How Much Are We To Forgive?

Twenty years ago I sold my first consulting firm to a Salt Lake City based company.

About three years after the sell, that Salt Lake City company ran into all kinds of trouble. The owner (let’s call him Bruce) asked me to help him out.

I did, and in the process witnessed some of the greatest human drama of my business career.

Sometimes when hell descends, it does so in waves. Such was Bruce’s story.

For starters, a sexual harassment suit was filed against him by two female employees. By no means is Bruce a pure guy, but the circumstances were suspicious because when the harassment supposedly took place, according to the lawsuit, Bruce was with a group of us at a party at HIS HOME. As you can imagine, this put tremendous pressure on his marriage, which ultimately ended in divorce.

Several weeks after this, Bruce was personally sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for making exaggerated earnings’ claims for a business opportunity kit he was selling at seminars. (Six years later a federal court judge ruled in Bruce’s favor. The FTC ended up having to pay Bruce for his legal expenses. But, in the process, some of Bruce’s companies took a beating financially and had to close down. The adverse reporting of the case in the media didn’t help.)

Last, Bruce had a falling out with his business partner, resulting in his partner taking physical assets from one of the companies and starting a new company. Four to five years later that company went public with annual revenues reaching $1 billion by 2009. Bruce received nothing.

That Bruce experienced these setbacks is not extraordinary. These things happen in business. What was extraordinary was HOW Bruce handled the setbacks.

As I mentioned, Bruce is no saint. He has his weaknesses. He’s your typical entrepreneur; he sees no reason for government regulation. He’s a pleasant conversationalist, but like most ego driven individualists, he loves talking about himself.

Nevertheless, Bruce manifested a remarkable behavior during the time I was associated with him. He engaged, as few I’ve ever witnessed, in RECONCILIATION.

He was willing to FORGIVE those who wronged him, as well as admit that some of the problems he lived through were partially of his own making.

The fallout of these problems resulted in family break ups, emotional breakdowns, and serious financial setbacks. Bruce seemed capable of looking beyond that.

At times, those of us who were close to him would become impatient with the mean spirited behavior directed at Bruce. The scheming on the part of some, who owed their livelihoods and even second chances in life to Bruce, verged on being pathological. Bruce was able to accept it and work with these individuals to not only reach accommodations, but to go that extra distance to ensure that all involved were able to live in the same community without coming to blows.

At this point I stop and ask, “How much are we required to forgive in this life?” In my opinion, those who have been hurt by others are under no inherent obligation to forgive. If we think they are, we run the risk of victimizing the victim. The victim continues to be the victim. The victim suffers the initial assault, then is taught to forgive the wrongdoer. This is double jeopardy.

I started this article thinking that forgiveness is an imperative, an absolute truth, required of all under every circumstance. Midway through, however, I changed my mind.

The article started out as a story of an all too human person displaying an extraordinary ability to forgive. However, I’ve concluded he was not better for having forgiven. In my opinion, it happened but did not automatically lead to a high state of moral purity. With Bruce, I personally witnessed his forgiving nature, and I share it with you, not because it is an example of the highest moral behavior, but simply because it happened.

Any more, I’m suspicious about telling a story, and then generalizing it to a greater moral truth. I’ve concluded when we do, that’s when we get into trouble. Why? I believe hidden motives may be at work when we do. Some form of manipulation may be taking place.

Why then share any story? Why not? Just so long as it is accurate in the telling.

I’ve explored my feelings in this article, and have come away with a suspicion of turning an interesting story into a general moral principle.