I’ve been wrestling with not just the concept of forgiveness, but also other people’s expectations about forgiveness, for most of my life. When I was a kid living with my physically abusive father, and utterly dependent on him for everything, I was often told that it was my duty to forgive him. That was only in the rare cases where people agreed there was anything to forgive. Most often I received the message that I was the only one to blame for the abuse I received. But those people who at least were willing to admit that beating resulting in fractures, complex concussion, major gashes, and other things requiring medical intervention might be taking things a little too far, still insisted that I needed to forgive him. He just got carried away, they would say. His motive was parental.
In my teens, when I no longer had to live with him, the messages changed slightly. I needed to forgive him in order to let go of my resentment, which would poison me. This line gets trotted out a lot–the notion that it isn’t a matter of whether the other person deserves forgiveness, but that not forgiving them hurts the wronged person.
There is nothing wrong, immature, or unhealthy about declining to extend forgiveness. Particularly if the person who wronged you has shown no remorse, never apologized, and never made any attempt at making amends. And especially so if they refuse to admit that the events ever even happened.
The sequence of events is:
2. Repent (not the same thing as apologizing)
3. Make amends
4. Ask for forgiveness
The person who committed the wrong needs to complete the first three steps before going to step 4.
Yes, hanging on to hatred and resentment can be corrosive. But contrary to the cliches, you can let go of all the anger without actually forgiving the person. You can make the decision that you’re not going to let them haunt your every waking moment. But letting go doesn’t mean you literally forget. You’re supposed to learn from experiences, right? That includes learning to recognize the signs of a similar situation later on. You can remember without being bitter. Letting go requires neither forgetting nor forgiving.
You don’t want to know about the knock-down-drag-out level arguments I was pressed into by one of my aunts because I wouldn’t agree with her that my dad deserved my forgiveness. There were similar arguments some years later about other abusive relatives and their refusal to take responsibility for the harm they had caused. The sticking point with this aunt wasn’t really about any psychological poison festering around inside me. The real issue was that my refusal to forgive implied, to her, that I disapproved of her decision to forgive the person. It didn’t matter that I said, “You can forgive them for anything they did to you that you wish, for any reason. I’m not judging you. But you’re the one that keeps asking me to also forgive them. If they ever ask me for forgiveness, I’ll consider it.”
What I didn’t say is that if the offender had asked whether I would have given it. Since Dad went to his grave denying anything he’d ever done to us hadn’t been deserved, we’ll never know.
The word “policing” gets thrown around whenever someone expresses disappointment, disapproval, or simply confusion about another person’s decision to extend forgiveness. Policing is a real thing, and it can be infuriating. My aunt was trying to police my feelings; for years at random moments she would ask me if I had ever forgiven my dad, and when I said I hadn’t (or in later years, when I told her to stop bringing it up) she would get upset. She would plead. She would argue insistently. She would predict dire consequences.
Certainly I’ve seen other examples of policing: when people send angry tirades asking how dare you continue to be friends with so-and-so or how could you give that group a second chance, for example. When people actively try to coerce you into reacting to the situation or person the way they want, that is policing.
You know what isn’t policing? Not agreeing with you is not policing you. Choosing not to extend the same level of trust/forgiveness/kindness as you is not policing you. Telling other people that I am not forgiving the person or group or institution you have decided to is not policing you. Telling you directly that you’re a better person than me, because I just can’t do it is not policing you. Even asking you why, if I don’t think get abusive or coercive, isn’t policing you.
And if the person you are forgiving is, in my opinion, so toxic and dangerous that I don’t want to have anything to do with them, and you spend so much time with this person I find harmful that when I limit my exposure to the toxic person, I wind up spending less time with you? As long as I am not also trying to coerce you into not spending time with the toxic person, that’s not policing you either. That’s just me taking care of myself.
People are entitled to a modicum of respect until they act in a way the shows otherwise. People who have already wronged me (or people that I love, or entire communities, et cetera), have to to make amends as one of the steps toward earning my respect back. I’m not obligated to forgive them even then. While I will respect and defend your right to be more magnanimous than me and forgive someone I can’t, that doesn’t obligate me to approve.
Friendship may be magic, but it isn’t transitive… and neither is forgiveness.
Years ago a very good friend pulled me aside and asked me why I had verbally bullied a mutual friend… again. It was the first time that someone had called me a bully. I had never thought of myself as a bully. I had spent my childhood and teen years being the victim of bullies. Not that I even used the word “victim” back then. It had taken a therapist quite some time to even get me to admit that being the child of a physically abusive father meant that during the time I was living with him I’d been a victim of abuse, for goodness sake!
I protested—specifically alluding to the years of abuse and bullying and how I would never treat someone the way I hated being treated—but my friend didn’t let me deflect. He repeated the question. The truth is, once he had labeled the behavior for me, I realized he was right. I had been treating the mutual friend exactly the way I hated being treated myself.
And I hated myself for it once I forced myself to look at my behavior objectively. I apologized to the friend I’d bullied. I resolved not to do it again. I tried to make changes in my behavior—not just toward that friend, but to everyone. I didn’t always succeed.
I still don’t always succeed.
One of the lessons I took away from the self-examination and my subsequent struggles not to bully people or otherwise be a jerk is to extend other people slack when they are jerks to me. And not just to extend the courtesy others have extended me, but more slack than I have received. Or I should say even more slack than I am aware of, because I’m sure that I don’t notice all the times I’ve behaved less than kindly to someone.
Friends, family, and casual acquaintances had remained friends even when I was a jerk. The least I could do was to forgive other people’s occasional lapses. This doesn’t mean turning into a doormat and letting people walk all over me. Like many things in life, it’s about finding a balance. Recognize that some unkindnesses are inadvertent, but don’t enable abuse.
The last several weeks has been difficult. Several little things have going wrong in my personal life. I’ve misplaced a bunch of unrelated things, for instance. Our car was rear-ended, and then almost exactly a week later, someone broke into the car and stole an iPod, a hand truck, and a bunch of smaller things. Something has gone awry on the car stereo and it won’t stay paired with my phone, which was how I was going to stream music in the car since the iPod was stolen. My husband has come down with a cold that either won’t go completely away, or he’s caught a bunch of unrelated bugs one after the other. My own health has been a little weird lately… I could go on.
Most of it is minor annoyances that we’ll sort out. It could be a lot worse. I know and love people who are going through a lot worse. Which makes me feel whiny for even mentioning any of it.
I know I’ve been having trouble not acting all cranky on everyone. I suspect I’m failing more than I realize. I also suspect that other things that irritate me are not nearly as bad as I think they are; I’m just already cranky, so I overreact.
This isn’t a bid for sympathy. Nor am I trying to excuse anything I may have said or done or will say or do. It’s more of a reminder that everyone is dealing with so much that we don’t know about. Often they don’t even realize how stressed they are. So allow people to make small, non-harmful mistakes. Allow yourself to make non-harmful mistakes.
Everyone is a jerk some of the time. Sometimes with good reason, sometimes less so. Most are just trying to survive. Other people give us a pass every now and then.
Return the favor.