Tag Archives: forgiveness

Contemplating forgiveness

Where forgiveness is truly sought, my heartfelt response is to want to offer it. However, I’ve spent time dealing with people who apologise when they don’t mean it in order to have further opportunities to cause harm. Forgiveness isn’t owed, it has to be earned.

There are a lot of people who say that you have to forgive to heal. I don’t believe this at all. You have to work through your feelings, process your pain and anger, and figure out how to make peace with it for yourself. Whether that includes forgiving a person who harmed you, is really your call to make. 

It is possible to forgive someone without also giving them a second chance. Forgiveness can be part of a letting go process. No one is owed a second chance by someone they’ve hurt.

Forgiving someone is not a kindness or a virtuous act if you’re just enabling them to do harm, to you, to themselves or to others. Standards and boundaries also matter.

We all mess up. We’re all flawed, complicated life forms, and even when we’re doing our best, we don’t know everything. We can make mistakes in all innocence, trying our best and falling short or just not knowing enough to make a good call. Sometimes there are no good options anyway. It’s important to be able to forgive yourself for these, and to forgive anyone else you encounter who meant well but messed up. Expecting perfection is a form of cruelty.

It’s ok to be finished with someone. Not because they were unforgivable and did terrible things, but just because not everything works. Some things run their course. That I can forgive people for being flawed, foolish or wearying is one thing, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to go another round with them. I am at my least compassionate when I’m bored with someone else’s behaviour, tired of seeing the same mistakes over and over, tired of the dramas that seem small to me. I’m not good when I’m bored. It does not bring out the best in me.

I’m not going to forgive where that requires me to be smaller. I’ve had enough of cutting myself down to make other people comfortable. I’m not going to seek forgiveness from people who just find me too difficult – better for all of us if we move on. I don’t need to be forgiven for being myself. I don’t want to deal with people who have been so offended by me being myself that forgiving me seems relevant to them. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point.

Lament for a lost folkie

I’ve never unfriended someone for being pro-Brexit – people had all kinds of reasons for supporting the Leave movement, and I still think some of those were totally valid, even though I hate how Brexit is playing out.  I have however, moved away from people on the basis of how abusive they became.

There was one person who particularly haunted me, because he’d stayed at my house, many years ago. He was someone I liked and respected, I’d even learned some of his songs. Some years ago, I watched him become ever more abusive of remain voters on social media, and I had to accept that if someone thinks I’m a moron, we’re not friends any more. He hadn’t said me specifically, but I don’t think he needed to. It was only when I sought out the ‘unfriend’ option that I found we had no friends left in common.

We must have had a lot of friends in common at one point – the folk scene is a friendly place, and he certainly knew a lot of the same people I did. I was the last one to give up on him, I realised. It was a painful moment in all kinds of ways.

I wonder what’s happened to him. I could go and look, but I haven’t.  It would be fair to say that Brexit isn’t going well and that many things labelled as ‘project fear’ before we broke away are turning out to be realistic assessments of things that are now happening.  There are no signs of the promised sunny uplands. Business are hurting, travel will be harder, students will have less scope to study abroad, and for musicians touring Europe has just become prohibitively complicated and expensive.  There’s no visible good at this point, and our government is keen to strip away workers rights and environmental protections.

There will be people who cope through denial. It’s not a strong coping mechanism, and telling yourself everything is great when really it isn’t, takes a toll. There will be people who cope through blame – probably carrying on with the idea that this is all the EU’s fault, or the fault of remainers, or something, anything other than blaming the architects of this plan and the people who helped them. No doubt there will also be people who regret their involvement. I’ve seen a fair few business folk who voted to leave talking about how much it is hurting them.

I wonder what it’s like for people who abused their friends and family members, watching this play out in a way that makes clear those remain-folk were right. I can’t imagine it’s easy. It can be difficult to forgive people for being right, for knowing what you didn’t.  It can be difficult to forgive the people we’ve mistreated and abused – because it is easier and more comfortable to keep blaming them and letting ourselves off the hook. But, it must be lonely for some people right now, and painful, and difficult.

I didn’t lose many people over brexit, and I certainly didn’t lose anyone I was so close to that I’d go the distance to try and repair the relationship. I’m sad about the lost folkie, but I’m not intending to make any moves.  There are relationships where someone is so important that helping them deal with the fallout of their having been wrong is worth the effort. But, most of the time, I would wait for the person who messed up to decide it mattered enough to make the first move. Healing without apology is hard. Reconciliation without recognition of the problem isn’t very workable and on the whole, I think it’s on the person who messed up and acted badly to start sorting things out by saying sorry, at the very least.

