In the past few years, as I have worked more and more with couples in therapy, I have become interested in the notion of forgiveness. How exactly does someone truly release the hurt caused by another and begin to trust again?
In all honesty, the way I had been exposed to forgiveness turned me off. It made me feel like it was an obligation of the wounded person, a requirement of high moral fiber, a self-righteous act that still left an imbalance in the relationship. Or it became a social ritual, devoid of meaning, the pressure of adults, “He said he was sorry; Now you say you forgive him.” And so for a lot of years, I maintained that forgiveness, while nice, was not a necessity. I left forgiveness alone. Self-care, self-reliance, self-healing, and the freedom these provided felt more relevant. And certainly more accessible.
But when you love someone who has hurt you, self-reliance is not enough. You want to be able to love and trust again.
In the intimate space of my office, I have sat with Joan and Bill as he asked, “How can I get past your betrayal? I want to but I cannot seem to find a way. The way you have hurt me is always there between us now.” I have witnessed Sharon go step by step with Heather through anger, doubt, grief, and acceptance, still wondering if that is enough for the elusive forgiveness she so wants. Sometimes I have felt at a loss right along with them. How do we repair after someone we care about consciously or unconsciously wounds us? How do we put down the past and see each other with hope again?
And so my couple’s therapy clients began to show me the need for a path to forgiveness, not as an act of virtue or moral code, but as a way to stay in connection with the person who matters most to you. Forgiveness as an act of shared humanity.
And today, as I cringe from the news and feel anger and disgust, aghast at my fellow humans, I realize I need to get very curious about forgiveness. I need it now. We need it now. If I am going to be able to stay loving towards my family, my community, my country, my world, I need to figure out what forgiveness requires. I need to have a map to feeling it but also to how to ask for it and possibly deserve it. Because I am part of this flawed humanity and I play my part, and so I need forgiveness. I need it to stay in connection.
I have been thinking back to my time in Uganda teaching and consulting about healthy sexuality, and the conversations I had there. One night I listened to stories of the fear of being disappeared, being tortured or jailed, during the rule of Idi Amin. I heard about how common it was to know that your neighbor informed on your family, those words setting in motion the death of a family member. It was known who informed but never spoken of after. I had so little understanding of what this must be like, and so I asked, “How do you all move forward together now? How do you forgive your neighbors? How do you go on living next door to them, buying from them at the market, celebrating each new year with them?” The nun I was speaking with replied, “You believe that everyone was doing what they had to do to survive. You understand that you cannot know what you would have done in their position. You forgive because we all need to keep living together now.”
And I still wonder, but how? It seems that before I can grasp forgiveness, I must continue to build my compassion. I know what it feels like when my anger takes over, when I begin to believe that possibly half my country are hateful, crazy, selfish, and unredeemable. It feels like I will never feel proud of or trust my interrelatedness again.
But I am bound to the Other, related. Self-reliance is not an option. And so, I must keep reminding myself that we all have unknown capacities, frighteningly, for harm or hate, but also for love and kindness. Unknown capacities waiting to be brought out. If I can wonder rather than judge, about what it might be like in the house next door to mine, the neighborhood across town from mine, in the body and heart sitting right next to mine, maybe I can find more openness and more insight into what it means to live together now.
What I have learned about forgiveness so far is that – contrary to the one-sided model I learned from religious teaching – it is not something one person does on their own and confers upon another. We cannot jump into it, we cannot fake it or go through the motions, we cannot be pressured or shamed into it. Instead, I have found a philosophy of forgiveness that is a shared journey, requiring a complex willingness to be a connected flawed humanity. Whether we seek it at home in our private, most intimate relationships or in our communities for the various roles we each have played in the damage and hurt we face now, it will require us to stay open to one another. Perhaps in ways we never have before.