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Westerners Don’t Forgive—They Apologize

Discover what Hawaiians knew all along that modern society doesn’t practice.

Key points

  • The Hawaiian concept of forgiveness differs from Western culture in that it requires a complete letting go and alignment with the other person.
  • Letting go of a grievance—releasing or forgetting it—is not in conflict with wise discernment.
  • Forgiveness in Hawai‘i must also be mutual, whereas in the West, it's assumed that one party apologizes and the other accepts the apology.
Source: gorodenkoff/iStock

Forgiveness is an important aspect of just about any spiritual path you can think of. The Bible, the Talmud, the Quran, and the Sutras all mention forgiveness frequently. Yet they all have a slightly different take on what forgiveness is and how to practice it. Though I’ve studied several others, the path I’m committed to and that I teach is Huna, the indigenous spiritual path of the Hawaiian Islands.

The Hawaiian concept of forgiveness

The Hawaiian concept of forgiveness is different from forgiveness in Western culture. First of all, in Huna forgiveness is not complete until there is a complete letting go or release of the issue. And my Kumu (teacher), Etua, always said, "You forgive. You forget the incident. You remember only the learning. You remember what it is that you need to do to create your universe the way that you want."

But in Western culture, after a husband and wife have a heated discussion, they both might say that they’re sorry and make peace. Yet when another argument begins a week later, the husband says, “See, you're just as hostile as you were last week." The wife retorts, "What does this have to do with last week? You’re just holding a grudge because I was right." Neither of them had completely let go of the prior fight. As Auntie Bernie used to say, "If you don't forget, you haven't really forgiven." Forgiveness in Huna is about becoming pono, in harmony with the other person, and fully aligned with yourself. True pono doesn't happen when you say you forgive the other person or the situation. It happens when you forgive and you let it go.

It is important to emphasize here that letting it go, releasing it, or forgetting it, is not in conflict with wise discernment. Even in ancient times, if a person wronged you, you forgave him or her. Then from a place of being pono, you could make the decision about how you would relate to that person going forward, or even if you want to relate to them at all.

Forgiveness in Hawai‘i must also be mutual. In the West, it's assumed that one party apologizes, and the other accepts the apology. Most commonly though, one person says, "I'm sorry" while the other person thinks, "You certainly are, you sorry son of a ... !" It's less common to have a truly sincere response of "apology accepted."

Hawaiians believe that it is best to get closure on a conflict by saying "e kala mai i’au", which means "Please forgive me if I have done anything wrong." By expressing it in this way, responsibility is volleyed to the other person and calls for action from them. It opens up an energetic connection. Instead of a one-sided admission of guilt and repentance, it encourages two-way communication. In a sense, e kala mai i’au says, "It's in your lap."

Hawaiians also believe that everything should be forgiven, no exception. Even the most egregious transgression is to be forgiven. The justice system in ancient Hawai`i could be swift and harsh. Some crimes were punishable by death and others required banishment from society. But even these transgressions were to be forgiven because the Hawaiians believed that holding on to unforgiveness only harms yourself.

Three types of transgressions

The Hawaiian code of forgiveness says that there were three types of transgressions, all of which required forgiveness. The first is hala which means that you have "missed the path" or "erred by omission." A hala could be that you procrastinated getting something done or you weren't as clear as you could be in communicating. Perhaps you were unaware of someone else's feelings or didn't give a project your best efforts. Maybe you forgot your wedding anniversary! You commit a hala to yourself whenever you feel guilty, repress emotions, or allow someone to ignore your personal boundaries. You can commit hala without even knowing it.

The second transgression, hewa, is another offense you can commit unknowingly. Hewa means to "go overboard" or "to excess." You commit hewa when you are being a perfectionist or are obsessed with anything. Hewa could be an addiction or an obstinately held opinion. It might be overeating, drinking too much, or monopolizing a conversation. Even being overly passionate about an issue and accidentally upsetting someone with a different view is considered hewa. Hewa to yourself might be holding feelings of anger or hatred or wanting revenge.

Clearly, hala and hewa are easy transgressions to commit, knowingly and unknowingly. When I speak to a group, I've been taught to ask for forgiveness for anything that I may have said or may say that offends anyone listening. My intention is simply to share my mana`o (my thinking) with aloha. But everyone has a different reality, so I don't know if I do a hala or hewa to others I’m teaching. No matter how pure your intention, you may be misunderstood.

The third transgression requiring forgiveness is 'ino. 'Ino means "to do intentional harm to someone with hate in mind." It includes everything from vicious gossip to murder. Internally, an 'ino might be harsh self-judgment or self-deprecation. In the Hawaiian code of forgiveness, you still have to forgive for an 'ino, no matter how big or heinous the crime. If you do not forgive, you cannot be truly pono. Again, you only hurt one person by holding on to your unforgiveness and that is yourself.

Dr. Matt

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