We hear a lot about forgiveness and how good it is for you spiritually and emotionally and that’s all true but forgiveness is a thing that can’t be rushed. Selling people on the merits of forgiveness when they’re right in the middle of their struggle is a little like telling someone who has just had surgery on her knees that she needs to run a marathon. First she has to heal, then she has to begin stretching and moving and who’s to say that being a marathoner is the only way or the best way to be alive anyway?
In my twenties I worked at a women’s shelter where many of our clients were escaping domestic violence. I realized then that it’s possible to forgive too early and I’m not just talking about the women who forgave and returned to their abusers. I’m also talking about the women who looked like they were taking positive steps in their personal growth. I’m talking about the ones who wanted to understand their abusers so they could forgive them. I’m talking about the ones who took personal responsibility for entering into an abusive relationship in the first place.
That sounds really great and empowering in some ways, right? Taking responsibility, working towards understanding — those sound like terrific things but sometimes it’s a detour away from real healing and wholeness. Because here’s the thing — before we can take responsibility and before we can forgive, we have to confront the depth and breadth of the harm done to us.
Imagine that Snow White comes to therapy. She says, “My stepmom had problems with jealousy. I get it now, I get that it must have been hard to marry into a new family and to be confronting your mortality just as your stepdaughter is kinda coming into her own. I mean, I get that she had her own struggles.”
The therapist nods, wondering where this is going.
“Probably,” Snow White continues thoughtfully. “Probably she was reacting to her own troubled upbringing. It can’t have been easy, being raised to catch a man because your only value as a woman is the guy that you marry. It must have been threatening to her to have me growing up there.”
This is where her therapist might respond by saying, “Wait a second, she tried to poison you. She paid a hit man to take you out.”
“I know, I know,” says Snow White. “I’m not excusing her behavior or anything, I’m just saying I can kind of understand, you know, how it was hard for her, too.”
“Poison,” says the therapist. “Murder for hire.”
“Right,” says Snow White. “But she did the best she could…”
“POISON!” says the therapist. “MURDER!”
“Yeah, I know but I want to acknowledge that I never said directly to her, ‘Do not poison me.’ And I did take an apple from a stranger.”
Ok, you get what I’m saying here.
Snow White isn’t going to get to the core of her struggles if she keeps making excuses for The Evil Queen. She thinks she’s being loving and forgiving but really what she’s doing is joining with The Evil Queen against herself. She is unintentionally helping to perpetuate the abuse by excusing it.
I’m not arguing that Snow White needs to spend the rest of her life bitterly denouncing her stepmom but she might need to spend part of her life doing exactly that. She needs to acknowledge that however The Evil Queen was raised, whatever societal expectations she was up against, The Evil Queen did harm to Snow White. It doesn’t really matter what The Evil Queen meant to do — if she meant to just poison her a little bit, say, just long enough to win The Fairest of Them All contest or whatever — or why she did it. What matters is that Snow White was harmed by her actions and Snow White needs to give space to her grief, pain and anger. She needs lots and lots of space and understanding and then and only then will she be ready to think about forgiveness and taking responsibility (if there’s any to be taken).
The women at the shelter, yes, eventually they would need to look at their participation in the abusive relationship in order to recognize the beliefs, values and behaviors that created that perfect storm but they couldn’t really do that until they could acknowledge that whatever they did or did not do, they didn’t deserve the abuse and that abuse is always, always wrong.
Only when we give attention and validation to the very real harm that other people may have caused us, only then can we forgive. Snow White needs to be able to say, “You did me wrong, Evil Queen, through no fault of my own” without people telling her to “stop being so bitter, just let it go, life is too short to hold grudges” because it’s not petty to grieve your losses or to be angry when you have been harmed.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been thinking about how often we beat ourselves up — colluding with the people who harm us — for holding on to things. Sometimes we need to hold on to things for awhile or our healing will be incomplete. And without healing there can be no true forgiveness.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could neatly close out chapters in our lives before moving onto the next one? You know, resolve all relationship issues and put lingering conflicts with family to rest and take a nice predictable staircase up to enlightenment?
