How to Forgive Someone Even When They Don’t Deserve It

I used to struggle with forgiveness. When someone did me wrong, I would assume that they were being malicious and I’d label them as my enemy.

Things felt a lot easier that way. Either someone was good to me and a friend, or bad to me and an enemy. I would never forgive people for their wrongdoings against me.

But it wasn’t a healthy way to live. I felt that deep down I had to get better at forgiveness. The world couldn’t be so black and white. If I kept living in this way, I might end up severing many otherwise good relationships.

As with many of my past challenges, I turned to my favorite resource for answers: books. Books contain wisdom from some of the wisest and most experienced people who ever lived. I love reading to learn new things.

Stoic philosophy, in particular, has had a tremendously positive impact on my life. And in this case, I found that it offered the tools and suggestions I needed to get a lot better at forgiveness.

Thus, what follows is 3 suggestions from stoic philosophy about how to get better at forgiveness. They’ve made my life a lot happier, and I know they’ll do the same for you too.

No one acts wrong knowingly

Plato once said that all human actions are driven by self-interest. People will only do what benefits them. It’s a natural instinct that keeps humans alive and evolving. At the same time, he asserts that it is not in human nature to act in a way that one knows is harmful.

In a single sentence: no one acts wrong knowingly. People do not attempt to harm others or act maliciously if they know it is wrong. They are only acting in a way that they believe is the right way. People will always act in a way that they think is right from their perspective.

That’s why forgiveness is so important. No one is intentionally hurting you because they hate you (in most cases). Usually, they just thought what they were doing was right by them, so they did it. It could have been that making fun of you instinctually made them feel strong for example. Which is, putting yourself in their shoes, quite logical.

Stoicism thus offers the practical suggestion of considering such people as ignorant. We consider that they didn’t know right from wrong or good from evil, which is why they made that mistake.

If we think of others as ignorant, rather than malicious, then we will inevitably deal with them more gently and gracefully. They made a mistake, no big deal. Think of them as mistaken and unfortunate and forgive them for their missing wisdom. Pity them, for they are the ones who are in pain for their lack of wisdom.

There’s a great stoic maxim that you can always repeat to yourself as a reminder: “it seemed right to him”

“It is impossible for that person to follow what appears [right] to you, but [he or she follows] what appears [right] to him or her…. They have simply gone astray in questions of good and evil. Ought we therefore be angry with those people, or should we pity them? But show them their error and you will how quickly they will refrain from their errors.”

— Epictetus

Would I have done differently?

Much of the time when we get angry at people it is because we believe they have wronged us and that they should have known better. We look at the situation and say “wasn’t it obvious that doing that was bad?!”

But when you put yourself in their shoes, the question is, would you have acted differently? A thief who steals might be poor so they need food. If they’re stealing more material items, perhaps their parents didn’t teach them why stealing is bad. Perhaps they had a poor upbringing or bad experiences in early childhood. Perhaps they’re hanging out with the wrong crowd or addicted to drugs.

There are endless reasons for why someone might do you wrong. Yet in many cases, what that person did was quite logical. Someone who is dead hungry probably isn’t thinking about a long term plan for getting a job and building themselves up. They’re starving. The only thought the human brain can even muster at that point is to get food to survive.

Although we are all unique, we’re all still human. We all have the same primitive tendencies. We’re all drawn to food and water, sex and pleasure. Many times, when you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, they’ve done what any other rational human being would have done in that situation.

Forgive them.

As Marcus Aurelius once said:

“If you are angry at someone for making a mistake, think of a moment in your life that you have done something similar and then you will see that you have to forgive that person.”

I will add that on top of what Marcus is saying, it doesn’t necessarily have to be something similar. Think back to any moment in your life when you made a mistake. Forgiveness at that moment would have been the greatest feeling in the world. Mistakes were made and that’s OK because that’s life. We should offer the same kindness and understanding that we would want to receive to those who do us wrong.

Life is too short for anger

What good does anger do us? We get upset, stressed out, and act irrationally, all from a feeling that we must unleash our rage!

But do we really need to?

I understand. You’re angry, you hate that person. They’ve committed such an obvious and malicious crime against you. And hey, maybe, contrary to Plato and stoicism, they are actually evil and intentionally hurting you.

But even with all of that, what good does it do to stay angry at the person? Unfortunately, the anger only makes matters worse for it takes away from our own lives. Anger won’t harm the other person. The only person it’s stressing out is you, because you’re angry.

When you forgive the person who wronged you, you are making the decision to relieve yourself from anger. You release the tension by giving forgiveness and then moving on with your life. You’ve passed on your blessing and can now totally forget about the person and situation entirely. It’s a far happier way of living.

Do not dwell on past mistakes and wrongdoings, even that of others. They are gone, but a fading memory in time. Forgiving the person releases those memories and the strain they cause, to move forward and live happily.

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.”

— Marcus Aurelius

Recommended Reading

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

The Discourses by Epictetus

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