for bd, AI, TTMO, pamela . . . i’m forgetting people, I know – oh, for thewalrusofsheol, wraith and noahbody . . . anyone who needs a break from platitudes . . .
with love from the dark side of parenting
Wait, wait, hear me out a bit. Believe me, I know the generally accepted narrative: you can’t hold anger in your heart, you have to let it go, all of that. I even accept that our worst tormentors probably never had a chance not to be the way they were, but still. Forgiveness is overrated.
First of all, for it to be what it should be, for the thing to live up to the advertising, forgiveness would have to be optional. As things stand today, in the view of this cultural Christian, that really isn’t the case. We all know that forgiveness is the endgame, and that it’s only a matter of time before we find ourselves somehow omniscient enough to forgive – almost without exception, even in some of the most horrible cases of abuse. The pressure to forgive starts the day our victimization comes to light.
That pressure leads many folks to a premature declaration of forgiveness, at a time when probably neither the abuser nor the victim have really learned their lessons. That sort of forgiveness is easily rescinded as soon as the abuser does what they do, and for that, rightly so – but the pressure simply restarts and it can become another dysfunctional cycle in our lives. Worse to my mind, is simply that in this Original Sin based Christian society, victims may suffer endlessly but abusers can too often sit and wait to be forgiven, that it’s automatic, that they are entitled to forgiveness from any decent Christian victim. That’s the Christian ideal, right, ‘Father, forgive them?’ Well, you know what?
The legend we have for the moral behaviour and teachings ascribed to that fellow, Jesus, are a rather impossible paradigm. We need to see that as a sort of bait and switch game, which is probably no more fair or positive for us than comparing our bodies to the impossible Hollywood beauties carved out of surgery and starvation. So with that in mind, and believing that there are more things to be in the world than saints or Hell-deserving sinners, I say f@#$ ‘em, our torturers. Let someone else forgive them, some moral savant or someone with less of a personal stake in it, someone who can afford to forgive them, because mostly, we can’t.
In this Christian culture, we know about Original Sin, we know we are all sinners and subject to the Christian message, that we will all sin, and we need Jesus’ forgiveness to avoid eternal pain and suffering. The human being cannot help but to reason and analyse, and when something goes wrong the human being wants to know why. We may need this information again, and so we find the agency responsible, we assign blame. In this particular culture, where we are prone to blame ourselves already, sinners that we are –
if we forgive the obvious culprit, who will be left, who takes responsibility? For us, the default is us.
That is what I mean, that we can’t usually afford to forgive our attackers, because blame deflected from them too often comes back to us. That is some serious unfairness that the victimizer is freed from the accusation and victim suffers both, the abuse and the guilt. Forgiveness for the abuser is far too often a continuation of the violence against ourselves.
Second, real forgiveness is a process of maturing, a process of acquiring a longer perspective, and in most cases it takes time, real time, like the time between generations, like the time between the spring and autumn phases of our lives. Of course there’s part of the social pressure to forgive in that: we want to look like we’ve matured, and in a healthy way. It would be more ironic if it weren’t the normal situation: we are expected to go far too swiftly from so hurt as to cause a rift to a state where we have healed, matured and are now in the power position, bestowing forgiveness. That is not the sort of thing that the majority of sightings of it are ever going to be the real deal. That transformation is never easy and not often quick. Truth to tell? Several decades and the demise of our abusers probably go a long way towards bringing that achievement – and it is one – into the realm of possibility. Some of us don’t even want to heal as long as our parents are alive to see it; we need to be the open wound, the accusation; we can’t imagine goals for ourselves until they’re gone.
So my idea is this: we need to keep ourselves of two minds about it. Forgive in theory, know as you go about your life that ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I,’ and think that all of us could be that bad and hope that we can all be forgiven, sure – but let’s keep that in perspective, let’s keep that cerebral – cold, even. Let’s don’t invest our own feelings in it, give that idea our head maybe, but not our hearts. Our hearts need to be protected.
What I’m saying is, let’s stop treating abuse and forgiveness as personal, one-off situations, matters of the heart – after all the Big Data is coming in: we are not alone in our troubles. Not with 7,000,000,000 plus people running around – and start using our heads. Let’s consider that the prevalence of abuse and all manner of unpleasantness short of it and the near universal need for forgiveness likely indicates a social problem, and put our collective heads to it instead.
