Forgiveness and Conflict

by Catherine Conner

A couple of weeks ago, I volunteered to write a letter about a sensitive issue.  I found myself avoiding writing it even though I didn’t expect it to be a tough task.  A few days later, I went to a meditation class in which the focus of that particular class was forgiveness, including a guided meditation on the topic.  The first step in the meditation was to contemplate an action for which you wanted forgiveness from someone else or needed to forgive yourself.  Immediately, my mind went to something that happened in third grade that I still feel ashamed and embarrassed about.  Not something huge, but something I never apologized for and can’t now.  The emotion was still there and it was a challenge considering forgiveness for my conduct.  Another step was to contemplate someone that you wanted to forgive but hadn’t yet.  The image appeared of a particular person who had committed a serious wrong towards me, whom I had never considered forgiving.  I tried out the words, “I forgive you”, and the image changed to the person expressing great relief.  I felt a loosening of my hard feelings toward her.  And I then realized that my challenge in writing the letter about the sensitive issue was connected.  The sensitive issue was similar to the one in which the wrong towards me had occurred and my lack of forgiveness for the prior incident was impeding my ability to act in the current moment.  The next day I sat down and wrote the letter.

This experience led me to think about the role of forgiveness in the conflict resolution process, a topic of discussion in recent years.  As a professional working with parties in conflict, I sometimes believe that an apology or forgiveness could create the possibility of a shift by one or both parties.  From the outside, it seems so clear what should be apologized for or that forgiveness should be forthcoming.  I have encouraged or even pushed the possibility of an apology or forgiveness out of this observer’s clarity, sometimes in a “conspiracy” with the other professionals who also see it as a path to resolution.

But from the inside of the conflict, the emotions that are stirred up by the thought of apology and forgiveness can be overwhelming.  Shame, embarrassment, resentment, sadness, retribution, grief, and other feelings can be evoked not only by the current incident but reactivated from unresolved grievances from the third grade or ten years ago or a few months ago, or from other incidents with the same person or with someone else.  My own experience of contemplating forgiveness reminded me how raw and entrenched these emotions can be.  Expecting a party to move into an apology or forgiveness in the middle of a conflict that may already be evoking strong emotions may be unrealistic or harmful.  I still think about opening the door for apology or forgiveness in the right moment, but with greater care and compassion for what may arise.

I would be interested in hearing about other people’s experience with forgiveness.