Forgiveness in Absentia

Many of us encounter people in our lives who will hurt us in immeasurable ways. Siblings, parents, friends, spouses, teachers, doctors, priests. People we relied on, because we had to or because we had chosen them. People who were in a position of trust with us, and who thus had greater access to our tender and vulnerable places.

Like everyone else, forgiveness is something I've been working on all my life. I don't work on forgiveness because I'm some spiritual ninja who puts healthy practices first in my life. I can promise you I'm not that good or disciplined. I work on forgiveness because it's essential for my own survival. Forgiveness, for me, is the process of spitting out the poison that others have fed me.

There are biblical and other faith teachings that say that forgiveness requires reconciliation. That's a nice idea. What if all of our woundedness could be healed and packaged and pretty and sewn up with a hug and a smile. As I get older, I'm learning that this is not always possible. The practice of forgiveness transforms me, but it does not transform the person I am forgiving into a person who would no longer offer me poison and call it love.

If you forgive a wolf for attacking you, would you believe that real forgiveness requires you to welcome the wolf into your home? Of course not. If you have finally clearly seen a wolf for who he or she is, forgiveness means forgiving them for being a wolf, not pretending that they are something else.

We never see "forgiveness" hanging out there on its own. It's always "forgive and forget," or forgiveness and closure, forgiveness and reconciliation. Sometimes there is only forgiveness, and this is okay. For the wolves we have encountered in our lives, for the ones who hurt us and are gone, forgiveness can be especially challenging because that sense of closure is more difficult to achieve without the other person's participation. But sometimes, not having the other person's participation is either unavoidable or is necessary, because he or she is a wolf and not safe to be around. This is what I am calling "forgiveness in absentia," and here is what I have learned about it.

It's hard.

But it is possible. It is possible to be in a state of forgiveness of a person and simultaneously want nothing to do with them. It is possible to sincerely wish someone every comfort and peace and healing, and to wish them to enjoy those things far, far away from you. The difficult step necessary to make this happen, I'm learning, is letting go of your feelings of woundedness and hurt. Being the one who was hurt, the one who was wounded, brings a certain power with it in our sick and wounded culture. It assumes a sort of moral superiority over the one who did the wounding. Letting go of that is hard, because if you're really honest with yourself, you'll admit that it feels good to feel superior to the person who hurt you. It feels good to get sympathy from others for how shitty another person was to you. But watch out, because this is you becoming attached to the poison, making it a part of you that you hold out for others to see and tell them the terrible story of how it was given to you. No one will stop to ask you, but why are you still carrying it around? But they should. And you should ask yourself this. You may not like the answers, but again, you're carrying poison given to you by someone else. Let it go.

Forgiveness in absentia has another challenge: in realizing and accepting that the one who wounded you is not someone you are safe around, there is grief for the loss of that relationship. Even relationships that ended horribly, painfully, cruelly, had some grains of good in them, some moments of connection that are worth holding onto and remembering. But mostly, when you are willing to release your feelings of woundedness and your identity as the victim of cruelty and attacks, you free yourself, finally, from the poison that was fed to you. You have spit it out. It is not who you are; it was who they were.

It is tempting at this point to tie the package up with a nice bow and say, "And then, you'll see the other person in a new light and there is space now to see them as a whole human and not just as the person who attacked you, and the two of you can start anew with a deeper and stronger connection than you had before." But no. The first part of that sentence, about seeing them as a whole human, yes, that's true. But not the second part. Unless they have also undergone their own transformation, you are still dealing with a wolf. And when, by now, there are so many happy mutts in your life occupying your heart, it's okay to leave that wolf alone.


Anonymous said...

This came at such a perfect moment for me. Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking post.

E. A. Haltom said...

You're welcome. I'm glad to hear that this helped someone. Thank you for posting.