Should We Forgive Apologetic Bullies?


Bullying leaves life-long consequences. Is one of those consequences a lifetime of clouded judgement?

I hope you haven’t missed Dennis Milam Bensie’s latest essay, A Bully Comes Around. I’m returning to it because the piece raised an important question that I think is worth considering. Dennis writes about a homophobic bully he knew in high school. Following Bensie’s recent posts supporting gay marriage on a rather conservative Facebook page, this bully, named “Zack”, contacts him. The bully apologizes for having been an asshole so many years before.

While promoting  the article on Twitter, I asked the question Do bullies deserve forgiveness? Not very many people answered but those that did were quite firm. Bullies might deserve compassion. But forgiveness? No.

Many of us will remember being bullied, and we immediately return to the feeling of powerlessness. It’s crushing, and all the pain returns.

This is interesting. Here’s a guy, Bensie’s “Zack”, who grew up in a conservative community, one that actively taught its children to fear or loathe homosexuals. If they should not fear them, they should look down on them because God was going to judge gays harshly. The bully, perhaps while acting out his own rejection or perceived failure, took this lesson and expressed hatred and aggression just as he was taught. In his adult years, after listening carefully to the gay marriage debate, he comes around to perceive homosexuals in a new way, then he asks one for forgiveness.

But we don’t want to forgive. The bullying has stayed with us, hasn’t it? Many of us will remember being bullied, and we immediately return to the feeling of powerlessness. It’s crushing, and all the pain returns as if the bullying were happening in the present.

In my view, we risk a lot if we allow this pain to cloud our wisdom. It’s rare for most of us to have lived life without ever hurting anyone. Yes, most of us were not bullies, but we probably remember harming someone, and we probably wish we had not done it, especially now that we can look back at the events and know we are different people.

I think we reject forgiveness because we idealize it. Some of us, especially those raised Christian, fetishize it. Forgiveness should not mean we submit to someone or become completely powerless, even selfless. If we tell an apologetic person, “I’m not hurt by you anymore,” or “I wish you much peace in the future—don’t let the harm you did bother you,” we do not have to spend time with them. We barely even need to acknowledge that they exist beyond that moment.

Think about it carefully. The bully no longer exists. A bully cannot ask forgiveness.  That’s what a bully is: someone incapable of empathy, someone who passes his or her own pain on to another. We become similar to them when we cannot forgive, especially if we refuse because we revel in their shame and self-loathing. If we kick them in the face of their courage, we might convince ourselves we have gained revenge. But we have not conquered the bully. Instead, we become a shade of bully ourselves. Do we want that?


I recall Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, one of my favorite books. A young man, Raskolnikov, takes a woman’s life because he believes he’s serving a greater good—she is harmful to people, and killing her removes the harm. The young man has, in essence, inflated himself to an über-human and even perceives himself as a sort of demi-god. And yet, he is dependent later on a selfless creature, someone incapable of hatred, barely able to grow angry. This powerful book left a lasting impression on me when I was very young, about as young as Raskolnikov, the first time I read it. I know from Dostoevsky’s personal notes and a biography that his dream was for the court system to be able to tell criminals, “You’re forgiven. Go forth and never commit atrocities again.” Of course, Dostoevsky was not naive. He knew that kind of forgiveness would collapse society, put it in the hands of assholes.

But it does not have to collapse the individual. Paradoxically, it can empower us. Here is someone who used to bully me. Now he is begging me for civil contact. I can judge him freely, act in any way I wish. I can play the bully or I can kill the bully completely. It’s a moment of shocking enormity.


This post originally appeared on Liquid Ink.

Photo by AleBonvini

About Gint Aras

Gint Aras (Karolis Gintaras Žukauskas) is the author of the cross-generational family epic, The Fugue, from The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. He's a photographer and the author of the cult novel, Finding the Moon in Sugar. Learn more at his website, Liquid Ink. Follow him on Twitter, and like him on Facebook.


  1. Don’t only forgive him, but also wish him well. How can you consider yourself as fully forgiving someone if you can’t wish them well?

