THE BLOG
01/14/2011 09:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Forgiveness Might Still Be Possible in the Digital Age, But How Do We Forget?

Evidently, Sarah Palin, or at least her minions, have been trying to take down the now-notorious map of 20 congressional districts targeting representatives to challenge in the 2010 elections. Call them crosshairs, call them surveyors' marks, but as Josh Bernoff at Adage.com has pointed out, you can't take something off the Net once it's been put up there. In fact, you can even draw more attention to it by your efforts (there's evidently something called the Streisand effect, recalling Barbra Streisand's lawyer's efforts to remove pictures of her house on the Web).

How do we forgive and forget in this age when nothing can truly be forgotten? It's all out there floating around in cyberspace.

I've typed stuff in a rage to one or two correspondents that I really hope never turns up again. I'd like to think it sinks into oblivion, weighted down by the ages, but it's just as alive as when I typed it. Not long ago, I really hurt a friend with a hasty message I left on his phone. He called back and left me a message revealing his anger. Luckily, I was able to catch him on the phone and apologize. "Please forgive me," I said. "Think nothing more of it," he said. "It never happened." But what if the whole thing were in an e-mail exchange, waiting to be rediscovered, like a wound begging to be picked? You can push "delete" and then delete it from your deleted mail and you know it'll still be there.

Forgiveness is a powerful force, essential to our mental health. Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption tells about how Louie Zamperini, brutally tortured in a Japanese prison camp, found release when he finally forgave his torturer, who surely doesn't sound like he deserved it. But then, isn't that the whole point? To really forgive you've got to forgive the unforgivable.

We depend on time to heal all wounds. Forgetting is a helpful partner when you need to forgive. I remember my wife writing an article about adult siblings who had reunited after long periods of separation. "You can write about my dad and my uncle," I suggested. They had a falling out when I was a kid and didn't speak for years, but by their 70s they were the closest of brothers. She tentatively approached my dad on the idea. He would do anything to help my wife, but he wasn't going to help her here. To bring up the feud again was to bring up something too painful. Better to leave things alone. Forgiveness had happened with the aid of forgetting. (Even as I reveal the thinnest outlines of the story I fear I might hurt my uncle or my cousins or any of my loved ones.)

Forgiveness is part of our spiritual well being, but when I've talked to people who have forgiven powerful wrongs, they've pointed out that it's not always good to ask for someone's forgiveness. It can bring up the unforgettable. Better to act in a forgiving way. Forgetting is divine.

My favorite example of divine forgetfulness comes from a surely apocryphal story of a simple Philippine peasant who claimed that he had spoken to Jesus. He was taken to the local bishop, his claims tested, only to insist on the truth of his testimony. "All right," said the bishop, "next time you talk to Jesus, ask him to tell you what sins I've confessed." The peasant agreed. Soon he returned to the bishop and offered only one answer, "He forgets."

Now in telling this, I'm sure I've gotten some detail wrong or made a mistake in attribution, so please forgive me. I'm afraid that none of what I've written here can be forgot.