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Forgiveness

This past winter, I read an article about forgiveness that has stuck with me for months, rippling through me like a stone dropped into a lake.  A warning; the article begins with a description of a murder which may be a trigger for some people.

forgiveness

Image: Jayt74 via Flickr

The author gives the steps of forgiveness, a how-to guide for the act spelling out the acronym REACH:

First, you “recall” the incident, including all the hurt. “Empathize” with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the “altruistic gift” of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, “commit” yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, “hold” onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.

In the case of the murder, the son needed to go through the act of forgiveness without knowing whom he was forgiving.  The killer was never caught.  The son forgave the killer not for the killer’s sake but his own, deciding that the anger he would carry over his mother’s death would hurt more than the act of forgiveness.

I don’t know if you can measure emotional pain like that.  I think we can convince ourselves that the act we choose will be emotionally less painful, but I don’t know if it is in actuality.

Or maybe I’m just saying that because I would have chosen the other route of non-forgiveness.

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Maybe the reason the article stuck with me is that it set up forgiveness as an either/or situation.  Either you forgive, or you carry with you anger and a desire to seek revenge.  And I don’t think that’s always the case.

There’s a third road, one where the person simply… stops.  They refuse to participate in a situation that is damaging.  Someone treats them poorly and they decide not to forgive them but they also don’t seek revenge.  It’s the snipping of the cosmic scissor, cutting yourself off from the person who wronged you and not giving them mindspace or heartspace.  You just don’t consider them anymore, and you certainly don’t spend mental energy plotting out revenge.

I don’t think it’s healthier or more dangerous, emotionally, I just think it’s another path the author didn’t consider.

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Of course, my third path assumes that you don’t need to have daily contact with the person.  I don’t think it would work in a marriage.  Part of snipping the cosmic scissor is that if you need to have regular contact, you hold the personally at arm’s length, emotionally.  I don’t think you can have a marriage work if the people have their arms up, pushing the other one away.

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There was another line in the article that gave me pause:

“The power to grant forgiveness (and its benefits) rests with victims.”

And I guess the question I had was that victimhood is in the eye of the beholder.  There are situations where the other person believes I’m the one at fault, and I believe they’re at fault, so who is the victim?  In the murder case, the victim (the woman, and by extension, her son) is clear — at least, to me — but in most arguments, the fault is less clearly defined.

In that way, it seems a little self-centered that the person gets to determine their own victimhood rather than consider the pain they’ve given others.  That this comes from an angle of granting forgiveness rather than asking for forgiveness.

I mean, can the murderer claim his own victimhood in that case and say, “you know what, I forgive that old woman for startling me during the robbery and turning me into a killer.  It’s awful to live with the thought that I took someone’s life, and she put me in this terrible position.  I am going to release my anger towards her.”

His anger towards her!

But technically, in this definition, we allow each person to determine their own victimhood when we allow each person to determine whether or not they wish to forgive.

Maybe it’s a matter of culture; I come from a religion that has more of an emphasis of asking for forgiveness (we have a whole holiday set up for that purpose!) rather than forgiving.  Yes, you are also supposed to absolve people of their sins when they ask you for forgiveness, and you are even supposed to forgive people without them asking, but the emphasis is much more on asking forgiveness for our own wrongdoing and unfulfilled promises than it is on granting other people forgiveness for their trespasses.

It’s two sides of the same coin, but maybe recognizing the role I play in affecting others sits better with me than making the assumption that the other person understands their wrongdoing and wants to be released with forgiveness.

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Though the article first pauses to point out all the negative effects non-forgiveness has on your health (as well as your ability to jump), the article touches on the fact that forgiveness is not always the best course of action.  That sometimes it is healthier not to forgive another person.  That we can equally do emotional damage to ourselves by always forgiving.

It makes it difficult to know how much and when.

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The article ends with another sad scenario, one that loops the discussion to the only type of forgiveness I truly believe needs to happen, and that is the act of forgiving ourselves.

There is no cosmic scissor we can use on ourselves; no way to neatly divide ourselves from ourselves.

We will mess up — sometimes we will mess up hugely and sometimes we will simply hate ourselves because we couldn’t do anything to stop a situation — and we need to find a way to live with ourselves.  And that I think is worth the hard work of forgiveness.  That is a situation, because we can never have space from ourselves, where it would be worse to continue to let those feelings fester rather than atone and forgive ourselves.

And that begins with apologizing, even if your apology cannot undo what you’ve done.

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The article never touches on the saying that I’ve always struggled with the most: forgive and forget.