    I HAD to forgive those who ruined and greatly re-directed my life. My motivator was God. If HE will forgive, who am I to deny forgiveness? And I am not able to supersede such a high appellate judge. When I could conclude if I really, truly forgave them, I used “wishing them well” as the key-indicator.

    Now if I could only find them to tell them that…well…I’ll bring a video camera if that day ever comes.

    • Rob, good point. Our justice system is based on that principle. We can forgive others for their wrong doings and wish them well, but we are not required to trust them. There’s a major difference between forgiveness and trust.

  2. Forgiveness is only about the offended, not the offender. When we choose to be angry, we are also choosing to be afraid; fear is always the root of anger. But when we choose to turn that fear into unconditional love, then we can forgive. Forgiving others released negativity… why would anyone want to “carry that to his grave”, as one commenter said? Doing good creates miracles. Also, forgiveness does not mean we have forgotten what the other did to hurt us. It does mean that we have chosen to grow in spirit instead of remaining small; bullies choose to remain small and unconsciously try to pull us down to their level. Forgive? Absolutely!!!!

  3. OirishM says:

    I think someone needs to forgive them, or at least not hold it against them forever. If you remove all chances for them to move on and improve themselves, they may very well just degenerate further.

    At the same time, this does not necessarily mean the victim is required to forgive them. Apart from anything else, forced forgiveness is no forgiveness at all. But having some close friends who accept that they’ve done something wrong and want to encourage them to reform? I think that’s a very crucial thing for perpetrators to have.

  4. I was bullied as a kid. I dislocated a bully’s shoulder in the 6th grade, so they either stuck to words or jumping me in groups. I was a scrawny kid with braces and Star Wars spaceships drawn on the back of my notebook – all I needed was a pair of glasses and I’d have been the ideal of a nerd. The verbal abuse was constant – it wasn’t so much any given thing they said, as much as the fact that from 7:30 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, it was non-stop. Every day of the week. For 6 years (it ended in high school). At one point, when I was in the locker room, a bunch of my classmates broke their pencils and threw them at my back until I was all cut up and bleeding. Took the nurse half a container of band-aids to get me ready to return to class.

    I say all of that to establish that I know what bullying is. I lived it, I endured it, and it took me a long time to get over it (a decade). I was miserable, and I struggled around people – I was terrified of them. I admit that to this day I still get enraged when I see a group picking on an individual. I do something about it.

    And that’s why I can forgive those kids who did that to me. Because I am so clearly not that scared kid getting pencils chucked at him anymore. And they aren’t those immature, inconsiderate boys who had no idea they’d play a part in 12 different suicide attempts. How could they know? They were, at the oldest, 14. This recovering alcoholic still thought he’d never touch alcohol when he was 14.

    By acknowledging that they aren’t the people they were then, I’ve been able to build – if not friendships, then friendly aquaintanceships – with a number of them. And by knowing that I’m not that powerless boy I was then, I’ve been able to forgive myself for my weakness and face down my fears.

    We aren’t who we were in the past. We are who we choose to be in the present.

  5. anonymous says:

    Bullying is seldom the work of one rogue outcast individual. Much more commonly, it’s a large, popular group marginalizing and persecuting one or a few unpopular individuals. (There were 2 in my high school class — I was one of them). And since most of these people only pick on the victims occasionally, they may have no idea of the collosal impact their collective behavior has on the persecuted individual.

    To offer a hypothetical illustration: Suppose there are 200 kids in the class, and each does only ONE mean thing per school year to the “class victim”, and the meanness is spread out evenly over the school year. The perspective of each of the perps, is “I just pulled one prank/said one mean thing the whole year, what’s he upset about?” But the perspective of the victim is, “I get picked on EVERY DAMNED DAY and the whole damned class is in on it.. they must all HATE ME! And I don’t know why! I never did anything to them.”

    I was a tall skinny science nerd as a teenager. No glasses or braces or pocket protectors but otherwise I fit the stereotype very well. I was ruthlessly persectuted. The torment didn’t end til, in a blaze of anger, I decided to start lifting weights and hitting back…which worked. But the damage was done long before I started hitting the bench press. I graduated from high school totally believng that almost my entire class hated me with a passion, without cause. And I hated them in return.

