Forgiveness has been a recurring thought in my mind lately.
How fragile and complex it is to truly forgive someone who hasn’t offered a genuine apology for the harm they’ve done. It’s a wild and treacherous landscape of “He said, she said,” and all the unspoken things in between.
It almost feels like a science I’m trying to wrap my head around. Even though I naturally find it easier to forgive than not to, I’m still plagued by these questions.
What does it mean to forgive? How can we forgive others while holding onto our boundaries? More importantly, how do we forgive ourselves for allowing others to hurt us?
There’s something about a year ending and a new one beginning that tends to make me want to tie up all the loose ends or give closure where closure is needed. I thought if I journaled, spoke to my therapist about it, and wrote a letter to the person who hurt me and burned it up into tiny little pieces that this pain would disappear. Then I would transform into a monk levitating on a cloud of pure compassion and love for all.
Turns out, it’s not that simple.
In theory, to forgive is to pardon another for their mistakes, and to sever the emotional ties to that person for the resentment to end. We forgive to release the anger and the power it holds over us. It is not to give the abuser a license to hurt us some more; instead, it’s a way to rise above the power dynamic in the first place. It is a way for us to return to our basic sanity and our inner peace.
In context, however, I’ve found that challenging.
My relationship with my father has always been disappointing. The idea of forgiving him always caused me a great deal of anxiety and a feeling that he is undeserving of this much love and compassion. I used to pass it off in my head as an “It is what it is” kind of thing, and I confused that with a type of generic forgiveness, where brushing it off and slapping a mental illness label on it was enough to acknowledge his wrongdoing in a nonjudgmental way.
It wasn’t. I realized I actually needed a genuine apology for me to heal.
So I reached for a book called The Apology by Eve Ensler, which is an imagined apology. Ensler wrote this book imagining what her father would say if he could apologize for all the suffering he has caused her. This allowed me to take a step forward into exploring all those questions and if an answer lied within hearing the words “I’m sorry.” I thought If I couldn’t get a real one, then this should do. In essence, I’d be offering myself the very thing I needed, so why not?
It helped, but it didn’t completely heal the pain. What I learnt was something invaluable. In exposing the abuser’s denied humanity, we learn to not necessarily forgive the person, but rather we forgive their conditioning. We forgive how they were brought up that way.
Peeling away the layers of why my father acted the way he did and understanding his childhood trauma allowed me to see his pain, not just mine. It allowed me to open my heart to his world, even if I didn’t like it. It was his. That was his reality.
Suddenly, I was no longer questioning why he would do something to me, but instead sending him prayers that maybe one day he can find his way and start healing too. It doesn’t mean I’m condoning his behavior by doing so, but it means I stop weighing myself down so much with anger that is futile and serves no one at the end of the day.
I realized later that this wasn’t a quick fix. Relapses happen. Forgiveness doesn’t have a start and an end. It doesn’t come with an instruction book that takes you from A to Z. Assuming perfection around a slippery topic can often lead to a sense of failure to forgive. I didn’t want to trade anger for defeat and began to see how the only way to do so was to understand this forgiveness is a process. Martin Luther King thought of forgiveness not as an “occasional act” but more of a “constant attitude.”
“I had numbed out for years, putting myself in a deep freeze, and now I was beginning to defrost.” ~ Madeline Black, on forgiveness, who, aged 13, was raped in London by two American students
Forgiveness for each person will have a story. As hard as it is to swallow the deep bitterness and rage that often comes with the intricate details of our story, we need to honor it. The anger stems from a need to be free of the pain. We might not be able to change what happened, but we can change the way it lives within us.
I read once that there are two types of forgiveness: reconciliatory and emancipatory. The former seeks to repair the relationship with the other, while the latter doesn’t. I’ve often found in toxic relationships that compromise my well-being that emancipatory forgiveness is the way forward.
However, there’s no universal prescription for forgiveness. It’s situational and it’s person-dependent. Whether we choose to reconcile or not, forgiveness can mend our hearts bit by bit. We slowly create space for more elevated emotions to become a part of who we are and how we can serve humanity, rather than weaker, debased feelings of disconnection.
We forgive because we have the strength to. We forgive because we deserve it. We forgive to be free.