Unfortunately life doesn’t work like that especially because our ideas about closure usually involve a very specific response from someone else. We want answers. We want to make amends or apologies and be forgiven. Or we want someone to ask us for forgiveness. But hanging our personal growth on someone’s very specific response is never going to work and focusing on our need for that response can keep us stuck in one place focusing on one thing.
Really what we need is not closure but understanding. We need to make sense of the events in our lives, which doesn’t mean figuring out why this person or that person treated us badly. The truth is, understanding why someone treated us badly — hearing them explain it — will be an empty exercise if we haven’t worked towards our own resolution.
In theory, it sounds great. Someone comes to us and says, “I was a jerk and here is why. I’m sorry. I should have been kinder.” But very few people outside of 12-step programs are going to do that. Besides if we aren’t ready to forgive someone then his or her apology won’t mean anything to us.
We need to grieve our losses and process our pain. We need to make sense of what that bad treatment means to us regardless of what it means to the person who treated us badly. We need to learn how to live with hurts that can’t be undone.
We also need to understand that making sense of our lives is an ongoing exercise. You may have resolved childhood hurts in your twenties only to have them come back up when you have children in your thirties. You may resolve them when your children arrive only to have them come back up once again two decades later when your children move out. It’s like when you read The Great Gatsby in tenth grade and you don’t get it then you dust it off years later and it’s whole different book. That’s how life is.
Once you accept that there are rarely — if ever — tidy resolutions then you can quit banging your head against the wall demanding them and start making sense of the events of your life.
I heard this story on NPR on the drive home from work on Friday. It’s the story of a mom and her son who lost a child, Jesse, in the Sandy Hook shooting. I was particularly struck by the story told by JT, Jesse’s now 13-year old brother. He found healing by connecting to child survivors of the Rwandan genocide via Skype. Meeting them, hearing their stories and being witness to their own healing inspired him to work towards forgiveness of Adam Lanza.
“It wasn’t hard to forgive when I was never really mad,” he says. “I was just sad.”
It was a reminder to me of how important it is to find other people who will grieve with us and who understand our experiences. Grief can be so isolating and so lonely. Connecting with others who will listen and love us through it is the most healing thing we can do.
You can listen to the whole story (and read the transcript) by clicking here.
I’ve been thinking about blogging a lot as I work on this paper I’m supposed to present. The title is: “Someone Else’s Shoes: How Dialogue On-Blog Impacted a Real Adoption.” (I’m pretty sure I mentioned that here before — forgive me for repeating myself!) I’m writing it about Jerome Bruner‘s theories that we make things true by putting them in narrative form. (Read more about that at that wikipedia link.) I started getting interested in this when I was writing that article on forgiveness and I started talking to one of the interview people about journaling and infertility because I’d read this study about how women who used journaling to talk about their infertility used those stories to make sense of the chaos of what was happening to them and that this changed their actual experience. And then we got to talking about journaling being a therapeutic tool. When I hung up I started thinking about how blogs don’t seem to necessarily be therapeutic for every infertility blogger and then I thought that it’s because blogs have comments and so the narrative shifts in response to those comments and this is why I think some infertility bloggers can sometimes feel more stuck in their infertility than someone who’s journaling alone.
Anyway, that made me think about how blogging has impacted my own adoption story and I know that specifically that it was hearing from first moms (then called birth moms on my blog) before and after Madison came home — particularly in that first year — that strongly influenced my story. So this week I sat down and thought hard about that and how it’s changed me and how it’s changed how this adoption has played out. My thesis is that if writing a narrative constructs reality, then having a blog invites other people to help you construct that reality. It’s been true for me anyway.
My much maligned forgiveness article is online at Yoga Journal now and you can find it here. (Wish it’d be online when the furor was actually happening so that people could have made their own decisions. Oh well!)
And my latest entry for AntiRacistParent.com is here.