Forgiveness: a concept in reality

Posted: May 15, 2012 in prisoner rehabilitation, story, teaching, writing
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From “There Are Things I Want You to Know” About Steig Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson
Steig Larsson is the author of the Millennium Trilogy

“Stieg was a generous man, loyal, warmhearted, and fundamentally kind. But he could also be completely the opposite. Whenever someone treated him or anyone close to him badly, it was ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ He never forgave such an affront, and made no bones about it. ‘To exact revenge for yourself or your friends,’ he used to say, ‘is not only a right, it’s an absolute duty.’”

I’ve had reason as of late to consider the act of forgiveness. That is, I have been asked to forgive and have not yet been able to grant the request. Have had, in fact, to say out loud, I do not know if I will and if I can, I do not know when. This is uncomfortable territory for me. I believe in forgiveness as a basic value that defines who I am. I feel it is an ultimate gesture of not only peace, but also recognizing another’s frail humanity and in doing so, acknowledging my own. Forgiveness, to me, is tied up in humility, grace, compassion and an acceptance that try as we might, no one…no one…is perfect. Not granting forgiveness, I feel, stalls us in a place of anger, cynicism and feeds the fires of revenge while simultaneously snuffing out the embers of compassion.

And yet…I said no. Not yet. I hope, in the future, but not yet.

Part of the problem is I must first forgive myself before I can forgive anyone else, as I am also equally uncomfortable with the feeling of victimhood. That is I fight against seeing myself as a victim at all costs. Victims, to me, can lack control and autonomy and I refuse to acknowledge I have ever given either of those things away—or had them taken away—by another. Even when I clearly have. If I control whether or not I grant forgiveness at least I control something, right?

It is also hard, I’m finding, to forgive someone who must have, at least in some aspects, planned the betrayal against me. I feel as if I were marked, targeted and I do not know, let alone understand, the reason why. Only that I find myself here—unforgiving—and in the darker moments, even wishing I had the capacity for revenge.

This scares me.

I think then about the men at the prison, and remember the times I have lauded on to others who ask about my work there about my utopian dream that one day we will have a “justice” system in this country that is more focused on reconciliation and healing for both victims and perpetrators than it is on retribution and punishment. I consider my wish that the men in prison can not only find a way to forgive themselves, but their parents and others who should have known better who betrayed them in the worst ways, a system that fails them in their quest for rehabilitation at almost every turn and a society that ostracizes them for mistakes—egregious as they often were—made, in most cases, decades before. I think of the victims. Their suffering, loss and pain (in a myriad of unimaginable iterations) and my still strong belief that forgiveness is the ultimate act of claiming their lives back from tragic experiences that otherwise threatens to define them forever. I think about how annoying, dismissive and ridiculous my notions of forgiveness for men who have ruined lives must feel to those whose lives exist within and in spite of those ruins.

I am not trying to forgive someone for breaking into my home, killing someone I love or hurting my child. I have not had to attend a funeral, return to an empty or destroyed home or explain to a son or daughter the meaning of death, violence or random acts of rage. The “crime”, such as it is, that I cannot currently forgive, is one of the heart (yes, that old story)…of love gone awry…of trusting someone who turned out to be untrustworthy. Disorienting, yes. Emotionally painful, yes. But an experience which even in the darkest moments I know, KNOW, I will recover from. An experience I know I will, one day, forgive.

Yet, I have not forgiven, and now get to spend time examining the side of myself that has no interest in forgiveness whatsoever. Fuck ‘em, as some say–as some have offered as a sentiment of sympathy and proposed as a course forward. I’ve been getting to know the part of me that feels forgiveness benefits only the person who wronged me—lets him off the hook, minimizes his actions and leaves me still the perpetual doormat (to my dear friends reading this, especially my fellow feminists, you do not need to convince me of my errors in thinking here…I know). I do not believe, as Steig Larsson states in his quote above, in an eye for an eye. I think such notions are juvenile, perpetuate wrong-doing instead of healing it and speak to the least of who we can be as human beings, not the best. And yet, if I could, take an eye…let’s just say, I get why the statement is appealing.

Incarceration is society’s form of revenge (also systematic racism and a litany of other “isms”, but that is for another post—do read: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander if you have the chance). It is not our highest ideal. It should not be held up as a symbol of who we are as a people. We should be ashamed of the prison industrial complex in this country. We should be ashamed that we are not ashamed. But revenge satisfies something in us as a people. It satisfies something in me. I am not okay with this realization, and I will fight against it, but I am acknowledging it for perhaps the first time in my life.

I have a vision of perpetrators and victims being able to sit across from one another at a table and simply talk. Tell me your story, I’ll tell you mine, and by the end, despite the pain between us, we will heal because we will know each other as the flawed humans we are. Currently, I won’t even take a phone call from the person who has hurt me. If I sat across the table from him it would not be to tell stories—it would be to yell and admonish and belittle and rage. If I cannot imagine such a setting given my current circumstances, how does a mother sit across from her son’s murderer? How does a rape victim sit across from her rapist?

