Monday, March 26, 2012

Forgiveness: a mistake?

I have had a lot on my mind lately (in addition to having a lot on my plate). I turned 65 earlier this month and have done a lot of reflecting.

One of the things you get with advancing age (along with arthritis and dimming eyesight) is sufficient experience to gain some perspective. Unfortunately, too many people also become used to jerking their knees rather than actually thinking—which is a waste of both experience and perspective, since they both go unused.

Like all others, Western society has a herd of sacred cows. I’ve always been the kind of person to examine those cows, to test the reason for their sanctity. Maybe I am an iconoclast, maybe I am just, as my mother used to call me, a “shit disturber.” Whatever the reason, I find it very difficult sometimes to not dismember a sacred cow with the sharp blade of critical thought—and when I do that, it seems impossible to put the poor cow back together when I am done.

My subject matter is eclectic. I didn’t like Hemingway despite my sophomore English professor’s adoration of him and his writing—I found his writing juvenile in the sense that it was choppy and lacking in flow. I take issue with modern interpretations of Christianity. I am not on board with the child-centred lifestyle so many parents indulge in today. I detest pop-cultural icons like Kim and Paris and the vapid, self-indulgent consumerism they inspire. But most of all, I despise “popular wisdom,” especially when it may be popular, but is anything but wise.

One of my favourite straw men is the silly notion that, in order to heal from some traumatic event, you have to forgive the person who hurt you. What unmitigated bullshit! Gail Meyers, in her article When Your Mother Has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, addresses the topic very wisely. This “forgiveness imperative” that is plaguing our society right now is, of course, based in the Christian notion of being forgiven by God for our sins. If someone as powerful and omnipotent as God can forgive us for terrible sins, who are we, puny little mortals that we are, to withhold forgiveness from each other?

Not only is this unnecessarily guilt-inducing for victims, it is wholly inaccurate. To quote Meyers: “Forgive as the Lord forgave you." (Col. 3:13) How did the Lord forgive you? Did He just ‘forgive and forget’ your sin as you refused to repent or even acknowledge it as abusers often do? No, you confessed your sins to Him, acknowledged your sin, repented and He forgave you. God does not forgive a person denying they have done wrong and continuing in their sin. Quite the opposite. In Luke 17:3 it says, ‘If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.’ In the Greek, "rebuke" is epitimao, which in this case means to honestly, frankly, politely speak as you tell a person how you feel that he has wronged you. It does not say a thing about stuffing your normal human response of anger, pretending you forgave, ‘forgetting’ and returning for more abuse as some would have you believe.”

Dr. Susan Forward, in her book “Toxic Parents” also addresses the subject of forgiveness: page 189 of her book Toxic Parents:
—   “The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this absolution [forgiveness] was really another form of denial: ‘If I forgive you, we can pretend that what happened wasn't so terrible.’ I came to realize that this aspect of forgiveness was actually preventing a lot of people from getting on with their lives.
—   “Responsibility can go only one of two places: outward, onto the people who have hurt you, or inward, into yourself. So you may forgive your parents but end up hating yourself all the more in exchange.
—   “Clients all too often discovered that the empty promise of forgiveness had merely set them up for bitter disappointment. Some of them experienced a rush of well-being, but it didn't last because nothing had really changed in the way they felt or in their family interactions.”

If you are guessing that I am not a big fan of forgiveness, you are correct. I think the pressure on victims to forgive those who have harmed them is reprehensible. It is revictimizing the person, demanding that they, in essence, disavow their right to experience their own feelings and instead, invalidate themselves in favour of the person who hurt them!

This is just not acceptable! One of the unhealthiest things we do to ourselves is to “stuff” our feelings. This repression and refusal to acknowledge reality leads to a host of new personal difficulties from drinking problems and eating disorders to being unable to trust or even love others, and more. Women who stay with abusive partners are people who have learned to stuff their feelings. People who blame themselves for the behaviour of others—like a man who was brutalized as a child saying “I deserved it…I was a handful as a kid,”—are people who have learned to stuff their feelings. Anorexics, people who cut themselves, the perpetually but inexplicably angry or anxious, even the promiscuous, are people who have learned to stuff—to disassociate from—their feelings.

