A frequent question I receive is this: Is there a difference between forgiving and “moving on” and if so, what is the difference? It appears to be a common error in this modern era to equate the two ideas of forgiving a person for an unjust action and just letting it go and moving beyond the situation. The two are not the same.
When a person “moves on,” then that person is going beyond the situation, trying to not let what happened influence emotions, thoughts, or behaviors now. When a person forgives, then that person actually is focusing on the other or others who have been unfair. To forgive is to offer a moral virtue of mercy to someone who treated the forgiver poorly. Paradoxically, rather than moving away from the situation, the forgiver moves toward the injurer through kindness, respect, generosity, or even love in the hope that the other changes. A forgiver does not necessarily reconcile if the offending other’s behavior does not change and remains hurtful, but one goal of forgiving is to offer that other person a chance to make such changes.
One can “move on” with a cold indifference for the other person. The motivation in “moving on” is to look forward, to get on with one’s own life whether or not that includes the offending other person. So, forgiving and “moving on” are quite different in this: When you forgive, the focus is on the other; when you “move on” the focus is on the self. It is not necessarily a selfish act to “move on.” Yet, this act, by itself, is not likely to cleanse the person from a persistent resentment that can last for a very long time. It is in the reaching out to the other in forgiveness, even if reconciliation does not occur, that there is emotional healing for the one who extends the forgiveness (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015).
Forgiving and “moving on” are related in this way: Once a person forgives by offering goodness to those who have not been good to the forgive, this aids the forgiver in now being able to move beyond the situation without rancor, without the disquieting resentment that can be hard to diminish. As people forgive, they now can remember in new ways. When they think about the unjust treatment, they do not burn with anger or if they do, it is more easily reduced. When they think about the situation, they might feel some sadness rather than rage, some disappointment rather than hatred.
Forgiveness, in other words, actually helps a person “move on.” On the other hand, if all a person is doing is “moving on,” this will not necessarily aid forgiveness because the injured person has put out of mind what happened, which can include no longer thinking about the other, which renders the motivation to forgive—to reach out to the other—unlikely.
For people to recover from severe unjust treatment, they often need stronger medicine than “moving on.” Communities need to see this and to make an important distinction between these two if people are to recover deeply and well from others’ mistreatment. Forgiveness is a large part of the hope that underlies recovery in the context of unfair treatment from others.