It’s that time again. The seasons are changing. Family holidays lurk on the calendar like, well lurking things. But on the upside, today is the fifth Dysfunctional Families Day. I’m awed and humbled at what these conversations and this community have done in that time.
In addition to continuing our current conversations (which I do read and witness, even when I haven’t the wherewithal to post), I wanted to open up a topic we’ve dealt with in the threads over time, but never really tackled head-on: forgiveness.
So often, the social expectation is that someone who suffers harm will forgive the perpetrator. One is supposed to work toward forgiveness, choose to forgive, be forgiving. If the sufferer doesn’t forgive fast enough, this lack can become a stick to beat them with. Holding grudges. Unforgiving. Hard. Bitter. Angry, with a subtext of unjustifiably. Indeed, sometimes the topic becomes a way to blame the sufferer and make the perpetrator the victim: why haven’t you forgiven them? How can you do that to them?
Forgiveness can be prescribed like a medicine. If you forgive, you’ll be able to heal. Then a failure to heal becomes the fault of a sufferer who is “refusing to forgive”. (That feels like a Catch:22 to me, because pressuring someone to forgive too quickly shuts down the necessary process of figuring out what actually happened.)
As a society, we have a pretty muddy view of how to actually forgive someone. Some people expect the emotional transformation of forgiveness to just happen, perhaps after the sufferer says, “I forgive you” or lets some time pass. Others have a vending-machine model, where the perpetrator puts their apology in and forgiveness pops out.*‡ Some people expect that forgiveness comes hand in hand with forgetfulness, and suggest that the sufferer should, rather than learning from their experiences, pretend that they did not happen.
Those models really don’t match my reality.
From what I have seen and experienced, forgiveness is a product and symptom of the healing process. It’s one (but, note, not the only) possible outcome of moving beyond the hurt: a way to close the accounts**. It may involve trusting or interacting with the person again, or it may be a separate peace. In either case, it’s a recognition that the incident is now (primarily) in the past, notwithstanding any ongoing repercussions.
Given that, it seems to me that asking whether someone has forgiven yet is like asking them if their bleeding wound has scabbed over yet. Telling them to forgive is as effective as urging them to grow a scab.†
What’s the consensus? Is my mental model of these things useful? Are there better analogies? Do people have other experiences and models, whether they’re compatible with what I’ve written or not?
ETA: For additional perspectives on the topic, pease do read the comment thread. That’s always implicit, but I think I’d like to make it explicit here. Really, do, especially if none of the above works for you.
* Please note that I am not denigrating apologies. They matter a lot. But they’re part of the process of apportioning blame justly, which, while often a step toward healing, is not a guarantee of forgiveness
‡ Also, a taxonomy of related communications, in my vocabulary: an apology is an acknowledgment of blame by the perpetrator to the sufferer and an expression of sorrow for it. An explanation is a setting-out of the reasons behind an action, and may or may not include an apportionment of blame. An excuse is a setting-out of the reasons that the perpetrator is not to blame. Feel free to disagree, correct, or compare your own taxonomies.
** Christianity urges its followers to forgive as we wish to be forgiven. I take that to be a command to strive to do those things that will allow me to heal to the point where forgiveness happens. Alas, it’s still neither quick nor easy. † Mind you, it is perfectly possible to keep picking at an injury, and it’s perfectly possible to choose to hold onto hurts. People vary widely. But the accusation of refusing to heal from emotional damage is, in my experience, far more common than an actual choice to do so.
This is part of the sequence of Dysfunctional Families discussions. We have a few special rules, specific to the needs and nature of the conversations we have here.
Previous posts (note that comments are closed on them to keep the conversation in one place):