I just mentioned this rant to a wise woman I know and she told me a story about forgiveness. She was upset about a failed marriage, and she was always on a self-discovery journey anyways. She spent some serious time – three or four years – doing a lot of inner work, stuff involving her father, etc., and at a point, it became clear all the ways in which she had married her father – hardly all the fault of the man chosen for the part. She wasn’t looking for a way to forgive her husband, I think she was mostly still mad about it – but her own work towards self-knowledge took her to where she had to forgive herself, and forgiving him was just, uh, collateral repair.
That, I think, is how it works, and I know that’s what we’re advocating when we recommend forgiveness, but a few things need to be said.
One, that was a very intense, directed bunch of work that lady did, we don’t all do it, and even so, years.
Two, that was an adult situation. I’ll check, but if my wise friend has forgiven everyone, her own parents, etc., I think I can safely say it took her a bigger chunk of her journey than that focused three or four years of father-work. This person is on the lifelong plan. And that’s the sort of approach that produces real forgiveness, always as a by-product. For our caregivers, our parents, our abusers, the situation is very different, most obviously because we don’t choose our parents (at least those of us who aren’t reincarnationists don’t think so).
Whether we believe that all our damage from our earliest days can be healed or not, surely we can agree that the chance that it can’t be must be considered in any calculations we’re making. A full understanding of what even happens during our earliest days, while some people have remembered and dealt with some things, would remain impossible to guarantee considering that limited understanding we had during the experience. I think, given the inevitable unknowns, that true forgiveness could only result from our achieving a state where we could forgive literally anything.
I’m not saying it’s impossible, it happens all the time. I’m just saying it takes time, and if its schedule is even in the same ballpark as the abuser’s idea of a proper schedule, then it’s probably not the real thing. (Forgiveness is something taught to us as children by the very people – parents, preachers, teachers, in short, adults – that we might end up having to forgive. That is a conflict of interest at the very least, and an outright, cynical scam in the worst cases.) There is tremendous social pressure to forgive, to look healed and mature, to show the forbearance and mercy of a good Christian martyr – and unfortunately, the form of forgiveness usually satisfies the social pressure even if the substance is lacking and the true healing delayed. I worry that if forgiveness can become an entitlement, then there is no mechanism to change our behaviour, that if we must forgive our cruelest caregivers then perhaps we can make lax choices and do our own kids wrong, knowing that we’ll be forgiven in the end.
These are my concerns about forgiveness as a given. That if we forgive too soon that we’re blaming ourselves instead. That if we find a way to forgive our tormentors, that we may be less aversive to making the same sort of mistakes with our own kids. That forgiveness is only a treatment for a problem and not a solution, that we need to spend more energy on stopping the abuse and harm in the real world rather than accidentally trying to minimize or legitimize it by declaring all sins to be not only forgivable, but that they all must be.
Finally, let’s compare our usual attitude about forgiveness for a moment with our attitude about punishment as a parenting tool: that a cultural Christian or possibly a person from any bible culture is expected to aspire to forgiveness as a moral obligation, and along with the same culture’s injunction to ‘honour thy parents’ means that erring parents are to be forgiven if at all possible and to be pretend-forgiven if not. Contrast that with the parenting situation where the dealing out of penalties for misbehaving children must never be shirked. Discipline must be consistent for it to work. That has the potential to give us a glimpse of the measure of the gulf between our experiences of child- and parenthood:
Parents, abusers, even if they get no penalty other than their child or victim’s ill feelings, can wait for their socially entitled forgiveness while the child can be secure that his or her penalties will be swift, rarely waived, and even more rarely apologized for.
The social pressure to forgive is always there, irrespective of detail. I’ll just let you imagine how society’s will gets expressed when someone stands with the children and tells parents that the apologies and forgiveness are all traveling in exactly the wrong direction.
July 6, 2015
Great message Jeff. I see your point. Thanks for making me think about this. It is almost like an abuser can get away with it as they think they will probably be forgiven anyways, what are the consequences of their action! Wow.
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I love you