My friend, Kim V., and I have had several serious conversation about forgiveness. Both of us grew up in difficult family circumstances going through our teenage years with absentee parents. Oh, our parents were around, they just weren’t involved in parenting us or our siblings, so we spent much of our time filling that role.
While other teenage girls were worrying about what to wear, how to apply makeup or do their hair, and what boy to flirt with, we were worrying about what to make for dinner, how the bills were going to get paid, and whether or not our parents were going to be around when we got home and, if so, what condition they were going to be in.
Kim likes to quote Oprah’s definition of forgiveness which is:
Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different.
I had to think about that one for a long time, and after watching one of Oprah’s shows where she shared this definition with a victim of abuse, I appreciated its full meaning.
Where Kim and I have had some of our most emotional discussions has not really revolved around the forgiveness part so much. We agree, I think, that in order to move on from whatever it is that happened, you must be able to go through some measure of forgiveness; otherwise, you are stuck, emotionally.
Forgiveness . . . then what?
On Sunday, 9/11/2011, my dear sweet hubby and I went to church where the pastor, predictably, talked about the tragic events that occurred 10 years prior and discussed the issue of forgiveness. He also talked about what happens after forgiveness. Basically, he said the following:
What follows from forgiveness? The natural result of forgiveness is reconciliation and a resumption of relations. In many cases, we know this can’t happen.
He went on to talk about the families and survivors of Nazi concentration camps, of genocide, and of 9/11. To move on, these people must be able to forgive; however, you wouldn’t expect for them to reconcile with or resume relations with those who perpetrated abuse and murder.
This sermon helped to gel the sentiments in my mind over forgiveness and what happens afterward. You see, I always thought that you hadn’t really forgiven someone unless you took the last step of reconciliation and resumed relations.
In the book, Shattered Silence, by Melissa G. Moore, she talks about how she struggled with having a relationship with her father, who was a serial killer. She felt compelled to try and have one even though her instincts from the time she was a young child told her that it wasn’t right. Somehow society led her to believe that it was necessary to do this not only because he was her parent (and you’re supposed to love them no matter what, right?) and because it was an expected part to completing the cycle of forgiveness (at least in her mind).
When she attended one of Dr. Phil’s Get Real Retreats and shared her story, the attendees and Dr. Phil were stunned (they talk about it here). You see, she attended to try and find a way to reconcile her instincts which were telling her to stay away from him. It took Dr. Phil less than a minute to let her know that #1 she should trust her instincts and #2 that his man was pure evil and he lost the right to have a relationship with her and her family. He gave her permission to trust her instincts and validation that, while it’s important to forgive to move on, you are not required to resume relationships to complete the forgiveness cycle.
In some ways, I think resuming a relationship like this gives the perpetrator validation that his or her acts were either okay or at least not so bad. It also gives the victim the idea that they were somehow responsible for what happened to them. A relationship at all costs somehow makes the victim own some of what happened. You see, in order for the cycle, the “then what” of reconciling a relationship to be truly complete, the perpetrator has to own what happened. And sometimes that will never happen.
Understanding that I can now allow myself to move forward knowing that, in some cases, forgiveness is as good as it gets. The “then what” is going to be letting go of the relationship.
I am not saying that the goal shouldn’t be to reconcile and resume relations, I’m just saying that it’s not always possible.
For my daughter, who was abused and abandoned by her birth parents, step mother, and others; I admire her ability to forgive them, and I forgive them, too. But, we accept that what happened to her was evil, and they will never acknowledge or own what happened so it’s time to let go of that hope.
For me, who has been continually and personally attacked by one of my sisters over a period of 20+ years, I forgive her, but I will no longer set myself or my family up to further hurt by trying to have a relationship that is one-sided. Thank you to two of my sisters who supported me and gave me the permission to take this step. I’m a slow learner sometimes.
Forgiveness . . . then what? Reconciling relationships or letting go of toxic ones. Completing the cycle is freeing.