Forgiveness Is Not Absolution
It is a form of self-acceptance
I took forgiveness for granted until someone truly, fundamentally, wronged me. I judged that only people who weren’t willing to put in the work would hold onto resentment over choosing to embrace forgiveness. I made up the story that those who clung to their wounds were helpless and hopeless, not worth the time taken to try and change their minds. This was a story given to me by my father, who spent most of his life building walls made of assumptions and harsh judgements — which he staunchly defended with isolation, condescension, and elitism.
About two years before he passed, I hand wrote him a letter of forgiveness that I read aloud to him at the beach. We were running out of time, and I was afraid that he would leave me before we were able to make peace. Until then, I was relying on him to learn from his mistakes and come to me, asking for understanding, my empathy. What I realized, finally, was that I no longer needed his approval, nor wanted to hold his own small view of the world against him. I was able to forgive him only once I realized that my own self-acceptance was completely separate from his acceptance of me.
I have heard, repeatedly, that withholding forgiveness does not hurt the person who needs forgiving. Instead, it festers and creates a deeper, more gaping wound in the individual who believes they were wronged. Still, I find myself at another crossroads. I feel stuck in the idea that to forgive is to excuse the behavior or absolve the wrongdoing — negating or diminishing the impact of the original transgression. This idea is religious in origin — as many faiths conflate forgiveness with releasing someone of guilt or responsibility for their sins. In my experience, this association degrades the very foundation of what it means to forgive — to release oneself of resentment, judgements, and/or anger towards another or, even, oneself. It also gives certain humans the self-righteous power to shame others into asking for forgiveness in other to believe they are worthy of love and belonging.
At its core, forgiveness is not, in fact, about the other person. It’s about us, and what we believe we need in order to move through a reckoning of the self. No one has the power to deliver us from our past mistakes. Only we can forgive ourselves by coming to terms with what we’re holding onto.
“‘In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. If you make a choice to forgive, you have to face the pain. You simply have to hurt…’ The death or ending that forgiveness necessitates comes in many shapes and forms. We may need to bury our expectations or dreams. We may need to relinquish the power that comes with ‘being right’ or put to rest the idea that we can do what’s in our hearts and still retain the support or approval of others…So, forgiveness is not forgetting or walking away from accountability or condoning a hurtful act; it’s the process of taking back and healing our lives so we can truly live.” — Brené Brown, Rising Strong.
When I was twenty-six, I was sexually assaulted in a foreign country while traveling with my mother. I can’t envision a future where I forgive my attacker, and I’m OK with that. My mother is who I am capable of forgiving, and whom I need to come to terms with doing so. You see, I wanted her to be furious. I wanted her to march me to the police station and take me to the hospital, demanding that evidence be catalogued. I wanted her to hold me and rock me and whisper over and over again that it wasn’t my fault, that there was nothing wrong with me, that I didn’t ask for it, that I didn’t deserve it, that it was something that was done to me, not something I did, and that there was nothing I could’ve done to prevent it.
Needless to say, that was not what happened, and I was left feeling angry. As anger is a secondary emotion, underneath that anger was a whole heck of a lot of hurt, betrayal and distrust. What I’m slowly beginning to realize is that in order for me to forgive her, some belief or former truth about our relationship has to end. I, for one, need to come to a place where I believe all of the things I wish she had told me for myself. I must believe I was not responsible for my assault before I can accept that she isn’t responsible for absolving me of it. I have to be able to see her reaction, and understand that anger may not be within her capabilities. I must accept that she did the best she could in that moment, given all the layers of people, events, and circumstances that made her who she is.
In the past two years, we’ve done a great deal of hurting and rumbling together through this shared trauma. We’re both still learning how to set and maintain boundaries with each other, and take care of our respective selves without guilting, judging, or setting ultimatums. We’re working through our disillusionment one day at a time. For me, this means taking my mom off the pedestal I had previously placed her on, and realizing that she is only human.A major part of this is accepting that she will not always be able to show up for me in the way I want her to. For her, it means understanding the impact of her upbringing, and how it may influence her current behavior.
All this said, I’m still not there yet, and that’s OK.
My forgiveness does not offer permission to repeat harmful patterns, or excuse past behavior. What it does require, above all else, is empathy, and a willingness to move forward. I victimize myself by choosing not to forgive, and cut myself off from empathy and compassion. By staying in resentment, I further entrench myself in the idea that I need outside validation to rationalize what happened to me. Truly, my anger is hurting me more than it’s forcing her to change — for instilling shame has never been an effective motivator.
Choosing forgiveness means that I trust I can take care of myself. That I accept that bad things will happen to me that are completely out of my control and have no bearing on whether or not I deserve them. That people will always act within their own capabilities and that their behavior will always fall within a larger context. That forgiving is not admitting defeat, or taking a loss, or dismissing my experience. It truly is a gift. It is an opportunity to move through the hurt and into a new, perhaps wary, normal.
I have not forgotten. I don’t know if I ever could. This will change our relationship. Hopefully, for the better. Trust needs to be rebuilt over time, by promises matching up with followthrough more often than not. I will have new expectations, different boundaries, and clearer consequences. I will stand on my own side more than I will stand on yours. I will accept things as they are. I will be able to care for you without needing to play caretaker of your feelings. Because when I forgive you, I will finally be ready to stand in my own sovereignty, and know that everything will be alright, even when there’s no one to blame.