Understanding and forgiveness

For me, forgiveness is a difficult idea. It so often means accepting what a person did and undertaking to move on from there without asking anything of them. It often comes entirely from the person who is forgiving. I have trouble with it because I see it as facilitating poor, and deliberately bad behaviour. Abusers depend a lot on eliciting the forgiveness of their victim. How many chances do you give to a person who says they won’t punch you again?

As a short term measure, and frequent solution to all things, I can do understanding. In situations of honest human cock-up, understanding is often all that’s needed. We all mess up. We all get tired and make mistakes. We all get overwhelmed and handle it badly. We all want, need and feel things that aren’t perfectly convenient to the people around us. A little time to listen to each other, and what could have been taken personally can be eased through understanding. I’m a firm believer in cutting other people slack. I have to ask for slack to be cut a lot when I’m ill, swimming in hormones, unable to concentrate and so forth.

Even when you’re trying to do empathy and be alert to other people, we all see life from inside our own bodies. We feel and experience from inside our own skin and that gives each of us a perspective. What happens to a person is always going to feel personal. It’s a natural default to understand everything on those terms. It takes effort to empathize, to imagine the same scenes from other angles. But, where we try and meet each other half way, we can do this. We can understand the regular human crapness that does not need taking personally, and through that, we can be kinder to ourselves and to each other.

When we understand each other, forgiveness isn’t required. We see how the other person got to where they were, we empathize, and we can let go. When we refuse to meet each other half way, when we can’t understand what life is like for the other person, it’s then that we might need to forgive them. The trouble with forgiveness is that it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t require a person to change so they don’t need forgiving, and it doesn’t require the person forgiving to learn empathy, and this doesn’t create a good trajectory.

For me, the time to take forgiveness seriously, is when there is real change involved. If I can’t deal with something by understanding it, if I can’t accept the damage done, I won’t enable someone to keep behaving in a way I have a problem with. However, the person who comes back and owns the mistake is worth taking seriously. The person who is demonstrating that they can and will do differently deserves another go, if I can find the resources to support that. Forgiving someone who has put something behind them and is now doing differently can help reinforce the change. It’s a very different process to forgive the past, and let it go, than to forgive something you have every reason to suspect is just going to happen again sooner or later.

Am I repeating a story?

How do I tell if I am repeating the patterns of a story? It’s not easy to see until you’ve been round it a few times – patterns, by their very nature, must be repeated to be observed. So the odds are that you won’t spot one until you have repeated enough times for you to see it as a problem. For people trapped in repeating patterns of dysfunctional relationship, or other things not working out, it is not comfortable looking at where we’ve contributed to that.

The only way to break out of a pattern is to start by acknowledging it. The only way to change a pattern reliably, is to change what you personally do. You probably didn’t get here alone, other people may continue to play roles, but you are the only person you have the power to change. If you label is at fate, karma, bad luck, you throw away your own power to change things.

Identify exactly what you think the pattern is. One of mine, for example, is being willing to bleed myself dry metaphorically speaking, to try and impress people who are critical of me and difficult to please. I have to prove something to them. I have to win them round. I have to be good enough. It’s taken me until recently to decide that I don’t have to prove anything and that ungrateful gits just waste my time and energy.

To get to this point I had to see what I was doing. I had to look at what happens to me emotionally when I deal with demanding and unreasonable people. I had to ask why I feel moved to give so much to people who are never satisfied. I traced the threads of this back through my own childhood, and back to one of my grandmothers, and I thought about her grandfather as well. Some of this has grown over a very long time. I had to ask what I owe anyone, and what’s in it for me. And I broke the pattern and stepped out of the story. This is a fairly painless example.

When you’re playing out a story like this, the roots of it can be deep in your family past. Digging those roots out can be painful and may cause shifts in other relationships. You may have to look at what forgiveness is needed, and helpful. You may well need to forgive yourself for what you’ve done as you’ve played the role. If the person most hurt by your actions is you, definitely work on self forgiveness. If your role has had you hurting other people, look at making amends, or at least learning lessons. It isn’t your right to forgive yourself for harm you’ve done to others. If you need to deal with people who set you up in this story, that can be complicated. Forgiveness isn’t obligatory. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it just traps us in doormat and martyr roles.

Changing the story, breaking it down, opening it out to make new endings possible… this is not easy work. It can be exhausting and it will likely take time. You may have to go some rounds with your story shape before you can properly escape from it. Be patient with yourself, and keep doing the work. If you can escape from a story that is really just a trap, life will open up for you in all kinds of ways and it is worth the work to get there.

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.


Why I can’t forgive you

In order to bestow forgiveness, a person has to have some very particular underlying beliefs and ideas in the first place. As I don’t, and therefore can’t, I thought it might be interesting to pick through the mechanics a bit.

