The main reason I keep this dormant blog alive is readers’ comments. Every now and then someone comes along who has been helped by a blog post written long ago, and I can’t bring myself to close down this blog even though I’m too busy living and loving life to write regularly here. Just a few days ago a reader re-considered breaking up with her boyfriend after reading about letting go of expectations.
Another type of comment that I value are those that thoughtfully discuss a post and whose insights help me. One of these recent comments on 8 Defenses Against Nasty People got me thinking and inspired this post.
The reader’s comment
Sam’s full comment can be found here. The relevant excerpt:
“Essentially forgiveness comes out of a Judeo-Christian worldview, right?
Well, even if you’re not Jewish or Christian, one would do well to actually read all the forgiveness stuff in the Bible. A sine qua non of forgiveness according to all teaching is that the offender must ASK for forgiveness in some way or other first.
Forgiveness just doesn’t work without that initiator. It’s the reason why so many people wander around after they’ve done all their mantras and ‘forgiveness work’ still feeling unhealed and incomplete.
That’s not to say that you can’t work on healing yourself from the offender’s harm or deciding to move on or whatever makes you feel better.
But forgiveness is a specific and quite prescribed process. It’s one that’s been much abused over generations. And now by the therapeutic community, the love n light brigade , pop psychology etc etc.”
A recent personal experience
The comment makes sense to me in light of a recent experience with an old friend who started using me to get close to a mutual friend that she likes. Despite my best effort over the course of a year to save the friendship, I eventually couldn’t bring myself to hang out with this friend anymore. I stay away from her because I do not want to resume the closeness that would allow her to continue using me for her own ends.
For a while I wondered whether I had truly forgiven her. There is no ill will on my part towards her. In fact, should she get together with her crush, I would be happy for both of them. So there is no resentment in my heart that I’m aware of. Yet the relationship has not been restored and I am content to leave it at that since I cannot change her nor the circumstances.
The confusion over forgiveness
I think many of us confuse self healing with the restoration of relationship, and call both forgiveness. The ‘love and light brigade’ as Sam calls it certainly seems to include both these aspects in its definition of forgiveness – that forgiveness means getting over it and continuing with the relationship as if there is nothing wrong at all.
Perhaps it would help to differentiate between the two. The moment I saw this distinction, I realised that in my case self healing had taken place (and only after a while) but the relationship has not been restored.
The ‘therapeutic community’ that Sam refers to has good reason for recommending forgiveness. The refusal or inability to get over a hurt ultimately harms us more than the person we are angry with. Forgiveness is the prescribed medicine for this emotional ailment. This makes complete sense. For us to move on with our lives in joy and peace, we need to heal the wounds caused by the inevitable friction of living with other people.
The good news is that self healing does not need the co-operation of the other person. Self healing can happen on its own (usually) before the relationship is restored, and even if the relationship is never restored.
Restoration of relationship
This is entirely different from self healing, although self healing is a prerequisite. Without self healing, the relationship cannot be fully restored since we will continue to resent the person. However, even if self healing has fully taken place, the relationship may not be restored because a relationship is between two people and therefore requires the co-operation of the other person.
Three conditions have to hold before a relationship can be restored: contrition, compensation, and commitment.
Contrition: If someone has hurt you and is not sorry, then the hurt is likely to happen again. This is why you should walk away from an abuser, for instance, who will not admit to doing anything wrong.
Compensation: If the person admits he is wrong, then compensation is necessary to bring the relationship back into balance. For example, if he has struck you in a rage and caused a black eye, the least he could do is take you to a doctor to have it treated.
Commitment: In the abuser example, many abusers are temporarily contrite and try to compensate for their actions, only to lapse and repeat the abuse. In this case the relationship has not been truly restored on a a long term basis.
So what is forgiveness?
It is now clearer to me what I mean when I talk about forgiveness. I have forgiven my friend in the self-healing sense: I have gotten over the initial hurt and do not resent her for using me, and I sincerely wish her well in her life. But I cannot forgive her in the sense of restoring the relationship: there has been no contrition, compensation or commitment to restoring it on her part (not that I’m aware of anyway) and until that happens I am not prepared to return to a one-sided relationship that is not healthy for either of us.
So thank you Sam for your insightful comment. I hope that this post, which basically expands on your points, helps to prevent the ‘abuse’ you highlighted where ‘forgiveness’ is stuffed down people’s throats in a way that doesn’t help them.
Here’s an earlier post I wrote on the gift of forgiveness that I’d forgotten about, and did me a lot of good to re-read.
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