Don’t get me wrong…I am not saying we should never forgive. I am simply saying that we should not forgive indiscriminately—or prematurely—or because others say we should or that forgiveness will somehow heal our hurts, because none of that is true. I think forgiveness has its place, but it is not a healing tool. In fact, if you expect to get something out of forgiving someone who has hurt you, you really are viewing it all wrong. Forgiveness, to be genuine, has to be a selfless act, selflessly given, with no conditions or expectations attached.

There are a number of people in my life who need forgiveness—but I’m not handing it out. I am also not bitter or “withholding” or any of the other epithets others cast at those who refuse (or are unable) to forgive. I am rational, I am intelligent, and I am good at critical thinking. Refusal to forgive is directly related to those people refusing to acknowledge their sins, apologize, and trying to make amends of some kind. It is Biblical, as it were, in that before I will forgive another’s trespass, that other has to own up to his trangressions and be truly remorseful for them. Absent that, there is no forgiveness.

No—it is not harsh—it is eminently pragmatic and protective. Normal people, when they learn they have hurt you, actually feel bad about it. Their internal processes generate a feeling of guilt which they expiate with an apology. It is the people who refuse to acknowledge they have done wrong, who rationalize or justify or blame their victims, who feel no remorse, no guilt, who should not be forgiven. They do not understand selfless acts given selflessly. They see life through their own set of warped filters and perceive forgiveness as consent on the part of their victim, an assent to continue the assaults that generated the need for forgiveness in the first place.

For some transgressors, the knowledge you are forgiving them can be enraging. How dare you take it upon yourself to imply they are wrong in anything they do? Because, after all, you only give forgiveness to those who have done something wrong. Others use forgiveness sanctimoniously—just see how big, how magnanimous, how humble (and wonderful) they are to forgive you for your sins against them. They may even tell you, in supercilious tones, that they forgive you, that they know you don’t hurt them on purpose, that you are living your life as you choose and they forgive you for the pain those choices have inflicted on them. That isn’t real forgiveness, for all that they might believe it is. It leaves them feeling pure and good and self-righteously superior. It isn’t real forgiveness, it is a game they play with your feelings and your self-esteem, your mind and your soul. It makes them your judge, with a perceived right to forgive or punish what they perceive as your sins—it allows them to think they have a right to control your life and that your behaviours (and even beliefs and values) must align with their own. It takes away your power—in their minds—and give it to them.

So, is forgiveness a bad thing? No. Not if it is appropriately and judiciously dispensed. Given too freely, it has no value. Withheld parsimoniously, it loses its purity, it become a cudgel with which to beat those who would have forgiveness into submission.

If you ascribe to the Christian model, forgiveness cannot be dispensed until and unless the transgressor acknowledges and repents his sins because that’s how the Christian god does it and no mere mortal can be smarter, better or more righteous than God. If you ascribe to something a bit more terrestrial, logic dictates that forgiveness still cannot be dispensed until and unless the transgressor acknowledges and repents his sins, otherwise all the forgiveness represents is permission to continue committing the acts that required forgiveness in the first place.

Forgiveness absent repentance is nothing more than permission to carry on as before.


  1. I agree with you that it is wrong to push people who have been victimized to forgive those who have harmed them. I do think though that when one has suffered a serious harm it is definitely necessary to work past that harm in order to move beyond it. That working past it may involve or include forgiveness, but I don't think that forgiving is in and of itself necessary.

  2. Loved this artcle I am sick n tired of hearing forgive - no ta you purposely hurt me or mine j you will be shipped out n ignored. Accept n move on

  3. I am late to this, but got so much out of this post. Thank you for writing it, I agree completely.


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