What does forgiveness even mean when it comes to the huge transgressions?  How do you authentically carry on and build a relationship with another person after you’ve granted them forgiveness?  The small stuff — of course, I don’t remember all the small fights or wrongdoings.  But the big stuff?  How do you ever forget it?  And is it authentic if you only pretend to forget, if the act itself is always in the back of your brain, informing future decisions?  Because how can it not?

Maybe I just struggle with the concept of forgiveness.  It takes a lot to upset me; I mean, a lot a lot a lot.  So if you’ve gotten me to the point where I am that upset that an apology is in order, and the person has done nothing to try to try to remedy the situation, it is a very difficult idea to leap off that platform into forgiveness since the platform is set pretty high in the air.

Do you know what I mean?  There are just very few occasions in my life where I want an apology or I am carrying any lingering frustration with me, but once I have reached that place, it almost stands to reason that working my way back down the ladder towards forgiveness is going to take a very long time, indeed.

How do you do with forgiveness?  Do you find it easy to grant it?

14 comments

1 andy { 05.20.15 at 8:08 am }

I agree with your 3rd choice, especially when you can remove the person from your life. I have a family member who has done some pretty horrific things to other family members (not to me directly) and I don’t think I can forgive them, but I also do not seek revenge, I have simply stopped having them in my life.

2 Noemi { 05.20.15 at 8:29 am }

Hmmm. I don’t know if I believe that simply by not seeking revenge you can choose to forgo the choice. I guess I don’t know if there is a third choice. Even if you don’t see the person and don’t dwell on the transgression, you still haven’t forgiven and the negative effects could still be (subconsciously or more obviously) playing out.

Maybe I only feel that way because I tend to dwell in the hurt but never try to seek revenge.

3 Noemi { 05.20.15 at 8:43 am }

As far as who gets to determine victim hood I don’t think it really matters because the act of forgiveness is one we perform for our own good, not the other person’s. I was recently involved in a situation where both parties we’re clearly upset and felt wronged. In the end I had to work on forgiving the other person not because I determined I was the one who was wronged (I’m sure we both wronged each other) but because the anger I felt was hurting me. So forgiving that person was a gift I gave myself. It didn’t really have anything to do with the other person (as far as them receiving my forgiveness). I also had to forgive myself for the part I played in causing hurt to someone else, again, not because admitting that I wronged someone else someone how helped them, but because it helped me. Without forgiveness I would have stayed mired in the negativity of an outcome I could not go back and change. I needed to forgive so *I* could move on, whether victim hood was mine to claim or not.

4 Mel { 05.20.15 at 9:20 am }

Oh, I think if you need to forgive in order to move on, you should forgive. And do it for yourself; not for the other person. But I don’t know if there is a point to forgiveness if you are in that third category; not dwelling, not thinking about it, not actively trying to seek revenge. Just simply stopping the interaction with the person and moving on.

5 Peg { 05.20.15 at 9:46 am }

Oh how I struggle with this. I think the relationship with the person totally determines which path you take. It also depends on the transgression (or repeated transgressions). I think it’s more complicated than the REACH process the author laid out. To me the tricky part is the forgetting. You may “forgive” that person in theory, but I have a hard time forgetting and that causes me to struggle with trust, etc. I also liked your comment about being the constant forgiver…In one of my relationships I am always the forgiver and this often makes me feel pathetic rather than empowered. For true forgiveness, I think it has to involve both parties if it’s a relationship that you want in the future. Just like grief, I don’t think you can lay out a process that fits every situation (although I like a well thought out acronym).

6 Noemi { 05.20.15 at 12:03 pm }

I guess I wonder if you are able to move on completely without dwelling or forgiving if there was really a need for forgiveness in the first place. I guess for me, that third place doesn’t exist, because if I perceive a transgression I either need to forgive or I dwell. And sometimes that act of forgiveness is quick and requires almost no effort, but I do believe it happens. And sometimes dwelling is just a quick thought about it here and there, even if it doesn’t really bother me 99% of the time. I just don’t think there is a place for me where I’m not doing either. It’s interesting to me that that choice exists for some people.

7 Mel { 05.20.15 at 12:16 pm }

Yeah, I will get to a place where I will think, I need to forgive this person in order to move forward, but I can’t. Usually because I don’t believe the person cares if they have my forgiveness (and the problem will continue to repeat itself). It would take A LOT for me to turn down a relationship, but sometimes I think it’s the healthier option over sticking around and forgiving (and it’s obviously healthier than sticking around and dwelling).

