One of the reasons that I cannot share my mother’s quietly Christian beliefs, although I often agree with her about ethics and how one goes about being a good person…is the issue of forgiveness.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject lately. There are some people in my life who need a lot of forgiveness, not only for harm that they’ve done me in the past, but for tendencies that they struggle with in daily life.
Some of these struggles are things that they may be up against until the day they die. They say that alcoholics and drug addicts never stop being alcoholics and drug addicts: they just go into recovery, and try to stay there. I think the same is probably true of Rage-a-holics and Shamers. If you have a tendency to hurt people or invalidate people to fill the emptiness inside of you…that emptiness will always call for someone else’s pain or shame when you feel poopy. And you’re going to have to be alert to that call. And every time you hear it, you’ll have to consciously decide:
No. Not today. No one dies today. No one cries today. That’s not me.
That’s not forgiveness per se, but it’s the first essential component to true forgiveness. It’s the commitment to not making things worse. It’s a commitment to non-violence. Whether your commitment to non-violence is emotional or physical or both does not matter.
Christians call this “Turning the other cheek.” I actually understand the principle behind it, but I think it’s poorly phrased. “Turning the other cheek” implies both masochism–“Thank you sir, may I have another”–and invalidation of your own feelings. Because you have two cheeks, right? And turning the other cheek is much more dignified than yelling “Ow! Cut it the fuck out!” right?
But making the commitment to your own non-violence doesn’t mean that you invite further violence from others. Nor does it mean that you invalidate or refuse to communicate your pain.
It just means that you’ve accepted that it is your responsibility to invalidate violence as a strategy.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And responding in kind, when someone tries to hurt or shame you, is a form of validation. You’re imitating the attacker. All you’re really achieving is a critique of the bully’s choice of target.
Lashing out at others, even in self-defense, is problematic. If someone attacks you, and you crush them in retaliation, you’re still essentially telling that person “Being a violent and/or shaming douchebag is the correct way to behave in general…you’ve just chosen the wrong victim. Allow me to demonstrate the depth of your error in judgement.”
I can go this route at times, both in self-defense and in defense of those weaker than myself. You mess with the wolf, you get the teeth. I’m not a Christian; I’m not a Buddhist either. I’m just a good person who wants to be LEFT in peace.
I cannot be trusted to be completely non-violent if you hurt me or threaten me, or try to hurt or threaten someone that I love or care about. And please be aware that I care about a lot of people.
That being said, my commitment to emotional and physical non-violence in my personal life is pretty solid. If I hurt someone that I care about, I try to respond immediately and appropriately to being told, “That hurts.” I stop the bad thing I’m doing or saying. And I seek meaningful forgiveness for what I’ve done.
If a friend or a loved one hurts me, I try to have the strength of will to do the same. To simply say, “You’re hurting me.” And if they refuse to acknowledge that hurt, and try to invalidate that pain, or shame me somehow into denying that I am in pain and demand that I pretend it doesn’t hurt…I refuse to cooperate.
In worst case scenarios, when they can’t seem to control themselves and their need to hurt or shame me, I break contact. Because there’s nothing else I can do. There is no other way to truly invalidate the pain that others cause you. And sometimes, the commitment to not make things worse is already challenge enough.
Moving beyond the crisis, though, and clinging to your commitment to simply not return fire and make the landscape even more bloody or disgraceful…there is the matter of forgiveness.
How do you seek meaningful forgiveness from another human being?
First…you show remorse.
And note that I use the words “Show remorse” rather than “Apologize”. The modern age has coined the term fauxpology for a reason. It’s easy to string together a few facile, empty words and assume that you get to feel better about yourself afterward. But “I’m sorry” is an empty phrase if it is not accompanied by some evidence that you empathize. That you understand why and how you were in the wrong. That you care how badly you made the other person feel. And that you feel the appropriate level of guilt, which is Nature’s way of telling you that you’re a douchebag.
Second…you commit to change.
If you have hurt or shamed another human being, and you feel genuine remorse over what you’ve done, you need to commit to changing your behavior. Not just to obtain the forgiveness of the other person, and to repair the relationship. No, you commit to changing your behavior for your own sake. Because it is the right thing to do. Because you do not want to be That Guy, or That Gal.
This step is critical to forgiveness for one simple reason: there’s no point seeking forgiveness for a sin or a crime that you will endlessly repeat. If you do not commit to change, to a major shift in identity and whatever shift in values, environment or habits is necessary to SUPPORT that shift in identity, you will always be unsafe.
One of the things I dislike most about the Christian take on forgiveness is that far too often, the safety of the victim is completely discounted. “Turning the other cheek”, “hating the sin and not the sinner”, are all very well and good: it’s good to be non-violent and it’s good to be non-shaming. But those little proverbs do nothing to make anyone safe. And emotional and physical safety is the most basic of human rights.
Third, you understand that meaningful forgiveness has a price.
This is the real kicker, the last issue upon which Christianity and I have a complete parting of ways. At the end of the day, Christians have a fetish for forgiveness; they know from experience that the healing, feel-good energy of forgiveness is a kind of emotional high, and that it can feel great for all involved to let go of pain.
I don’t blame them. Pain is a heavy weight to carry. Blame is not fun. Dropping our grievances against others is a huge relief. They call them grievances because they grieve US, not necessarily because they bother the other person.
And it’s lovely to be free again, having forgiven someone or having been forgiven yourself. We all want that freedom, that ability to lift our heads and open our hearts and feel clean.
And that’s great…so long as we ARE clean.
But are we?
For me, the price of forgiveness of others is usually pretty low. Especially for small things. All I really need is some proof of empathy, normally. If you say you’re sorry and really seem to mean it, and your remorse is proportional to whatever harm you’ve done, we’re golden.
For more serious party fouls and fuck-ups, I need to see a commitment to some change before I forgive. It’s not about judging or shaming others–it’s just about common sense. I need some assurance of my safety, some promise that the behavior won’t be repeated.
If you came to my house and drank all the booze in my liquor cabinet and threw up in my bed, I might need to know you had quit drinking before you were welcome at my house again. That kind of thing. Because booze is expensive. And vomit is gross.
But for the really big stuff…major violations of trust, genuine irreparable harms done to me and/or those I care about, pain inflicted with intent, and the wounds you cause from true malice…
There we enter into the land not just of forgiveness, but of redemption. And there’s no way to make that kind of forgiveness, of yourself or others, come cheap.
Redemption is hard. Redemption is not about mouthing apologies or correcting a single behavioral quirk. Redemption is not about the relationship with your victim–sometimes there isn’t one. Sometimes you’re seeking the forgiveness of a person who didn’t survive.
Redemption is about transformation. It’s hard work. And it’s certainly not something that your victims can just give to you wrapped in a bow or a hug. Whether our apologies and changes in behavior make others feel safe or not, a person who needs redemption knows when it has come.
You’re redeemed on the day that the demons that drive you to harm others are vanquished. When you can think “No. Not today. No one dies today. No one cries today. That’s not me…”
…and know it’s true.