Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Whence Comes Forgiveness?

Ordinarily, when I am writing this blog, I tend to write about something about which I have been pondering and on which I have found some level of resolution.  This, I think, will not be like that.  It is a question I am still exploring, but maybe I will find some clarity discussing it.  I hope you will bear with me on this.

"Forgiveness" is a topic that comes up frequently in therapy, particularly with clients who have been through some level of trauma.  They seem to have a lot of pressure to forgive without having a clear  understanding of what that means or what it would look like.  Furthermore, many people have grown up with the notion of  "forgive and forget," and the latter is nearly impossible for trauma survivors.  Frankly, I think forgiveness is a good thing but forgetting is unwise.

So, I guess if we are going to discuss the idea of forgiveness, we need a workable definition.  This can be a bit squirrely for some people, particularly those with certain faith backgrounds.  As a therapist, I try not to pull from a religious definition, not because I don't have faith, but because I feel it is not my place to tell others what to believe.  I am happy to discuss your faith with you and how that affects your concept of forgiveness, but I am not likely to start from that space in that conversation.

My understanding is that the concept of forgiveness, in itself, arose from monetary transactions. The example I give to my clients is this:

Suppose I asked you for $200. (I wouldn't, by the way.  I do have some ethics. But go with me on this.) So, I ask you for the money, and you give it to me.  I promise I will give it back when I see you next week. Next week comes, and I don't pay you back.  I apologize, give an excuse, and say I will pay you the next week. Say this continues for many weeks or months.  This may escalate in a number of ways, but let's say I never pay you back, despite my promises and protestations to the contrary.  Forgiveness in that sense would mean writing off the debt. You would be saying that you no longer have any belief that I am going to pay you and you are not going to put any more energy into trying to get that money back.  The money is gone, and it's not coming back.

What are the implications of this? Well, the first part is that you have accepted that the money is not coming back.  You feel you have done everything you can or are willing to do to get financial remuneration from me.  You are done with filing legal charges, hiring private detectives, calling out a hit squad (just kidding, I hope), whatever.  You are done with that interaction.

Second, you probably won't lend me money again. (I don't blame you.)  This is where the "forgetting" concept is unwise. If you know I'm a bad credit risk, you're less likely to give me that chance again. If forgiving and forgetting were synonymous, a lot more people would have a lot less money. Not expecting me to pay you back does not mean that you have to lend me money again. You are welcome and encouraged to learn from the experience.

Finally, not expecting the money to come back does not mean that you don't still have problems related to what happened. Maybe you can't pay your light bill or your rent or buy your groceries because you gave that money to me. Maybe your own credit is affected. There can certainly still be repercussions.  Forgiveness, then, does not necessarily mean that things don't hurt anymore, but it does mean you have stopped looking for things to be different or to gain back what you have lost. You are able to move past wanting things to be different and into healing.

The question for me is how we get to the point of forgiveness and how we know we are there.  A client of mine was mentioning that the rational part of her had decided to forgive someone.  When she said that, I was taken aback.  I had never considered forgiveness to be a rational decision.  As I discussed it with her, I found I wasn't sure where that decision came from. Is it rational? Spiritual? Emotional?  I think I have always just thought we had a sense of knowing that we were at that point. I don't know exactly how we get there.  It seems more than an intellectual decision. That seems too simplistic to me, yet I don't have a better answer.

What I do know is that we cannot forgive, not sincerely, if we are not ready.  If we are not done with trying to get things to change, to get our remuneration or revenge, or believing that things "should"
be different, trying to force ourselves to forgive is an exercise in frustration and guilt.  We cannot be done until we are done. We have to do the work before we can forgive.  Needing to do the work is not a sign of weakness.  We cannot be there until we get there. Remember, readiness is different than willingness or potential.

Have you been able to forgive someone? What was that decision like?  How did you know you were ready?  I'm curious to explore more on the subject.  I believe that forgiveness happens, and I know some of the steps toward getting there, but I am curious about that moment when we know we are done.  What do you believe? I would love to continue this conversation with you.  If you have not been able to forgive yet, I hope you will give yourself some grace.  If you need help with that, I hope you will find me.  I would like to walk this road with you for awhile.  Perhaps we can learn together.

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