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Can You Forgive Someone Who Has Not Directly Hurt You?

can you forgive someone who has not directly hurt you

Have you ever had to forgive someone who did not hurt you directly, but rather hurt someone close to you? Did you ever forgive someone who was indirectly unfair to you?

Often people ask if they can go ahead and forgive someone who was not directly unjust to them.

Here are some examples:

  • My daughter was bullied at school. It is up to her whether or not she will forgive. I cannot do that for her because I was not the one injured.
  • I am upset with Politicians X and Y. They have not, personally, injured me and so I am not able to forgive them.
  • My great-grandparents were oppressed by certain laws in their country. My great-grandparents are now deceased. It really was up to them to forgive or not forgive. I now cannot stand in their place and forgive those oppressors.

These kinds of issues can become a struggle for people primarily because they are used to thinking of forgiveness this way: When I, personally, have been offended by someone, then I can go ahead and forgive if I wish to do so.

In other words, it is assumed that no one else can enter this forgiveness process unless they, too, were directly injured by the other person. Yet, thinking in this 21st century has emerged that challenges this conventional set of ideas. The approach comes to us from Trudy Govier (2002), a philosopher in Canada, who has written the book, Forgiveness, and Revenge.

In that book, Dr. Govier talks about primary, secondary, and tertiary forgiveness. 

Related: Forgiving and Letting Go Those Who Have Hurt You

Primary Forgiveness 

This is a commonly understood approach. I have been directly hurt by a person and so it is my prerogative to forgive or not.

By this, I mean that the injured person can decide to give up resentment and to offer goodness of some kind to the offending person, without excusing, necessarily reconciling, and without abandoning a quest for justice.

forgive someone
Can You Forgive Someone Who Has Not Directly Hurt You?

Secondary Forgiveness 

This occurs when you are hurt because of a person’s actions toward a loved one. In other words, the mother truly is offended and hurt when someone bullies her daughter in school. It is secondary in the sense that the mother was not directly bullied.

Yet, the fact that she is resentful and legitimately so because of the actions toward her daughter, the mother then can go ahead and forgive the one who bullies. It is important to note that the mother is not forgiving the one who bullies on behalf of the daughter. It still is up to the daughter to offer primary forgiveness or not. It is the daughter’s choice. The mother’s forgiveness does not substitute for the daughter’s response.

Tertiary Forgiveness 

This occurs when an even more distant person engages in unjust actions. Suppose Person A is very upset with a political decision that goes against his philosophies of life. Those decisions were made politically far from Person A’s home. The politicians do not even know Person A and likely they never have met.

Even so, if Person A is offended by the politicians’ actions, this is a legitimate forum for Person A to begin the forgiveness process if he so chooses? Why? It is because there is an injustice, directly affecting Person A, even though those actions by the politicians are indirect and not personal actions toward him.

Related: 8 Reasons Why You Should Forgive The People Who Hurt You

Another kind of tertiary forgiveness occurs when historical events are long past, had a direct influence on one’s own ethnic group, but not on the self. It is here that people reason that they must let the past alone and dismiss forgiveness because the current generation cannot even identify those involved, either as perpetrators or victims.

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Dr. Robert D. Enright, Ph.D.

Dr. Robert Enright is the unquestioned pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness. He has been called "the forgiveness trailblazer" by Time magazine and is often introduced as "the father of forgiveness research" because of his 25-year academic commitment to researching and implementing forgiveness programs. He is the co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge about forgiveness and community renewal through forgiveness. He is also a licensed psychologist. For his work in the peace movement, He now has been working in Forgiveness for 36 years. Dr. Enright was named a 2006 Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International. In 2007, he received UW-Madison's highest award--the Hilldale Award for "excellence in teaching, research, and service." He holds the Aristotelian Professorship in Forgiveness Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also received the 2008-2009 Dick Ringler Distinguished Peace Educator Award from the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.View Author posts