour. “There is a time when letting go is not the right choice,” she says. “You need the anger for social change.”

“There is a time when letting go is not the right choice. You need the anger for social change.”

More important from a mental health perspective is forgiving oneself, she says. I have no doubt that self-compassion is important, but from a cultural standpoint, I’m wary. How can we say it’s good to forgive our own mistakes but it’s inappropriate to encourage people to forgive others? What if Louis C.K. said that he had already forgiven himself—how would you react? What if we were talking about a prisoner on death row?

One of the reasons why forgiving yourself is paradoxically both simpler than forgiving others and more difficult is that we know our own thoughts. When we offend others, we know why we did it—which is why it can be hard to give ourselves a break.

Apologies, especially public ones, ring hollow or feel insufficient because you can only ever know how you feel.

One of the lessons I learned from my failed marriage (well, I learned it from the counsellor we saw while we were separating) was that my reality isn’t necessarily the objective truth, no matter how true it feels. It’s why no apology has ever stopped the tweets of outraged observers or slowed cancel culture. Apologies, especially public ones, ring hollow or feel insufficient because you can only ever know how you feel.

I think back on the vastly different reactions among those affected by the Humboldt tragedy. We tend to think of forgiveness as a gift we offer to the offender as long as they do their part. But if forgiveness is personal, then making it depend on someone showing remorse is self-defeating. Literally, you are defeating yourself with higher stress and poor health.

We tend to think of forgiveness as a gift we offer to the offender as long as they do their part.

What I do know—and what everyone can agree on—is that the world could always use more kindness. More generosity. And included in all that—nestled in the meaning of those acceptable, wellness-approved virtues—is the idea that the world could use more forgiveness, too. Just don’t let anyone tell you who to give it to.