Thursday, October 20, 2011

closing the file

Forgiveness: strength or weakness?

Joe works for Megacorp, where he earns minimum wage. His wife Josie works as a waitress at the Hot Spot Cafe, where the owner and the cook are in a friendly competition to find out who can screw her first. Joe thinks Josie should quit, but she can’t afford to. They have two children.

Joe goes out drinking. When he returns at 3:00 a.m. and wakes Josie up, she tells him off. He hits her. Later that day, he apologizes. Later that week, he gets angry when he remembers his apology; he doesn’t see why the hard-working head of a family should have to behave like a saint. He hits her again.

Josie complains to a clergyman she trusts. The clergyman advises her to forgive her husband.

Josie is so frustrated that when her son and daughter get into a screaming match over a toy they both want, she hits them both harder than she intended. She feels guilty and tells them she loves them. At suppertime, they both refuse to eat their peas and scream for dessert. She tries to send them to their room, and they run around the table instead. Joe tells her she has no idea how to be a mother. When Josie catches the children, she leaves marks on them. Joe threatens to report her to child protection services.

As soon as Joe and Josie’s son Jack can survive on his own, he moves out. While home for a visit, he “comes out” to them as a gay man. Joe feels insulted as a father. He can’t forgive Jack, who goes for counselling. The counsellor advises Jack to forgive Joe.

Father and son lose contact until Joe dies and Jack comes home for the funeral. At the gravesite, he says aloud: “Dad, I forgive you.” There is no answer.

Joe and Josie’s daughter Jackie marries a man like her father, and warns him that she won’t accept the treatment her mother accepted. Her husband Jeff has frustrations of his own. In a moment of rage, he hits her while she is chopping vegetables. She stabs him to death. The justice system does not forgive her.

Would more forgiveness have changed this plot? Would less forgiveness have ended the predictable, everyday patterns of abuse?

Every religion I know of (except Satanism) and most schools of counselling recommend forgiveness. Did your parents give you a gothic upbringing? Forgive them. After all, you survived to adulthood. Are you harassed at work? Assert yourself appropriately, but forgive your harasser as you would like to be forgiven for your own annoying habits. Does your Significant Other behave in ways you consider unreasonable? Forgive him/her for the sake of the relationship.

Some advocates of forgiveness practice what they preach to an extreme degree. I’m reminded here of the local nun who forgave the men who gang-raped her, and petitioned the court to have the charges dropped.

When I read about that, I felt nauseous. Were the assailants likely to feel moved by the forgiveness of a Bride of Christ? Fat chance. Do all the men who rape “enemy” women in war respect the ones who manage to forgive them, after years of soul-searching? Does forgiveness have any effect on the forgiven?

But that’s not the point, I’ve been told. Forgiveness is necessary for the injured person (or one who feels injured) to regain peace of mind. There, I’ve forgiven you, so now the world is at peace.

What is forgiveness anyway? Is it a permission slip handed to abusers, assuring them that there will be no negative consequences for the harm they do? Is it a declaration of truce?

If it’s the second thing, the logic of it appeals to me. I can usually do that – after I’ve made sure the original harm is not going to be repeated over and over until someone drops dead.

Maybe that’s the key to the magic box called “Forgiveness.” I’ve forgiven my alcoholic ex-husband because he died with the year on New Year’s Eve 2006 – and his lonely death was worse than I ever wished on him. He will never again accuse me of being the Scarlet Whore of Babylon. His life is over, and so is my resentment.

I’ve forgiven my parents. In retrospect, their parenting seems better than average for their time, aside from a huge betrayal in my young-adulthood. They both died within six months of each other in 2009. Their ashes rest together in an outdoor columbarium that resembles a file cabinet. That file is closed. If I stood on the grass and screamed at them, I would get no answer except the echo of my own voice against marble.

If I were the heroine of an opera, I might have a spectacular Mad Scene in the cemetery, screaming melodically at the dead. In real life, I lack the necessary lung-power.

My surviving relatives are a different case, but somewhat the same. I’ve been asked whether I’ve forgiven them for accusing me (in writing!) of plotting to take control of my parents’ property without telling anyone else, a factual untruth. I’ve been asked whether I’ve forgiven my grown daughter for declaring our relationship dead. (Hello! I'm still alive!)

All I can say is that I accept my inability to change other people’s thoughts, feelings or behaviour. I will not confess to things I haven’t done. I see no point in apologizing for my existence as long as I’m not willing to end it.

Fritz Perls seems relevant here: I am who I am. You are who you are. If we find each other [connect in some way?], that’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.

If forgiveness is simply a recognition of reality, it seems vastly better than, say, war in the Middle East.

Or maybe forgiveness can be summed up as another piece of sage advice I read somewhere: Go with God. Just go.
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  1. confession, forgiveness - they're all about internal peace.

    The interesting part is forgiving someone to their face and seeing them jerk back with surprise - not because they're grateful for your kind forgiveness, but because they don't think they did anything wrong. Then they get angry.

  2. Oh yes, Kathleen. That's an angle that I didn't even consider tackling: the huge credibility gap (in most cases)between the abuser and the abused, and the usual complaint from both sides that each one is a victim. (This was my husband's themesong when he was alive.) "Power" would be an interesting topic for this blog - what is it, why do most people want it, and why do most insist that they don't have it & never did?

  3. Hi Jean!

    When i read your post it makes me think how complex and difficult the question of forgiveness is. There's nothing simple. Very often forgiveness has to be earned. Evil people are usually incapable of seeing the evil in themselves, I think of this while watching the news about Kaddafy.

    The ways people hurt each other in our lives are so hard to forgive even over time until the person becomes inconsequential. We forgive them finally because they;re simply irrelevant.

    I think if a person who has hurt us really wants to change, our forgiveness can open a door for them. But if they're not ready, forgiveness doesn;t help.

    Honest and painful post.


  4. Jean -

    After reading your post, I feel that mine was glib and superficial. Your scenario is all too real - and your question well worth pondering. What action or thought could unravel the cycle of anger and hurt that you describe? Would forgiveness really help?

    The answer that occurs to me is that forgiveness cannot mend the sort of breaches you describe without a corresponding acceptance of responsibility. As Garce noted, evil people do not acknowledge that they've done anything that needs to be forgiven. Ordinary folk, though, are often aware of their own failings. Resentment from the victims gives the perpetrators an excuse to continue behaving badly. "I hit her. She hates me. That makes me want to hit her again."

    Forgiveness, on the other hand, means that the previous wrong has been cancelled and that, theoretically, the resentment released. But it also encourages me to acknowledge that a wrong was in fact done, and to recognize that I had a part in it.

    Just some thoughts. Thank you for such a challenging post!


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