In a conversation with my aunt about abuse, the topic of forgiveness was of course raised. My aunt said something we have all probably heard before. I believe it often is rarely, brazenly, and verbally questioned or disagreed with but often sub-consciously disagreed with. My aunt said something like this: “You can’t focus on the past, we have to forgive to move forward. We have to let go”. I disagreed, I believed that she was conflating ‘letting go’ and ‘moving forward’ with forgiveness, and that we can indeed move past things and not forgive a person for what they have done in the past. The main argument on her side was that forgiveness is really a good thing for the person forgiving rather than the person being forgiven. That without forgiveness hate controls one’s life and we lose out on everything that is important. There is some hidden assumption I believe she had: that without forgiveness one seeks revenge and the path of the vengeful is truly folly. Vengeance, I agree, solves nothing.
I decided to test if she really believed this. So, I, of course, brought one of the worst examples of abuse that I could think of at the time: rape.
Now before I continue, I know that some of you right now have all sorts of problems comparing things to rape because you think that it hurts rape victims to compare anything to rape and rape victims themselves have said these such things before. I want to say that I would agree comparisons to rape sometimes may decrease the perception of how horrible it is just like calling everyone a fascist does the same. However, I don’t and won’t ever believe that it isn’t okay to use an extreme to make a necessary point if the situation of the extreme actually applies. In this scenario and mutatis muntandis, rape is a perfectly applicable thing. If someone were to treat the extreme differently here for no other reason than that it is extreme it not only hurts victims of lesser yet still horrible offences of abuse and harm but also devalues the reasoning as to the myriad of reasons why this situation may be different. That harms those in the extreme case. If that was too long, here is my point shortly: Sometimes not using the extreme as an example hurts those of the extreme, and this is one of those cases.
Continuing on, I tested the extreme and she didn’t hesitate to bite the bullet. She believed that rape victims must forgive their rapists in order to move on. This actually really surprised me. I am not sure if she was just trying to win the argument rather than if she actually believed this was the case but I doubted it at the time. She seemed perfectly serious and honest. Now I had a real argument on my hands because I would have to seriously argue that such a thing isn’t necessary. But before I could really do so, the conversation shifted.
It is only now, weeks after, that I seriously consider her point. Specifically, because a clip on the radio while I was in the car going home that I actually really considered her point. This was the story: ‘Hudson jogger hit by drunk driver asks him to team up with her on school visits’. (It turns out that she had heard the same story a few days ago as well)
This was a story of a woman who wasn’t raped but still had something horrible happen to her. The situation between rape and this are quite different but it is where they are similar that matters in this case. I admit that it is probably easier to forgive someone in this case because the perpetrator is a lot less in your face. The lesser degree of directness and deliberation of something like drunk driving compared to rape is stark no doubt. Therefore, far easier to actually forgive and lack the anger. Since recovery doesn’t involve dealing with the victim in forcefully and violent intimate interaction. Yet there are some(few in comparison to the majority) examples of women forgiving the people who raped them.
Take the example of Thordis Elva who was raped by her then boyfriend(for like a month) Tom Stranger. The two of them parade around the world talking about how Thordis had to forgive Tom to move on whether he accepted it or not. Here it from the horse mouth:
Along with an account of the violence that he subjected me to, the words, “I want to find forgiveness” stared back at me, surprising nobody more than myself. But deep down I realized that this was my way out of my suffering, because regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over.
There was something terribly wrong with this rhetoric that I couldn’t completely articulate. It aligns perfectly with that of my aunt’s rhetoric. I didn’t understand why this was the view of forgiveness being pushed on to me but the help of a self-investigation, as well as a few articles into the topic, helped clear that up.
I want to stress that my aunt’s belief was far more radical than just “people can forgive others for heinous actions”, it was “people need to forgive others for heinous actions for themselves”. I didn’t even realize that this view about what is necessary for a person to heal from a tragic and traumatic occurrence was even common. But to my curiosity and somewhat horror, it was common enough and had implications I had only the slightest intuitions about. I sensed that forgiveness had this hidden power of absolving someone else of what they had done. I didn’t understand how or why that is, it was just something I felt that if I forgave my father for what was done to me it wasn’t just words that I was throwing around. I felt I was throwing power to someone dangerous and I felt weak at what would be done with it.
I also realized wondered what were the arguments that would lead someone to this conclusion in the first place. The whole conversation had me thinking about what forgiveness even means. It leads me to think about what ‘letting go’ even means.
I think there was a deeper and darker part of forgiveness in my conception of it. There was an idea of some sort of acceptance. The (supposed) final stage of grief. The acceptance that what happened was acceptable. So, I had a hidden belief that not only was forgiveness not necessary for the recovery of a person suffering from abuse but that it was wrong. That you shouldn’t just forgive them for something like that. That you would lose some part of your dignity as a human being doing something like that. That you would demean the trauma and harm that occurred for you and so many others. What I realized was that I had a hidden view of the ‘unforgivable crime’. A horror so complete that no one could or should forgive and to do so is to lessen the horror. Why did I believe this? Why did she believe the opposite? I was left with even more questions.
