For many, forgiving would seem to be fairly straightforward and intelligible. 1 At some point in our lives, we have likely experienced forgiveness—either through receiving it (or not), granting or denying it, or both/neither. In other words, we know it when we see it—and at times forgiveness appears even more recognizable by its absence. That being said, the “commonsense” definition of forgiveness can vary dramatically when specific contingent factors are considered. For James Hillman, for example, forgiveness “is only a term unless one has been fully humiliated or fully wronged … and meaningful only when one can neither forget nor forgive.” 2 He continues:

Anyone can forget a petty matter of insult, a personal affront. But if one has been led step by step into an involvement where the substance was trust itself, bared one’s soul, and then been deeply betrayed in the sense of handed over to one’s enemies, outer or inner … then forgiveness takes on great meaning. 3

Hillman is distinguishing another “version” of forgiveness altogether: forgiveness is only meaningful when, confronted with forces beyond our conscious control, we are “unable” to grant it. Jacques Derrida makes a similar claim, explored later in the chapter, that the possibility of true forgiveness only arises when one is confronted with that which is unforgivable (i.e., when forgiveness is impossible). This line of thinking takes us to the question of forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable, or what we would call “evil.” Before taking on that question in Chapter 4, let us first explore various perspectives on what forgiveness actually is.