Forgiveness is a topic that comes up a lot these days, and it is an especially hot topic sometimes within the on-line ex-Christian Scientist communities I’m a part of. It’s a topic I’ve thought about a lot too, and my thought about what forgiveness is have evolved a lot, especially from where I was as a Christian Scientist.
As a Christian Scientist, I held the view that forgiveness came when you finally and completely denied the wrong that you saw done either to you, someone you loved, or just wrongdoing in general, and saw the wrongdoer as a ‘perfect loving child of God’. What we are taught in Christian Science is that in ‘God’s view’, so to speak, there is no evil or bad people, and nothing wrong ever happens. It’s a nice sort of nihilistic/Pollyanna view of the world for sure, but it does not mesh at all with actual reality. In the real world, there is evil, there are evil people, and there are plenty of assholes. For that matter, I’m fairly certain that in the opinion of some, I am an asshole, and I’m okay with that, as I’m sure they’re fine with the fact that I think they are assholes. It’s all part of the circle of life.
What is forgiveness?
4. to cease to feel resentment against;
So, what is forgiveness anyway? We have this dictionary definition, which works for me, but I won’t be so presumptive as to define it for you or anyone else. I’ll tell you what it is for me. For me, forgiveness does not in any way deny, excuse, or absolve the wrongdoing on the part of anyone. In fact, the dictionary definitions I’ve found do not mention absolution. Pardon is as close as it comes, and that does not absolve the offender, it just cancels the penalty. If someone has committed murder, rape, or some other heinous offence, that cannot and never should be excused, absolved, or denied. That’s going to be with them for the rest of their lives, and that’s the way it should be. I never absolve anyone for the wrongs they’ve committed, nor would I expect someone to do the same for me. We all commit wrongs in our lives, and we need to own what we’ve done. Absolution, if it comes, comes to the degree in which you work to right the wrong you’ve committed.
I have many friends in addiction recovery, for example, who I know have committed some serious wrongs. Some have killed or seriously injured others by driving while intoxicated, and live in some cases with lifelong bans on driving. Others have committed theft or assault in the course of feeding their addiction. Do I judge them for who they were or who they are now? Neither; instead, I look at the path they’ve walked from where they were to where they are now. They’ve sought to make amends and right the wrongs they’ve committed as much as they possibly can. Some wrongs, such as those that lead to someone’s death, can never really be fully righted, but many people I know dedicate their lives to helping addicts recover so that they will not hurt someone else, or they do other things to support their community. A valuable teaching I’ve received from an indigenous elder states that where we are now is the sum total of everywhere we’ve been. Some have to walk a very treacherous path. If you’ve committed sin, your absolution comes to the degree in which you work to make amends and right the wrong you’ve done. It starts with owning it, and not looking for excuses. However, I don’t believe in full absolution.
As for me, I do forgive–sometimes easily, sometimes it’s difficult and it takes a very long time. Primarily, I do it for my own emotional peace. Two examples in my life of the type of forgiveness I’ve done for my own peace of mind come in the form of two people who were once very close to me who now are deliberately out of my life almost completely, likely never to be let back in, and definitely never to the close and trusted level they once were.
The first is one I’ve written about in various posts dealing with my parents’ deaths–the events that gave me my final push out of Christian Science (see posts under the category Death in my Family). My own teacher of Christian Science, who once occupied a place of deep trust with me, violated that trust by putting his love of Christian Science above common human decency and professional ethics. At one of the lowest points in my life, he angrily accused me of “betraying my father” (his exact words) when I put my dying father into the hospital to try to save his life. No support, just scorn over the fact that I’d chosen medical care over Christian Science. Over a year later, when I confronted him over this in an e-mail exchange as I confessed to him that I no longer believed in Christian Science, he remained unapologetic, and even doubled-down on his previous statement by claiming that in some ways he knew my father better than I did. I let him have the last word, and while I had written an extremely venomous response, I chose not to send it. I simply decided to walk away. My forgiveness of him has come in the form of simply accepting him for who he was (and I’m certain still is): a person who loves a religion above anything else, and doesn’t care who he hurts in defense of it. I have had no communication with him in about five years, and I don’t expect that I will ever have any contact with him again.
In the second instance, a close and trusted friend asked to borrow a large sum of money from me. I had already lent her a few thousand dollars, along with a contribution of professional skills at no charge to help her start a new business. She had done little thus far to repay me, and a close mutual friend informed me that she had mentioned in passing to him that to some degree, she viewed our friendship through the lens of the money I had and what I could do for her. That, and the fact that it would have been clearly a stupid business decision to lend her the money, sealed my decision to not loan her the money. Although I was as polite and gentle as I could be in telling her my decision–laying out the business case, she was anything but kind or polite in her response. We bitterly parted ways. Subsequently, we’ve reconciled to some degree, and she apologized for her angry reaction and how she had used me, but the friendship is not very close at all. A few times, she’s mentioned to me that she misses the friendship we once had, but I doubt that former friendship will ever return. Trust is extremely important to me, and she violated that trust. I’ve forgiven my friend by accepting her for who and what she is–a well-meaning, but deeply flawed person who doesn’t see her own imperfections, yet is very willing to point out imperfections she sees in others. Sadly, she’s lost many friendships in largely the same way–each time blaming everyone else but herself.
So, for me, forgiveness comes by simply accepting what’s happened, accepting people for what they are, and moving on, leaving the resentment and anger behind as much as I can. Anger and resentment dispels like any fire over time, but the evidence of the fire always remains. You just learn to live with that fire damage, repair it to the extent that you can, and it becomes a way-marking lesson in the path of your life. The worst thing you can do is keep that fire burning. If you do, it will consume you.