Monday, June 9, 2014

Forgiveness Too

I've been reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu's, The Book of Forgiving (2014).  It's an overview and a "handbook," if you will, to help readers comprehend and embrace the act of forgiveness.

On the one hand, I think it's quite interesting, and it's not at all surprising to me that it's garnered all kinds of acclaim and support from people like Oprah and various other celebrities.  There's a "30-Day Forgiveness Challenge" that you can sign up for: you'll receive inspirational email messages each day and additional guidance working through the various exercises listed at the end of each chapter of The Book of Forgiving.

Okay, so now you probably understand why I'm also rather ambivalent about this book.  I don't disagree that if people are "stuck" in a cycle of hatred and retaliation and anger, they're going to need help thinking about and moving through that to get to a more positive way of engaging with others and with the world around them.

That said, I'm at the point at which I would give my eye-teeth to encounter a book about forgiveness that doesn't reference the example of Christ as one we should all aspire to.

I'm sorry, no.  I just can't.  I'm HUMAN.  Anger is a human emotion.  It isn't necessarily a bad thing, and personally, I think that any book about forgiveness that defaults to a religious doctrine isn't going to reach the (many) atheists among us.

In my own case, I remember being extremely hurt by various things that my mom said and did during and after my dad's death.  It was a really painful time for everyone, but in the same vein, my mom behaved towards me in ways that were simply not kind.

It was overwhelmingly frustrating to me that nearly everyone I met, when I began to talk about how I felt about what she had said and done, would interrupt and tell me, "Well, but you shouldn't be mad about that.  She can't help it.  You have to forgive her and move on."

By the end of several months, I was furious and positively seething inside.  It really bothered me that I was not allowed to say how I felt--because for whatever reason, my anger made people upset--and that I was  not "allowed" to feel angry.

Finally, one night, I made myself a promise.  I told myself I could be as angry as I pleased about what happened, and if I wanted to be mad about it all day and accomplish nothing for weeks or months on end, that was fine.

The only stipulation I set on myself was, each night before I went to bed, I had to tell myself out loud, "What happened is over."

My anger quickly dissipated.  This is a point that Tutu makes that I think is very compelling: to move towards forgiveness, the injured need to tell their stories and name the ways in which they've been hurt.

I think that, in American culture, we've become reluctant to allow this to happen on a day-to-day and personal level, although we extol it for victims of crime and political oppression.  In our own day-to-day interactions, we get defensive and tell people they need to "forgive and move on."

But as Tutu points out, forgiveness is work.  It takes time.  One thing I did like about the book is, Tutu would agree that the kind of behavior I characterized as "forgiveness bullying," in which we simply "pretend it didn't happen" or offer "non-apologies," is actually not forgiveness.

So what is forgiveness?  How can we forgive?  Tutu admits that there aren't any easy answers, but as I said, he tends to default to a Christian conception that I personally can't wholeheartedly embrace.  And yet, while I acknowledge the purging and cleansing effects of anger (and maybe the small act of retaliatory spite--you know, the kind that teaches people, "Hey, don't mess with me,"), I don't think there's any benefit to living in anger and hostility, nursing the wrongs that were done to you and carrying grudges that swell over the course of a lifetime like rolling snowballs.

I did find an interesting article by Linda Graham about "How to Overcome Barriers to Forgiveness" (May 13, 2014).  Basically, people resist moving towards forgiveness if they're not ready for it, if they still feel a strong need for self-protection, and if they have concerns about saving face.

Interestingly enough, if you resort to forgiveness when you're not ready for it, it will fail.  In my own experience, I can testify to this.  In the months after my mom died, I dealt with a serious betrayal by a person I had considered a friend.  He wanted me to forgive him.  I tried and tried, and just couldn't.

I wasn't ready.  I don't know if I am today either, but I know that his behavior doesn't mean the same thing to me now as it did then.  As Graham points out, the adage, "Time heals all wounds" is an adage because it contains a measure of psychological wisdom: you need to leave the situation alone, and let time run its course and then see where you are.

We don't do that, typically.  I do remember at the time that all of this happened just wishing this person would "leave me alone"--simply talk to me about the weather, send an email to say "hello, hope you had a good week," and leave it alone.  If he had, I think we'd be friends today.  Instead, I felt pressured to say, "Okay, it's fine," when no, it wasn't okay, and it wasn't fine.

I think that I also felt pressure because of "face" concerns.  A falling-out can be a humiliating thing, and it always feels like failure.  When you've been betrayed, you feel a strong need to "save face" in front of others--to pretend that things still are what you thought they were.

In The Book of Forgiving, Tutu cites the wisdom of comedian Lily Tomlin, "Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past."

The last barrier is one that, I think, is at the root of my unease with Christian conceptions of forgiveness: self-protection.

We tend to resist forgiveness if we feel we need to protect ourselves--if we suspect that reengaging with the person will lead to our being hurt in the same way again.

Call me a misanthrope, but I think the self-protection thing is just good, plain common sense.  In my own case, I don't "suspect" I'll be hurt again, I'm 100% certain of it.  If people show no sign of acknowledging what they did and dealing with the truth of the situation openly and honestly, if everything they say or do is marked by an attitude of "Well, but..." and "You know, you...", then they aren't in the interpersonal space that can lead to forgiveness.

Because in the end, as Tutu points out, "an exchange of stories ... if done with total honesty" can be the source of "great understanding and healing between the two people" (81).  But this can't happen if there isn't an honest acknowledgement of responsibility--"The truth prevents us from pretending that the things that happened did not happen" (73).

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."