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.