Lately, I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. There’s been a lot of movement in my trauma memories and my recovery recently. This is both good and bad, nothing is ever simple with complex PTSD as you all know. I’ve had to question, what is forgiveness? What is it’s purpose and does it have a place in my recovery? When I was newly married in my 20’s, I thought I had forgiven everything that had happened in my childhood. I forgot, pushed it down, made it into something else I could tolerate so I could function. We all know, this doesn’t work and it came up like a bullet, shooting into my life, changing it forever when I was 36. So that forgiveness didn’t work.
I was raised as a Roman Catholic and we were regular attenders as a family. I was in youth group and my siblings and myself made our confirmations (agreeing to be part of the church as an adult). The church was pretty liberal and I didn’t mind going. Forgiveness is a huge part of what you’re taught at church. In this religion you’re taught to do what Jesus would do and that’s forgive those that have wronged you. In Catholicism or Christianity in general, the basic premise is if you say you’re sorry and repent then you’re forgiven. You have to see the priest for confession, say what you did, say you’re sorry and you’re given a penance. Once that’s done, boom! You’re forgiven. Even as a child, I didn’t understand this, the whole system seemed flawed. I would go to confession and say I used a swear word or God’s name in vain and wouldn’t do it again knowing damn well I would. But I was still forgiven? The same message is given in school: someone pushes you, takes something, fights with you etc then apologizes, you’re expected to forgive them, even if they didn’t mean it. And if you don’t forgive them, you’re being the difficult one. That seems pretty fucked up to me. And what exactly is forgiveness anyway? I suppose like everything else, it’s an individual definition but to me, it means someone has acknowledged what they have done wrong, no excuses, and said sincerely that they were sorry. I have accepted that as truth and been shown through their actions they are sorry and I am able to put it aside and trust them again.
So, now onto trauma work. People did bad things to me. People that should have helped me didn’t. No one is apologizing or really acknowledging any of this. Frankly, most of them are dead so it’s not like I’d get much out of them anyway but still. I’m supposed to forgive to get better? I’m supposed to put my very limited energy into acknowledging what they did and say it was ok? I have to do that work? Why do I have to do more work for others? I call bullshit again.
Forgiveness is overrated. You don’t need to forgive to move on or heal.
Or maybe it’s just the definition of forgiveness needs to be changed or not so broad. It seems like forgiveness and acceptance and trust have all gotten tangled up. I might be able to forgive someone but that doesn’t mean I would trust them or want them in my life. I do think closure or acceptance is needed though. I think I need to be able to look, really look at my trauma, and the people that did terrible things and say yes, this happened and it was awful and painful and they were the ones responsible. They were the ones responsible. To be able to close that experience and put it away without hurt or shame or fear. That’s the real goal isn’t it? To be able to box all of the stuff that happened to us, to be able to pick up all the pieces of our lives that have been scattered about and put them in order so we can function again. Maybe it’s not forgiveness, maybe it’s ‘letting go’. Letting go of being angry and hurt and ashamed of ourselves. Maybe we need to let go of the fact that there may never be an apology or forgiveness. My therapist said something I found to be very powerful, there can be no forgiveness with out a clear admission of wrong doing from the other party and some kind of redeeming action. Maybe that will never happen and that’s ok. I’m letting go of this idea, this expectation, that I need to forgive and forget. It’s going on the list with resiliency and ‘why is this taking you so long?’ and ‘it happened a long time ago, can’t you just forget?’ In a lot of ways, that’s freeing in and of itself. So I’m going to work toward acceptance not forgiveness.
***Just as a note: I am not against religion in any form. My experiences listed here are personal and in no way mean to disrespect anyone. If your faith, spirituality, religion, etc have helped you heal and forgiveness was the way you did it-that’s awesome and I very much respect that. Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re all trying to head to the same place-healing-however we get there is how we get there ***
2 thoughts on “To forgive or not forgive? That is the question”
Love this very real,honest, and deep post. I can relate 100%. It’s very refreshing to hear someone else speak your thoughts out loud. It doesn’t erase anything but it’s nice to know someone else understands feelings that makes you feel alienated from so many. Thanks for sharing
Amen! Good for you.
I concur with your definition of forgiveness, and by the way, so does scripture.
To clarify, Jewish culture in the bible had 3 different kinds of forgiveness, the kind you alluded to has to do with a scenario where the offender has indeed acknowledged and apologized more than once and actively tried to make amends to the wronged person and that wronged person has taken the position of arrogantly with-holding their forgiveness deliberately preventing peace resolution or preventing either party from moving forward (spitefully holding the offender hostage).
In this context the withholding of forgiveness is seen as being in the wrong. Offering Forgiveness in that context would mean the acceptance of the apology and the amends, but no where is scripture does it state that the victim should just ‘get over’ the experience and go back to a happy carefree life with no psychological effects of the offence.
That person would then turn to family, friends and to God for healing and comfort, as they move through their healing process.
God completely understands that we are human and some things can take a lifetime of effort to get to a place of healing, letting go, and perhaps a form of forgiveness. He knows we struggle and He meets us exactly where WE are, He doesn’t ask us to meet a list of expectations first beforehand.
So all these trendy definitions of forgiveness (which are ridiculous)are mostly just saying a version of learn what you can about yourself, be compassionate to yourself, and find a way to let go and move forward in a way that celebrates your life and your progress.