Alternatives to forgiveness

Forgiveness is often held as a spiritual value, and doing it is supposed to make us better people. There are times when I’d cheerfully go along with that – when what I’m dealing with is just human mess, and the kind of innocent failing that comes from being alive. To learn, we have to risk messing up. To try new things, or engage with new people, we have to risk mistakes. As I commented on recently, second chances are good, and precious things, in the right context.

There are people I won’t forgive. People who crossed lines into deliberate harm, and repeat offenders. Second chances are gifts, but once it’s third, fourth, fifth chances, I stop being cooperative. Sometimes not forgiving people is essential to holding boundaries and maintaining personal safety. Sometimes, there is no excuse, no explanation and no apology that can fix what has been done.

So, what to do when forgiveness isn’t an acceptable way forward? Hanging on to anger with someone can mean hurting yourself. It can mean becoming defined by the story of what they did – and the main effect of that is to give the person you can’t forgive even more power over your life. Squashing anger is a recipe for trouble. Denying it, even if we think that anger isn’t the sort of thing we should feel, is of no great help. First, there has to be a process. If may be rage, or grief, it may be like the stages of bereavement. Whatever you have to go through, do it. Deal with what happened and how you feel about it. This will take exactly as long as it takes.

Get to a point where you can put it down. This is not the same as forgiveness, because it in no way lets the other person off the hook or creates peace. If someone has, for example, tried to destroy your life, why would you want peace with them? What I need in that context – what I think most of us need – is safety and distance. In terms of the inner self, it means processing it so that I can get them out of my head, and not be occupied or troubled by what happened. In more extreme circumstances, counselling is appropriate for this.

There are people I will never forgive. But I very seldom think about them. I don’t engage with them, in life or in my head unless something triggers it. I don’t lug the rage and resentment round with me. I do still have my scars, which I will not do anything to negate or diminish. It’s the scars that we have to make peace with – learning to see them as things done to us, and not defining features of who we are. Forgive the body that carries the scars. Forgive the heart that was broken and the too trusting nature that let this happen. Forgive the naivety, the hope, the desperation, the gullibility, the not running away fast enough. The not knowing it was wrong, or how to defend your boundaries, or whatever it was. Forgive where you need to. Forgive the honest, well meant human mistakes – yours and other people’s.

Honest mistakes, and human failing deserve forgiveness. Deliberate cruelty, does not.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

6 responses to “Alternatives to forgiveness

  • Scott tizzard

    Wise words. Forgiveness is a many layered word. I agree that forgiveness does not include willful blindness of evil intent. We have the right to self defence. Forgiveness in this context, for me, is less about willful blindness of evil intent and more about understanding the context of why the person does what they do. It does not absolve them of their consequence of their harm.

    • Nimue Brown

      Yes, I think that’s a really helpful thing to do, not least because understanding it can clarify that it’s not about you, or something you did, or are that somehow caused this (often a problem in abuse situations) but that it came from the other person, for reasons that are about them. Understanding would, I think, be far more valuable than forgiveness in such cases because it unravels things.

  • taliesin2

    Reblogged this on The Crane Book of Wisdom and commented:
    An interesting read for those of you who are members of CUUPS, ULC or going thru training for priesthood in ADF or any other religious order, Pagan or otherwise.

  • Heather Awen

    A trigger brought up new pain from being raped when 14 yesterday. I didn’t know there was more to process. When crying I felt really purified and Freya said that when the pictures we hide away from ourselves because they’re so painful finally fill our eyes again the water can wash them away. There’s at least some movement. Which is a lot better than clinging onto it – this was really good timing for me to read. Thanks!

    And we also see problems with people recovering from PTSD who don’t want to let go of the victim status because if they do well in life there are people who will say “see, nothing really bad must’ve happened to you.” So the abuse defines them – being happy or successful or free in a lot of ways can feel like letting the abuser off the hook. You have to stay miserable and a disaster area so people will believe you. I know this mostly from watching a friend and then reading about it and I just want people to know that whatever happened happened and you will always know the truth and having your freedom is a lot more productive for yourself than staying frozen in time waiting for validation from others that you look abused. I don’t know if I’ve put that correctly but I saw somebody waste his life with the desperate need to cling to being a victim, because recognizing he was in a much better place and nothing bad was happening and he was actually happy with a really good therapist and all of his needs met , he still was afraid to let go of the inability to be successful or to enjoy life because he was still waiting for validation from his abusers that they hurt him. It was really sad and evidently it’s really common to just wait until somebody notices and to keep getting validation that by failing that means something bad happened to you. It’s another way to let the abuser have all the power even though I know it’s scary for people to give that behavior up because there is the illusion of control they deserve a lot better. Everybody deserves a lot better than waiting for abusers to acknowledge they are abusers.

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