That said, I rarely feel I need people to apologize to me. There just haven’t been that many times in life where someone has pissed me off to the point where I expect an apology. And by default, there have been very few people I’ve had to remove myself from in this world. But I have no regrets about the fences I put up to keep out people who have a strong likelihood of crapping on my lawn 🙂

8 torthuil { 05.20.15 at 2:01 pm }

This is a tough one. I am most inclined to take your option: simply ceasing contact and not dwelling on what happened. That has worked for the few relationships, personal and professional, where I felt wronged or things had at the least turned sour. I am also pretty difficult to offend so it’s not something that comes up often. I don’t know how I’d react the face of a crime as horrible as someone murdering my mother. I can’t even imagine forgiving someone for that, I admit.

9 Valery Valentina { 05.20.15 at 4:07 pm }

just read the article. And immediately my history teacher comes to mind; he gave me a low grade for a handwritten piece of (good) work. The next time I handed in a glossy printed piece of bad work and got a high grade. I have not forgiven or forgotten, and I realise it was an important lesson to learn. Wow 25+ years.
I’m afraid my empathic powers are not up to a level where I can forgive and still respect certain people.
And wouldn’t it be unwise to forget who hurts you?
Plus I think that in american culture the whole confession/remorse/forgiveness is much more mainstream than in my little corner of europe.
Who knows how much higher I could have jumped!
(Also the article didn’t mention which group estimated the slope of the hill more accurately, and 5 degrees seems a small difference anyway)

10 Jill A. { 05.20.15 at 5:23 pm }

I start with whether or not forgiveness is needed and by/for who and why. The first thing I do if some type of hurt or anger is circling in my head is write it down and then try to forget it for three days. Turn my thoughts every time it comes up. But only for three days because otherwise I won’t make the effort, I’m not very good at letting go of a grudge. That’s why I write it down, too. Not nice, I know, but it is the only way I can give myself permission to try. If I do forget it, that’s cool and it’s obviously not a problem.

If I don’t forget, then I try do decide whether I want to live with the pain and distraction of the hurt and anger or if I need to forgive it and love again. Truthfully, it can go either way. Depends. 🙂 But if I decide on forgiveness, I then have to talk myself into it because I’ve got a brain that answers back. Me, “I want to forgive X.” Brain, “No you don’t. X is a jerk.” *sigh* So I start with, me, “I want to want to forgive X.” Brain, “That’s stupid. Why would you want to?” Me, “Well, because, A, B, C & D.” Brain, “A, C and D might be valid, but B is BS.” And the conversation goes on for a time. Hours, days, weeks, months, whatever.

That is for trying to forgive. Asking for forgiveness I think is easier. When I’m asking, I’m much more in control. It is my job to make restitution for wrongs I’ve done and ask forgiveness. If I get it or not is not my decision.

And yes, forgiving myself is much harder.

11 Cristy { 05.20.15 at 11:19 pm }

I’ve been thinking about this post all day. Mainly because of the third option, which I have used. I agree that there are situations where you need to make peace. Particularly if the relationship is going to continue. Or if you are confronted by a situation where not forgiving impacts your relationship with someone else. But in situations where the relationship is dead and making peace requires a significant amount of work, I think the third option is best. Abusive/destructive relationships fit this bill.

But I will say, the third option doesn’t come without cost. It’s like you lose a piece of yourself, that forgiveness allows one to reclaim. But sometimes the cost of forgiveness is just too high.

12 Geochick { 05.21.15 at 10:09 am }

I try the third option as much as possible and I really struggle with the concept of forgiveness. I have cut off an extended family member due to her extreme religious beliefs and treatment of people of color. She sends FB requests to be my friend every so often and most recently she wrote a message to me wondering why I don’t like her anymore. The kicker was that she said my cousins have forgiven her when they disagree (which if you are a kind person you disagree with her All the time). Once again, I clicked ignore and didn’t respond to the message.

I don’t forgive someone like that.

13 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.21.15 at 3:35 pm }

So much to think about. I know that I’ve been working for decades on the betrayals of my own body, which is nothing like what Worthington was able to do. Not sure what type of forgiver (or non-) I’d be if faced with something like that.

14 deathstar { 05.21.15 at 8:30 pm }

Like you, it takes a lot to get on my bad side. An apology is not always required, though. I believe actions are stronger than words. An apology is worthless is the person keeps slighting me in the same manner. A friend once told me that I should treat everyone as a Buddha. That means seeing past their weaknesses or sour disposition or even whether they have killed someone. Not so sure about that last one because I’m pretty sure I would not forgive someone for killing or harming my child.

When it comes to my father, all his transgressions are in the distant past, and I do talk to him whenever necessary, but I do not seek him to be present in my life at all. So does this mean I haven’t truly forgiven him? Mind you, he’s never asked for my forgiveness but I certainly have no expectations he would ever do that. If I can be respectful with the person, I consider that forgiveness. However, I don’t wish to spend any more time with them past what is completely necessary. This by the way applies to people who have hurt the ones I love.

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