    For some odd reason I decided to attend a reunion many years later. I expected that some of them might have repented, or at least matured, in the intervening years and would be bitterly sorry for the way they mistreated me. And since by this time I had become a Christian, I was prepared to extend forgiveness to anyone who apologized. I also figured there would be others, who for whatever reason still hated me and would act accordingly, and I was prepared to shrug that off.

    But, at the reunion, I got neither apologies nor hostility. Instead, they all greeted me as a long-lost friend, like nothing had ever happened. I could NOT have been more SHOCKED.

    The only explanation that makes any sense is this: they had no idea what they’d done to me They had no clue that they’d destroyed my adolescence and blown a hole in my soul that didn’t really heal until about 20 years later. No clue at al!

    “Forgive them, for they know not what they do”, seems appropriate.

    But it’s a bit mindbending to realize that the people who ruined your youth, probably didn’t even know what they were doing….

    • I’ve heard this sentiment as well, and it makes me wonder if my actions unwittingly caused serious emotional damage to someone in high school (I wasn’t a bully, but I had my share of anger from being bullied).

      As far as forgiveness is concerned, didn’t GMP push this story a while back?

      “…I will carry that rage and indignation to my grave. No forgiveness necessary.”

      We can debate on and on about how holding onto a grudge is damaging to ourselves and not the one who inflicted the pain, but the fact remains, that hurt will stay with us for all time. Therapy, happy moments, and life will lessen it, but it will remain nevertheless. If nothing will eliminate that, why do we owe it to ourselves to forgive bullies, regardless of how they’ve changed? They don’t deserve it; we shouldn’t care if they need it.

  6. You open up fascinating lines of inquiry and discussion. For one, pop culture loves to tout the necessity of forgiveness. You can’t “move on” if you don’t forgive. You won’t “heal” if you don’t forgive. Etc, etc. I call BS on that. For some, it may be true. For others, it’s ridiculous to consider forgiveness whereas understanding may be a different story. I’d say it’s more important for the individual who did something dreadful to another to forgive himself or herself, if he or she has a conscience, that is.

    Which brings me to point 2. You clearly make the case that this “Zack” is no longer the ignorant (bullying) kid he once was. He’s grown up. He’s evolved. He’s reaching out. That’s a very different situation in that he is asking for forgiveness and the one who is / was hurt by it can see that the Bully is gone and in his place, a man who knows better and recognizes his mistakes.

    Will it be possible to “forgive and forget?” Forgive, possibly, though forget – not likely.

    Last, we also seem to think we can only house one emotion at a time, that anger and understanding cannot coexist, that love and hate cannot coexist, that empathy and resentment cannot coexist. We may feel elements of forgiveness in certain contexts and not in others. We can not forgive and not forget and still “move on” with our lives, learning from our scars and our anchors – minor or major – and making a good life all the same.

    My two cents.

    Fascinating topic.

  7. I do like the idea of saying to a bully, “You don’t deserve forgiveness, but f*ck you, I decide who I forgive. I forgive you anyway.”

  8. wellokaythen says:

    There’s more to forgiveness than the question of deserving it or earning it.

    Whether or not you forgive a bully is not just about the bully. It’s also about you. You have the right to think about forgiveness in practical, self-interested terms. If you are deciding whether or not to forgive someone, consider what forgiving that person does for YOU, not just for him.

    Forget about him for a moment. Forget about who’s the better person. Be practical. Does refusing to forgive actually make your life better, or does it make your life worse? How’s that workin’ for ya?

    Refusing to forgive could be hurting you more than it hurts him. If he’s already apologized, he may be moving on already. Refusing to forgive could be making you stuck, and it may be that you are the person who’s hurt the most. Some people feel a sense of empowerment and control by forgiving someone. It’s an active step that you take, which may be just what you need to start to move past the whole bully/victim relationship.

    Theoretically, the bully may deserve no forgiveness whatsoever, but it’s in your best interest to forgive him anyway.

    But, if not forgiving helps you feel better or makes your life better, then keep it up.


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