Forgiveness, which connects, is hidden and quiet. It is not spoken, but
practiced. It is essentially nothing but forbearance. It overlooks a
mistake, an injustice, a guilt, and forgets it. In this way, the mistake or
injustice or guilt has no bad effects on the relationship. On the contrary.
The relationship deepens through the tacit leniency. Mutual trust grows,
especially on the side of the one who experiences the forbearance. It allows
him to overlook mistakes and injustices and guilt when it is his turn to do
It’s different when someone says to another “ I forgive you”; he is in that
moment pronouncing the other guilty. He raises himself above the other and
degrades the other. This spoken forgiveness suspends the human relationship
of equal to equal. It endangers the relationship instead of rescuing it.
But how is it when the other begs forgiveness? When this plea comes out of
pain, at having distressed or hurt us, the mistake or injustice or guilt is
more easily forgotten. All the more, when in our own way we we were also
guilty towards the other. That permits us perhaps a new start, where what
happened earlier need not keep returning to us. That is a very humane manner
of forgiveness, where both are on the same level, and remain equally low.
There are situations, however, where forbearance is forbidden, because the
guilt is so great that it can only be acknowledged by the guilty and
suffered by the one who was injured. The extreme case of such guilt is
murder, because it cannot be undone. Here the guilty one must stand by his
guilt and its consequences, without expecting forgiveness. And the affected
one may not presume to forgive, as if he could do that or were allowed to do
What happens in the soul of the guilty one, when he expects and requests
forgiveness for such a guilt? He loses sight of the victim, whom he has
injured in an irreparable way. He can no longer grieve over him. Instead he
seeks to escape the consequences of his guilt, trying to impose his guilt
and his responsibility for it on the other. Maybe he even gets angry with
the other, as if the other owed him forgiveness. With that he forfeits his
dignity and stature to the one who forgives him. Above all, the one who
forgives takes the strength of the guilty one, the strength that flowed to
him through the acknowledgment of his crime and its consequences. The one
who uses this strength to do and achieve something special for others, wins
back his dignity and in a certain way wins back his place among other
people. And what happens in the souls of those who grant forgiveness to such
a guilty one? They also lose sight of the victim and can no longer grieve
over them or feel compassion for them. Above all, though, they elevate
themselves over the guilty ones, making them pathetic and small. They even
make the guilty one angry through their forgiveness, because the guilty one
and his deed are not taken seriously. Then their forgiveness nourishes and
strengthens the evil, instead of ending it.
But above all, the one who forgives presumes to do something that only a
higher power can do, a higher power before whom both the perpetrator and the
victim are helpless and whom they serve, each in their own way. Who forgives
here, refuses to honour the might of this higher power. He places himself
next to it or even above it.
When both perpetrator and victim acknowledge that they cannot escape the
consequences of the deed, because both have reached insurmountable limits,
they must acknowledge their powerlessness and bow to their fate. That binds
them on a deep, human level and smooths the way to reconciliation in the
face of this fate
And how should others behave humanely towards the perpetrators and victims?
The humble answer to that is compassion. That is a movement and an attitude
of the heart from person to person, but also from person to animal, to every
creature. We feel it in the face of inescapable suffering and inescapable
guilt, seeking to alleviate it though acts of compassion and knowing
nonetheless that the suffering and guilt are irrevocable.
And how can we become compassionate? By becoming aware, in the face of our
own hardship, our own guilt, our own inescapable situation, how often we
ourselves depend upon the compassion and forbearance of others. Thus the
compassionate and the guilty share powerlessness with those who suffer. Out
of this powerlessness they do not judge and neither do they forgive. They
remain humble and low. Compassion is silent.
With this I have also said something about love which reconciles. This is a
special love, above and beyond that love that wants something. Here love
means: acknowledgment that I am equal with all others before something
greater. Humility means the same. Forgiveness and forgetting also.
The original article written by Bert Hellinger appeared in German in* Praxis der Systemaufstellungen* 1/2002 page 22-23.
Translated by Carlye Birkenkrahe.