09 Aug Forgiveness: I just don’t get it.
The old narrative about forgiveness is self-centered and unhelpful. Seek to explain instead.
I was a just little girl.
That evening, I was playing on the floor next to my father’s armchair, when I accidentally knocked over his cigarette holder. His cigarettes all spilled out. He got fuming mad. He demanded that I pick them up and replace them in the holder. He yelled at me to apologize. I refused to do either. I froze as this went on for a couple of hours. I cried, but never apologized.
It was downhill from there. As a teenager, he imposed a 9 pm curfew. If I showed up at 9:05, there would be punishment. Delivered with a belt with a buckle, on the front steps of the house, no discussion. I remember the day that the rage in me became a distinct object that lived in my throat: I had just gotten t my hands on my first Beatles record, when he pulled it from the player and smashed it on his knee — because he did not like the lyrics. I was devastated.
For decades, I carried that fury around. It seeped into everything in my life. I remained stubborn, I couldn’t trust anyone, I had authority issues.
What do you do with all this damage?
We talk a lot about forgiveness. About how good forgiveness feels. How it helps the forgiver. How necessary it is to get rid of the poison in our body.
But here’s the thing: I don’t get it, I never did. I have a problem with what forgiveness means, or how it’s supposed to work. Is my suffering like a cord that I just reach out and cut? That simple?
So, I found my way out of this prison through a different door.
Forgiveness, I realized, is not an act in itself. It is a consequence.
It is a result of going deeper into the minds of people, of seeing with great clarity the other person’s reality-and our own. When that is work done, there is understanding, and forgiveness becomes meaningless.
Let me explain.
Everyone who is proposing forgiveness, admits to one thing:
“Forgiveness” is about protecting ourselves.
It is our decision to let go of resentment, hatred, bitterness, so that we can release ourselves from their venom. The “Good Men Project” has a story on forgiveness: “…Make no mistake: we do not forgive for the other person; we forgive for ourselves!” So, it is a self-centered response. And that may be ok while we grieve, but i am not interested in just relief, or in patting myself in the back for my righteousness in forgiving.
There is also a practical problem:
“Forgiveness” does not provide me any useful insights.
Releasing my resentment, does not tell me why I was hurt. What the other, or I, did wrong. We will both do it again. And, there will be more victims down the line. Is forgiveness like applying a soothing balm on a infected wound? It may help for a minute, but I need to get to the infection. I need to do the surgery.
To me when the betrayal catches me unprepared and breaks me, the question that erupts out of my head is not: “How could he do this to me?”. It is more like: “How could he do this?” To anyone. Period.
It is the behavior that puzzles me intensely. I need to understand.
Later in my life, when that relationship that I bet my sanity on ruptured with a brutal finality, I walked around for years on end, in urgent, excruciating puzzlement trying to figure out why. A had a million theories. I banged my head on that wall until it cracked. And I finally saw.
In hindsight, it was obvious. Just observe:
Everyone who is going around hurting you, is not just hurting you. They are hurting many who trigger them somehow.
They’ve got issues. There is pain screaming to get out, there are overwhelming demons inside, but they don’t want to see them, usually they don’t have the courage to fight them.
So, what to do?
I took a brilliant therapist’s advice and went back into my father’s history. I spent hours talking to my cousins — all twelve of us: What do you remember? What happened back then? Little by little, I put the picture together: I saw my father, one of 6 surviving kids, growing up in a poor mountain village, high over ancient Olympia in Greece, during the world wars. He was a newborn in the first war, and they tell stories of how much hunger there was. When nighttime came, there was a piece of bread and few olives to share, and his father would grab it for himself, and leave the kids hungry. Because, he may have been the village doctor, but inside, he was a selfish, narcissistic man.
My father grew up neglected, and with a mountain of pressure to live up to his own father’s legacy. He went on to fight Mussolini in the cold winter of 1941. He too became a doctor. He married my mother, an MD / PhD, with a painful story of her own. Did any of this education help them? The wounds of trauma defined them both. He acted with me the only way he knew: Unforgiving. Disciplinarian. Scared of making a mistake. And, it turns out all of us kids have the same issues: anger, bitterness, puzzlement. Shocking.
And that just healed me. The fog lifted, and I saw with clarity the movie of our parents’ life, and it was a dark story.
The trauma goes back through the generations, it is no one’s fault.
So now, what is there to forgive? I feel only sadness for his own anguish. I shed light into that dark room of his psyche, and I understand: His anger was not about me.
And so it is with all that hurt me. They are hurting. I can see your pain with a striking clarity, it is so obvious in hindsight. This understanding, the explanation, freed me.
So, on forgiveness, I am firmly with Prof. Luskin, of Stanford’ Forgiveness Project and Berkeley’s Greater Good Center:
“We use forgiveness to not feel the depth of pain, the compassion. That is not the deepest way to respond to harm. The answer is not to not be in pain. It is that I have to work on my nervous system; and after that, work on other people’s nervous systems. That’s what we can do about all this”
Forgiveness is not something we do. It just arises out of explaining.
Instead of striving for the self-righteousness of “forgiveness”, we can seek to explain. Gain clarity of what happens — why people do the things they do. There are always reasons. We need explanation, understanding, to dissolve the pain, and to gain real human insights.
Just “forgiving” is a cheat, it does not equip us with deeper knowledge, it just trains us to keep doing the same thing, and let others do the same, without end, without getting to the root of behavior, without the surgery to clean the wound.
Seek to explain, not to just to “forgive”. It is way more empathetic, meaningful, and useful.
What do you think?