When Folks Say “You Must Forgive”
The “Helping” That Hurts.
For something that’s supposed to do so much good, Forgiveness sure can be an uncomfortable topic for survivors. I believe too often, survivors are told “you must fully forgive” to heal. When well-meaning folks have told me that, I feel a little bit re-injured, because the inference is that I have not done all I can do, or I haven’t done it right, or fast enough, therefore I am at fault! The last thing a survivor needs to hear, even if it is indirectly, is that they are at fault!
I believe, too often, folks who just want us to “stop belly-aching”, and tell us to forgive, are truly uncomfortable with our feelings, the very feelings we are trying to share about the abuse. To truly empathize would be to bring those same feelings up in themselves, and they are invested in keeping those feelings at arms length, at all cost!
Sometimes brothers or sisters want the “fairy tale” ending. In their story, everyone lives happily ever after, if only the victim (their brother or sister) “forgives” the parent for their crimes. In fact, this sibling might avoid the use of words like crimes or abuser when cajoling their brother or sister to “patch” their relationship with the abuser. In their story, everyone loves each other and finally they have the family they always wanted.
I should tell you, that I love my sisters. They are good, kind people, fellow survivors, and each at different places in their journeys. Recently, one of my sisters asked me “to take the high road” and “fully forgive” my mother for her abusive behavior when I was a child. This abuse included threatening me with a butcher knife, tying me to a chair, beating me with her fists, telling me she would kill me if she could get away with it, and constantly telling me that there was something wrong with me, that I was ungrateful, unloving and unlovable. This abuse happened repeatedly, and consistently from the time I was four or five, and continued into my teens. What my sister wanted me to do was go to my mother, fully letting her off the hook for everything she has ever done, and still is doing, and to tell this woman who was never there for me in any substantial consistent emotional way, that I am sorry for not being there for her since my dad died. I don’t have any feelings left for this woman. I have cried gallons of tears for all the hurt and loss, and I have raged on paper, at punching bags and pillows, and with the courageous people who have been there for me during the years of healing it has taken me to get rid of the poison that this woman put in me with her violence and hatred. I have no feelings good or bad for her anymore, and yet I am to approach her as a sacrificial lamb so that she doesn’t feel abandoned, and so that she doesn’t feel guilty for crimes she committed against children that would have put her in jail even 40 or 50 years ago when they occurred!
I felt angry when my sister asked me
to do that, and I feel angrier now as the full impact of it sinks in.
I ask myself would Jesus let her off the hook like that? My answer is
yes, BUT ONLY IF SHE REPENTED. She would have to feel guilty first,
her heart would have to go out to those she hurt, and she would have
to ask for forgiveness. True and absolute forgiveness only happens through
responsibility and repentance. Victims struggle in their own way, at
their own speed, and on their own path to find what I call forgiveness.
That forgiveness is a result, or a destination that they arrive at,
after fully venting, and sharing their feelings of outrage, loss, sadness,
and terror with empathetic witnesses, seeing in the eyes of those witnesses,
the recognition of the severity of their injuries, and meeting other
needs that they might have around those injuries. This is the lonely
journey faced by most survivors of child abuse, when their perpetrators
are unwilling to face what they have done, or to take responsibility,
and to fully apologize with feeling to the survivor for their behavior.
The tears shed by a perpetrator who fully acknowledges the injuries
they have caused in others might be tears that don’t have to be
shed by the victim of those injuries! Instead, in most cases, all the
work of forgiveness is left to the victim, and I would assert that it
is fully up to them how much, and of what type of forgiveness to dispense.
The rest, we leave to God.