It has come to my attention in the last few months that to be able to forgive, you have to feel that something else should have happened. You have to believe that the other person shares your sense of what should have happened, and that they would have preferred to get it right and do the thing that would have fitted with that. From that place, (as far as I can make out) you forgive the shortcoming, the mistake, and everyone moves on.

I automatically differentiate between things I need and want, and the actual shape of my interactions with people. Entitlement doesn’t feature much, for a whole array of historical reasons. Consequently, if something goes wrong I tend not to see this as an accidental departure from the real relationship, but as a reflection of it. I make sense of my interactions with people based not on what I think should happen, but on what happens. It means that forgetting, letting me down, being less than fair or kind to me is likely to just be quietly recognised as how things are between us. It is absolutely not a coincidence that I tend to be wary, distant and closed with most people.

My suspicion is that if you carry an ideal about, then however wonky the reality is, you’ll probably do a better job of holding positive and open sorts of connections with other people. Failure to live up to expectation might seem more temporary, more transient from that perspective, and be easier both to point out and to then let go of. What point is there in making a fuss about how someone treats you, if you start with the belief that how they treat you is an expression of how they feel about you? Ask them to do differently and you’re asking them (from that way of looking at things)to be dishonest with you.

I don’t think I fall into the trap of expecting people to know what I want and need. It’s very easy to go round getting cross with people when you think they should know your foibles, weaknesses and whatnot. It’s more about things that could be applied to anyone. Are they kind to me? Do they keep promises? Do they ask more of me than I can give and respond badly when I can’t keep up? Do they only seem to value me in so far as I am useful to them? Are they patient when I struggle? When I am in pain, are they gentle with me, or is that just another inconvenience to get cross about?

It says something about my history that for me, kindness is not a reasonable expectation, nor do I feel entitled to expect people will be careful round me around distress, pain, exhaustion and other limits. I’m used to being asked for more than I am equal to by people for whom I mostly seem to be a resource. Observation suggests that people who feel entitlement do not tend to accept that sort of thing and are much better at holding their boundaries, but for long periods of time my sense of place seemed wholly dependent on utility, and it’s hard to break with that.

To forgive you, I would have to start from a place of thinking that I deserved something better. I find it hard to imagine I deserve other than I get. It seems to me a fair measure of how people around me and groups I interact with relate to me. It seems like a measure of who I am. People who offer to forgive may be in a better place than people who don’t, on the whole.

Making Peace

The internet is full of things that will make you angry. Right now, someone is desecrating that which you hold most sacred. Someone is spouting rubbish so unbearable that you will think it dangerous. We can choose to seek out opportunities to be offended and upset, or we can choose to avoid them. In our personal lives, we can choose to dwell on wrongs committed against us, or we can tune them out. We can forgive, or not. At first glance the acts of ignoring would seem like the ones most likely to engender a sense of inner peace. I don’t think this is so. There’s a process to undertake here, and there are balances to strike.

Ignoring wrongs very simply condones them and facilitates their continuing. Turning a blind eye may assist our equilibrium in the short term, but if we are truly being abused in some way – be that by those around us, government bodies, institutionalised prejudice and the like, ignoring won’t fix it or make it go away. Usually the reverse happens. To get to a point of peace it is often necessary to tackle any external sources of difficulty. Sometimes the only option we have is to move away from the source of the problem, but this isn’t always peace-inducing. Leaving a festering pool of wrongness and pollution behind may well create in you a legacy of wondering what was harmed next, or whether it spread. The peace of knowing the problem is truly resolved, is like no other. The future is lining up a few opportunities for me to tackle aspects of my past. I mean to make the best use of them that I can. I want peace, and I want specifically the kind of peace that comes from having sorted things out and done the right things.

When confronting a wrong, it’s important to consider just how wrong it is, and whether it is, really speaking, your problem. If there is litter chocking the stream near your house, then there is something you can do. If atheists fill you with irrational rage, then maybe seeking out the places where atheists go on line in order to keep telling them what the afterlife is going to do to them, isn’t the best idea. There is a difference between tangible harm – being harassed, attacked, showered with chemical poisons from a factory, and taking offence at something someone else does. It’s that old if you don’t like thinking about what gay guys do, just don’t think about it, solution.

It gets tricky at this point because of course certain schools of thinking will understand certain kinds of behaviour as being dangerous and wrong. Someone less liberal than you may consider you dangerous. Part of the problem here is that fundamentalists of all hues (religious, atheist, scientific, political…) often have the belief that they are entitled or required to try and change you for your own good. If we could just let go of that notion of entitlement and requirement, we could solve a lot of problems. By all means, put your version out there, but if others reject it, you are not responsible for that. It is not your job to force it down the throats of the unwilling.

