When To Forgive. And When Not To
You can choose to forgive others for hurting you, but how do you forgive yourself for being hurt?
A friend called me this morning to tell me that he had finally ended a bad relationship. Though it was brief, the relationship might have even been called abusive. I could relate. I have also made terrifying decisions in dating, dated people who were narcissistic, violent, dangerous. I’ve also been the person who was narcissistic, violent and dangerous.
Years have passed and in some sense, I have forgiven the people who have harmed me. Not “forgiven” in the sense of letting them back into my life, nor forgiven in the sense of forgetting that they are not to be trusted, that they are not safe. To do that would be to erase the past and the past cannot be changed. The record can never be wiped clean. It can only be added to.
When I say “forgiven” I mean that I’ve finished with carrying around suffering based on what they did to me. I now understand it, not as something done to me, but as a part of who they were, and how the world made them. I now recognize their harm and violence toward me as an expression of their own suffering, their own pain. That is all the forgiveness I can have. Fortunately it is all I need to move on with my life in wholeness.
I have not worried about forgiving myself for my harms toward others, because that is not my job. I can no more forgive myself for the harm I’ve done to another person than I can heal a wound on another person’s body. That forgiveness is not mine to give. Instead the pain is mine to carry, every day for the rest of my life, just as I have made them carry it . It is mine to labor under, to live in response to. It is mine to recall in the morning when I awake, in the evening when I sleep. It is mine to remember when I am entering into new relationships, when I am connecting with new loves, when I am choosing where and when to impose or not impose my will. My past harms are not to be forgiven, they are, instead, to be trusted, to be seen, used as guide posts keeping me on the path toward amendment, integrity. I can never undo what I’ve done, but I can move through the world in a way that is entirely about living in debt and paying that debt in every moment.
So for both of these things, forgiveness is not an issue. In one area forgiveness is done, and in another it is unimportant.
Where I struggle today is in the forgiveness of myself for putting myself into the position to be hurt by others. I struggle to forgive myself for my own pain and the decisions I made to cause it. I should have known better, I tell myself in the dark hours of the morning when sleep evades me. I need to do better. Why did I ignore the red flags? Why didn’t I leave as soon as I had doubts? Anyone who has been on the receiving end of abuse knows these questions intimately. They keep us up at night, cause us to fear being close to others, cause us to doubt ourselves. There is an obvious irony in the fact that I can be more understanding of people who have abused me than I can be of myself.
When I was very young, an older mentor reflecting on her life once said to me the following sentence: “Eh. You can only do what makes sense at the time.” I was a 19-year-old theatre student, at the time, assisting this woman — married, mother to two grown children — as we lumbered along 11th street carrying too many materials, props, costumes and set pieces from one rehearsal space to another. The sentence was so short and simple that it almost went in one ear and out the other. But it didn’t quite make it out. It lodged in my head, settled somewhere like a splinter, my brain picking at it for decades. “Eh. You can only do what makes sense at the time” Even that opening sound, “Eh,” stuck with me — a dismissal of the idea that there was anything grand about this truth. It was what it was. That’s all it was.
That night I told my then partner who would later become my wife and co-parent, and still later my ex-wife and friend about it “Fascinating…” she said. For days we puzzled over its meaning in our tiny apartment above a brothel, eating the one thing we knew how to make, roast chicken and salad. We didn’t understand it at the time. Surely you can do better than that? Surely there is a right way to do things, and that “right way” is, in fact, the good way?
Decades have passed, I now know my mentor spoke a simple and unavoidable truth. You don’t have the answers until you have the answers. You don’t get to avoid mistakes, pain, regrets. You only get to do what makes sense at the time given the information you have. Sometimes it works out beautifully, other times it brings you to a pain that you fear will kill you. But there is no perfect. There is no way out. There is not enough growth, meditation, self-improvement, wisdom, or meaningful quotes in the world to keep you from experiencing pain, from making choices that you later wish you had made differently. To paraphrase Alexander Pope, to make mistakes is, indeed, human. To forgive oneself for these mistakes, is to allow some space for the divine.
Sometimes now, I take a moment with past me. I tell him that I understand that he was doing the best he was able to do at the time. He was trying to make sense of a situation that was difficult and confusing. I forgive him, I love him. And then I let it go. This is important. Because there are things right now, right here, that need him to show up completely.