The Other F Word – Forgiveness
10 September 2018 at 7:30 am
Psychologist Adam Blanch offers advice on what it really means to forgive someone.
“Dear Adam, I read your article on trauma and it made sense. I’ve realised that I was far more resourceful and resilient than I thought, and this has helped me move past a lot of pain and symptoms. However, I can’t get past wanting to make the person who abused me pay for it. I don’t see why they should get away with this while I continue to suffer from what they did. People tell me I need to forgive, but I don’t know how, and I don’t think I really want to.” – Angry (some details removed for privacy).
Hello Angry, and I’m deeply sorry for what happened to you, which I have omitted from the question above, but I’m sure people will get the feel of it. I’m glad the article helped, and I completely get it. It’s hard to get past the desire for some kind of accountability. When people harm us we naturally want them to own it, apologise and do everything in their power to repair the damage they have done. If they won’t, we usually want to punish them and make them feel the pain that we feel because of their actions.
I really wish that people would stop telling other people to forgive. Usually it’s because they don’t want to hear it anymore and they feel powerless to help, so they trot out this cliché, and the person they are telling it to winds up feeling guilty for their real feelings or feeling dismissed and unheard, even shamed. Telling someone to forgive in this way can rewound the victim.
It’s not that forgiveness isn’t a good option, it really is, it’s just that it is so badly misunderstood. People often think that forgiveness means saying that it was okay for someone to do something, that they are letting them off the hook. Typically, the human brain will not accept this, because it’s a lie. Often when people say they have forgiven someone they are lying to themselves. What they have really done is compartmentalise their vulnerable feelings behind contempt and hatred for the other person, disguised as being a “bigger person”.
This isn’t really forgiveness. If we feel contempt or pity towards someone who has hurt us, we have not forgiven them. If we tell ourselves that we are better than them, we have not forgiven them. Fake forgiveness is just hate dressed in righteousness. There is only one feeling we have towards someone when we have forgiven them – love, or at least compassion.
There is no way that what happened to you is okay. It should never have happened, but it did. That is life in the human condition – a constant series of trespasses against each other. Some people do small trespasses, some people do large ones, the degree to which we trespass generally has little to do with our character (though we like to think it does) and everything to do with our privilege. This is because all trespass, all violation, starts with fear. The more privileged we are, the less we have to fear (until you get really wealthy and the threat level goes up again).
Privileged people – and there are many types of privilege – are given lives that are mostly safe and secure, surrounded by people who are mostly psychologically healthy. Obviously this is not always the case, but it is the reality that the lower we are in terms of socio-economic status, education and resources the more under threat we are and the more likely we are to commit major trespasses. A human being under stress becomes aggressive, which reduces empathy, which creates a lack of inhibition and an attitude of carelessness.
It is similar with psychological stress. Psychological stresses such as trauma, repression and other mental health issues put our system into suffering, no different from a physical threat. People who do the sort of abuse you experienced are suffering from one of the worst types of psychological stress imaginable. I won’t go into the details of it, but I can promise you they are suffering in ways that would appal you if you experienced it. Unfortunately they pass that suffering onto others, just like we do, but bigger.
Forgiving small trespasses is easy, because we do them too and we can relate to it. We forgive others as we hope they will forgive us. Forgiving big trespasses is harder, because we convince ourselves that we could never do something like that, so we deny ourselves the ability to have compassion and to understand what led them to these actions. This enables us to see them as evil, though we would never wish people to pass this judgment on us for our trespasses.
So real forgiveness has nothing to do with what the person has done, big or small. It does not discriminate between a large trespass and a small one, because it is able to recognise that if we were suffering as they are suffering, we too would be capable of that. We can understand that just like us, they dealt with their suffering in a way that hurt others, and just like us, they didn’t have a better way to do it.
We don’t forgive the action, we forgive the person. We still hate the sin, but we forgive the sinner, because we can recognise our own humanity in them. Our own unconsciousness. Our own capacity for self-deception. Our own potential for violence. Our own ability to rationalise and justify things that we would never want done to us.
Real forgiveness takes humility and the willingness to feel our vulnerability and our hurt without trying to deny, repress or have power over it. When we make that choice, we can heal ourselves with compassion, and from that flows a natural compassion for the person who was not able to make that choice, who tried to have power over their pain through having power over us. When we make that choice we have decided not to follow their example, by trying to have the power to cause them pain in return, but we aren’t doing it from a position of hate.
The movie Mary Magdalene tells the Jesus story from the point of view of Mary. According to the movie, she was the only one who really got what he was teaching. In the movie there is a beautiful moment when he is teaching forgiveness to a woman who is rightfully angry about the abuse and killing of her friend. He asked her if the hatred she was holding in her heart had lessened over the months since it was done. Of course, it hadn’t. It had grown and was consuming all the joy in her life.
We don’t forgive others for their sake, but for our own. We forgive others because we can no longer stand to carry the hatred and anger that is robbing us of our life. We forgive others because we do not want what they did to control the rest of our lives. We forgive others to recover our own humanity and our own joy.
How? We forgive others by healing ourselves until we no longer believe that what was done to us can define us or limit us. If we ever want to be happy again, we have no choice but to forgive. The alternative is to let their unhealed pain poison our entire future.
If you want to be free of the abuse you received, you will need to compassionately under-stand (as opposed to stand over) the pain that your abuser was experiencing and heal it in yourself. Bring light to the darkness by bringing the light back to your darkness.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a Melbourne-based psychologist, who supports clients around Australia. He provides support for individuals and group trainings for organisations through Good-Psychology, and a specific service for men’s health and wellbeing through Mentor Psychology. He is also a member of The Xfactor Collective community.
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.