So where do we go with the people for whom climate change is a belief they don’t agree with, not an established fact? And if we say that the voice of sanity must prevail here, how do we handle it when the drug companies demand, claiming the voice of sanity, that all those quack medicines be taken off the market? (for which read herbal remedies and anything they aren’t getting paid for.) In my experience the majority of swords turn out to be double edged.

Sometimes, the answer is not to look outside and blame others for what causes us to feel angry, threatened or mistreated. Sometimes the answer was inside all along. Why should a straight person feel angry and threatened by gay marriage, for example? Work on the inside would be a better approach there for seeking peace. But the other side of the sword lops bits off us instead. If you are being bullied and you start to imagine that the problem is inside you (not an unusual reaction, I gather) then what you do is internalise the bullying, swallow the blame, and there is no hope for peace in that scenario, not without radical change.

True peace requires integrity and self awareness. It requires recognition as to whether the change needs to happen inside us, or outside. To find it, we have to be more interested in getting things right than merely appearing to be right. We have to be willing to change, to let go, to see with new eyes. We need compassionate thinking, both for ourselves and for others. That, I think, is the key. True peace is compassionate. If you are fighting for peace, if you are angry, what you get will not bring peace. Only compassion can do that, and in trying to find a right way through, compassion is your most reliable guide.

Hatred, forgiveness and druidry

In the Christian tradition, the idea of forgiveness can be very important. I should pause here to distinguish between more liberal forms of Christianity – which I think of as Jesus-centric, and the kind of right wing Christianity which takes its inspiration from the angry bits of the Old Testament. Not having a book to turn to for wisdom quotes, it’s down to individual druids to decide whether they want to forgive those who wrong them. I like this. I prefer to make ethical judgements as situation specific as possible. My experience has been that one-size-fits-all positions always have moments when they don’t really hold up.

There are a number of interesting considerations here. What does the act of forgiving, or not forgiving do to my own sense of self? Who do I want to be? What we forgive defines something of who we are. Do we forgive serial killers? Child abusers? Those who commit genocide? Or is it better to hold a position of anger and hatred there? Do we follow the Catholic model of hating the sin and loving the sinner? And equally, the refusal to forgive small shortcomings, minor offences. On a previous blog someone remarked about being told off for leaving the washing up liquid open. Who do we become when we insist on punishing the smallest failings and the most imaginary of slights?

Then we might consider whether the other person in some way merits forgiveness. Where apology is offered, attempts are made to redress the balance, errors atoned for and justice voluntarily respected, it is not hard to forgive a person. Not least because it feels more like human error than malice, and we all make mistakes. Compassion for the unwitting errors of others has to be a good thing. But what about the person who is unrepentant? Is it appropriate to forgive someone who is full of self justification, a sense of entitlement, or superiority? A person who would do the same thing again given the chance? This is a sticking place for me.

Carrying hatred about can be a lot of hard work. Hatred is a large, fierce, all consuming kind of emotion that can warp and twist all aspects of a person into its service. The Revenge Tragedy genre is full of stories about the violence that comes from hatred. Think Hamlet, Othello, Titus Andronicus. Interestingly, other themes in this genre are pride, hubris, and jealousy. They do tend to go together. Pride can be a huge barrier to forgiveness. Jealousy can invent offences, and succumbing to hatred can lead us to self destruction. We won’t all end up like Hamlet or Othello, but hatred can so readily sap the joy and humanity out of us. I think that’s too high a price to pay for the sake of the people who have wronged you. There are also a lot of stories out there about people who, in their hatred, end up turning into the very thing they wanted to destroy. That’s not a path I would care to walk.

On the whole, my experience of Druidry pushes me towards a desire to live with compassion and to try and understand those around me. It does not incline me to cultivate jealousy, resentment, or malice. These things do me no good at all, and I care about that! But part of my ability to hold boundaries has to include recognition of the unacceptable, and ways of dealing with that. Where there is relationship and meaningful exchange, forgiveness is not difficult for me. To err is human. It’s what we do after those mistakes that really gives me the measure of a person. If someone has the courage to apologise, or to make good, to ask how they can fix things, and the decency to act, then it soon feels that there really was nothing that needed forgiving. This is a line I try to walk, whilst trying to make sure I am not pushed into apologising any more for things not of my making, for imaginary offences, or for the consequences of other people’s jealousy. Again, when there is real and honourable relationship, I have found these just do not exist as issues.

I have found an answer, which works for me, when it comes to things I find unforgivable. It is a solution that means I do not cart a weight of hatred with me, and it protects me from being eaten up with anger. The answer, I think, is pity. Because whatever an unforgivable person has done, they have to live with it, and with being the kind of individual their actions reveal. To be beyond my capacity for forgiveness, they would have to have no visible signs of honour, no integrity, no capacity to admit a mistake and no capacity for good relationship. And ye gods, is that something to pity.