January 2017: Forgiveness
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
~ Harold S. Kushner, from the Foreword to “Man’s Search for Meaning” (2006), by Viktor E. Frankl (survivor of 4 concentration camps including Auschwitz)
In my December blog, I came across many rabbit trails to pursue in the future, one being forgiveness (or letting go). I anticipated having time to research this concept even further than I have, thus far, in my work as a psychotherapist. However, that is not the case. I have been mulling over what I have learned up to this point. This will be my attempt to synthesize those ponderings into a cohesive entry.
I will start with the conundrum that got me thinking about forgiveness. When I processed my sexual assault of 25 or so years ago back in November, I was able to let go of the grime, if you will, of that experience. I released the guilt and shame (yet again), the hurt and pain, the hold that it had on me. I closed the chapter. It is no longer a defining moment in my life. I am free to pursue who I am truly meant to be. However, I was not prepared to release the perpetrator from being the one responsible. I had finally placed the responsibility onto the perpetrator (no longer taking the blame myself); and I am not about to ‘set him free’ from that. He remains the responsible one. So does that mean I haven’t forgiven him?
Much of the material on forgiveness/letting go is focused on the person doing the forgiveness. It is the very thing I did—released myself from the grime or residual effects of the abuse. But one thing I don’t want to do is the let the perpetrator “off the hook.” I don’t want to absolve him of responsibility. Synonyms for absolve include: pardon, forgive, clear, release, free. Which brings me to my quandary: I do not want to forgive my abuser in the sense of forgiving a debt. Nothing owing. Free and clear. No longer held accountable or responsible for what is owed.
Yet contrary to that sentiment, I am not holding a grudge or expect any retribution. I don’t feel I am owed anything—not even an apology (I want no contact with him, so no sense trying to apologize). There is nothing he can do to restore my sense of self or repair the damage done. So making amends is also out of the question. Which makes me think of something I recently learned in reading a novel by Jodi Picoult (The Storyteller) about the Jewish concept of forgiveness.
In Judaism, there are two wrongs that are unforgivable: murder and a ruined reputation. In the case of murder, it is impossible to go to the wronged party to plead one’s case; and a dead person cannot grant forgiveness. No one else can substitute their forgiveness (as in the case of genocide or bereaved family members). As for a good reputation, that cannot be reclaimed. It can’t be undone, so-to-speak. Reparation is not viable—in either case of murder (death) or reputation.
So where does this leave me? Common considerations in the process of forgiveness are letting go of the victim role and reclaiming personal power, as well as reconciliation. In regards to my sexual assault, there is no need, nor opportunity, for reconciliation. When it comes to ongoing relationships with abusers, which I do have in the case of family, reconciliation for me looks more like coming to terms with reality. True reconciliation, when the abuser takes ownership of their actions and makes restitution, is not always possible. Not everyone is open to seeing the error or impact of their ways. In such situations, it is a matter of adjusting expectations and setting boundaries. But that is another story for another day.
At this point, I am mentally holding in tension the conflicting ideas of wiping the slate clean and holding someone accountable. I am no longer held prisoner by the impact of another person’s actions. In that sense, I hold nothing against them; and I expect nothing from them. To some people, this is forgiveness. I have successfully let go. I chafe at using the word forgiveness, though, because I will not wipe the slate clean in that I will not release them from being the responsible party. It was not my fault. I am not to blame. The damage was done—but not by me. And that opens yet another can of worms in that his actions were part of a system. The beliefs I grew up with contributed to the abuse dynamic. So I also hold those people and institutions responsible for what happened to me. But now I am staring at the slippery slope of what if’s.
So once again I ask myself, where does all this rambling rumination leave me? I may not be comfortable using the word forgiveness in the classic sense of granting a pardon—as I am not prepared to no longer hold my abuser(s) accountable/responsible—however, I have let go of the pain and shame and expect nothing from my abuser(s). So if you are comfortable calling that forgiveness, be my guest. For now, I will keep holding those concepts in tension: letting go of my own “stuff” while laying the blame and responsibility where it belongs. Nothing more to be said or done. That chapter is closed. I have the freedom to move on.