I don’t know.

So, today, on the subject of forgiveness, I say this: Forgiveness is not mandatory, only a goal we can aim to achieve. In some cases (not mine), forgiveness is not even warranted (and that is hard for me to write, but I think it might be true). However, in the cases where forgiveness might be possible, even if we’re not sure how to achieve it, we should cling to that possibility and work toward it the way we work hard toward any difficult goal. And on the days that we can’t spend our energy there, when we must forget forgiveness, put it on the back burner because it is too exhausting or doesn’t feel right or only invokes new anger, then my wish is we (I) might instead focus on living lives filled with grace, beauty and love in the hopes that we (I) keep the scales from tipping too far out of balance.

I ask forgiveness for the flaws this post reveals about me.

  1. Your post reveals that you are human, like all of us. (We already knew that!) I’ve been in your situation, and “forgiveness” was about the last thing from my mind. I lived with a guy that I loved, and during that time I never even thought of other men, so happy was I, and when I discovered this guy had met someone he “really loved,” I thought my world had come to and end.

    Seriously: I cried for 3 years. I cried at work and at home and in my car and on the streets. I couldn’t seem to pull myself together. But finally I did.

    I forgive him. I thought about it for a long time, and the best solution for me was to simply forgive him for being a jerk. I felt that a weight had lifted off my shoulders. I never told him this (by this time he was having babies with his “beloved”) and I don’t think he has to know, since he never asked. But I felt it was something I could do for myself, and as soon as I did, I think the sky became bluer and food tasted better. I just had to let it go.

    To exact revenge (“an eye for an eye”) meant to me that I would simply lower my standards to his, and be as rotten to someone as he had been to me. I couldn’t do it. I’m glad I didn’t.

    I thought of many ways to get revenge. Something marvelous prevented me from doing it. I’m glad.

    I am sorry for your pain. I know it cuts like a knife. I assure you that in time you may be able to forgive, but even if you don’t, your life will not always feel the way it does today. The things that hurt us also help us, but it takes a very long time to get to the place where we can see that.

    This old saying comforted me: “Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”

    I wish you the best. I so enjoy your writing, and I’m sorry you are hurting.

  2. Cindy Zelman says:

    Fabulous, deep, beautifully written and so fair. You are the fairest person I know. And you’re a knockout writer.

  3. Geenie says:

    Wow, powerful post. You put this into words beautifully!

  4. Benito Gonzalez says:

    Well, now you understand the two basic emotions of all humans — love and hate, the ying and the yang. One cannot exist without the other and the goal is balance, not the elimination of either one. To ask why both exist is to ask why positive and negative particles make up all matter. Nothing can exist without both. One cannot have life without conflict, or knowledge without failure. They exist in order for you to learn and grow, for without them there is only stagnation, and in a universe in constant motion and always changing, stagnation means extinction and death, not the flourishing of life.

    Forgiveness has its origins in love, and without love there is no forgiveness, only anger and hate, fear and retribution. Juvenile? Perhaps, but also human and the source of both conflict and change. If all we did was forgive, what change, what conflict and what evolution would we humans ever undergo? Did you really think it was possible to grow, develop, learn and understand without that conflict, without that ying and yang?

    Your trusting someone you loved who then violated that trust, has nothing to do with your forgiving him. It is about your understanding him, learning from that experience and growing beyond it. If your focus is merely related to your anger and pain, hurt, hate and regret about trusting him you will never forgive because you will never understand, nor will you have learned from your experience. The transition between hate to love or pain to forgiveness can only happen once you have learned and understand the conflict created by your experiences in life.

    All that BS about forgiving yourself comes from the endless silly self-help books. You have nothing to forgive yourself for in loving or trusting someone. In fact, without love and trust this world would be in a far bigger mess than it is now. No, what you must learn is “who to trust” and “who to love”. Did you think every person is trustworthy? The prison is full of people that society no longer trusts. Society gave them rights and freedoms and they violated them, sometimes in the most egregious ways. Sure, at some level there are those who made mistakes, some of them will learn and grow and move on with their lives. Yet there are others that if you released them today, they would go right back out and violated that social trust all over again.

    Not every untrustworthy person is in prison, and not every person who violates the trust of others will learn to not do that again. There is another truism about human behavior — the path of least resistance is taken more often than the more difficult paths in life. When the rewards of being untrustworthy exceed its costs, most people will choose the path with the greatest personal rewards and the least cost to them, not necessarily to others. Most people call that selfish, but the world is full of selfish people who believe they have rights and/or deserve more than others in this world. The goal is to not reward them for their behavior or their actions and to “not trust them”. What you need to learn is how to tell the good apples from the bad ones. Based on your willingness to trust some of the least trustworthy from society, your problem may rest with your compassion getting in the way of your selfish-radar detector.

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