Forgiveness is not a simple thing, the aftermath of all tragedies have forgiveness as something discussed. To forgive someone of something requires reparations. Payment. The person is required to restore things to what they currently were. For example, it is quite easier to forgive a thief if they return what was stolen before they were caught. Or a bully that then defends you from others, or similar reparative or restorative measures. Ever hear that an apology is the ‘least you can do’? It is because forgiveness is the acceptance that a relationship between the forgiver and the forgiven that a relationship is restored or repaired. That the debt incurred by a tragedy has been paid with interest. This is the real reason why saying the words, “I forgive you” is so hard and why “I am sorry” is just as hard or much hard when you think there is nothing you did that was wrong or what the other did was worse. What you are admitting to here, is payment as the apologiser and as the forgiver, you are admitting that something has been repaid. This is heavy. Even here debts and debtors, do make their appearance.
Circling back to the ‘unforgivable crime’, we now understand why it may seem so incredibly demeaning if we apply all that we have learned. If forgiveness is the acceptance or acknowledgement that the relationship between two people has indeed been repaired or restored to what it was previously then this belief of mine that some crimes shouldn’t be forgiven is hopefully more understandable. This does lead us to believe that one shouldn’t apologise unless the relationship has been repaired and the debt repaid. If we think of forgiveness as debt redemption than we are lead to further confusion in the ease that someone would apologise in an instance that the relationship has not been restored and repaired unless one looks at it as an act of charity. It seems even stranger if one believes this action isn’t for the sake of the other, in the case that the person doesn’t deserve charity, but on the basis, that forgiveness is solely about the person themselves. That forgiveness has some healing properties to it. This would require an entirely different theory of what forgiveness is as a concept (oh I can’t be helped but think of the theory theory of concepts!).
For forgiveness to have healing properties we should think of it perhaps not as a debt the other person has to repay to restore a relationship. This previous way of looking at forgiveness was a quid pro quo or eye for an eye view. When I say it that way it is much more vulgar and I do so on purpose. To illustrate why someone would want to reject the previous view. I think the previous view is the way we naturally look at forgiveness and this other way developed in response. This mostly because of David Graeber’s book, Debt, which I never believed I would actually reference here. I thought this was a totally distinct and none intersecting topic! Lo and behold, the spectre of Graeber haunts again. Anyway, this response to the debt view of forgive is the idea that forgiveness is an acceptance of one’s past that one is now restored. Forgiveness in this view isn’t something that you would actually have to say to anyone. It is a feeling that the past has been repaired. That it is fixed for you. That you are now back to normal. This isn’t so ridiculous a view. If we think back to the thief example I gave before, forgiveness in this view wouldn’t require the thief to return the money or for any debt on the thief’s part to be repaid. What is required, is that the person not need the money in the first place. For the person to be back to the position they had, had the money never been stolen. Understood in this way, when the person forgives the thief with this theory, they are in a way only stating that this money is no longer a problem. They have restored the situation. I don’t think this is a quite complete way of looking at it though.
A more complete way to look at this view requires that forgiveness really is said. My aunt doesn’t view forgiveness as wholly an individual thing. There is still the strange context of it being in a relationship. I think it also doesn’t quite show why I think it is a response. Let’s fix that. If you think about what is required for there to be a debt and debtor in the first place requires a harm to have occurred that had not been fixed. This view of forgiveness essentially puts forth the idea that waiting until the other person has paid the debt for the problem they caused is only harmful to yourself. The only way you can heal is once this harm is fixed, and that doesn’t require the other person. It can be done in all sorts of way.
I have some problems with this response though. I believe that what this view forgets as a response is that the forgiveness is focused on restoring a relationship. But also that perhaps there are things life, even taking this view into consideration, that truly never leave you the same, that you don’t ever quite come out the same. Thus the unforgivable is perhaps both an unrepayable debt owed but also an irreparable state of affairs. This means that a person could technically have both views. My disagreement with my aunt about forgiveness isn’t even about different uses of what forgiveness means but over something deeper than that: Whether or not a person is ever fully restored after some events or not. Does that mean she is right that I won’t ever move things in my past, while she with her radical forgiveness will? No.
I believe I can acknowledge a situation is irreparable and still move on. In fact, I believe that all situations are reparable is just delusional. Some things change us forever. A mother has a child, a spouse is murdered, we watch the first episode of ‘the good place’, a person gets bitten by a vampire. These are called transformative experiences and they can be just as negative as positive and just as positive as negative. Nevertheless, they transform us, they make us different people. There is a sense that life will never be the same after something like this occurs. To deny that some situations are irreparable, that sometimes a person isn’t ever fully restored to what they were before. Sometimes things are permanently lost and that is just the name of the game. If life is a battle, we will inevitably lose. It isn’t a battle though and we have to find better ways of dealing with loss than just imagining that, “lalala everything is fine”.
Ever watch the movie inside out? It’s basically about something like what happens when you are permanently positive. There are two sides to each experience and if we delude ourselves into thinking everything is great, things will get even worse. Basically, the negative has a positive side. Yin/yang, that shit.
Thanks for reading y’all. Oh, by the way, the title to this was originally “Radical Forgiveness: A short note about a disagreement with my aunt”, turns out it was not short at all (its more than two thousand words!).
More additions are coming if you have already read the article! A paragraph or three should appear in the next few days to discuss the articles I have read in addition!