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on forgiveness

Preface

I got a patreon post request asking me (more or less) about how I concieve of forgiveness. I”ve talked, at length, in the past about how I don”t believe that forgiveness is an essential part to healing from trauma and abuse. If you feel it is important, do it. If you don”t, don”t.

Here is what I said in a post that”ll be available later:

If you think that forgiveness is an important part of your healing process, than do it for yourself (which is present in some narratives).

Also? Forgiveness, imo, doens”t have to mean letting go of all your anger. In most narratives where victims are told that they should forgive their abusers for their own sake, it is usually because they are angry and that anger is shown to have destructive effects on their lives and relationships.

I”m not saying that anger about your abuse cannot be destructive in your life. If it is then, yes, it is probably something you ought to deal with. What I am saying, is that I don”t understand where this notion that forgiveness and anger are so intimately entwined that doing one necessitates the other. You can stop being angry and never forgive. You can also forgive and never stop being angry. You can do both. And you can do neither. Choose your own adventure.

This is a negative approach to understanding forgiveness1, so I”m going to try and talk about what I think forgiveness might actually look like (for me) beyond the popular (and harmful) rhetoric about forgiving those who”ve harmed or abused us.

What to forgive…

In the preface, I mention that forgiveness can apply (broadly) to two basic situations: harm and abuse. I”ve talked, in the past, about a distinction between non-abusive harm and abuse.

As a general principle (from my understanding) what separates abuse from plain harm, is regularity and/or patterns. Abuse is repeated harm directed towards a person. It is a pattern of behaviour and action.

People may or may not be inclined to granting me this distinction but here is how bullying (something quite common in many communities) is described in wikipedia:

Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power, which distinguishes bullying from conflict.

This is pretty much the distinction I”m operating with and it seems reasonable applicable to many other kinds of abusive situations. The other key way to distinguish between these two is how the victim themselves percieves the situation and the harm done. Obviously, if a victim says it is abuse, then it is. If they feel something was harmful but not part of a pattern of abuse? Also their decision. And, sure, people can be and have been mistaken about either but that isn”t the focus on this essay.

I also think there is a definite distinction between forgiving someone who has harmed you in a conflict, accidentally, or some other singular instance that isn”t part of a larger pattern and forgiving an abuser.

Forgiving harms

In the case of forgiving people who harmed you in a singular fashion (in ways that the victim themselves would not describe as abuse), I tihnk this is a much easier thing to sort through.

Of course, the degree of harm has a large impact on what forgiveness looks like (if it is at all possible). Some harms are relatively minor and some are devastating. With minor harms, I find that for me, I can usually forgive if I communicate the harm done and the person both acknowledges the harm and sincerely apologies for it (which includes a committment not to harm me in the precise way again).

In the case of major harms…

It”s a lot more difficult. I”m not even sure that I”ve forgiven anyone, ever, who has harmed me in a major, life-altering way. In part, because, if someone has harmed me to this extent, I usually won”t give them another chance to do so.

After straining my brain, I think I can think of one example where I am working towards forgiveness of a major harm. As I”m thinking through the situation, I think forgiveness in these types of situation looks something like this:

  • emotional labour: the person who caused the harm must be willing to perform the emotional labour necessary to help me heal from the harm.
  • validation: the person cannot ever, not even a little, diminish or try to minimize the impact that the harm had on me. I determine the extent of the harm and what needs to be done for healing it.
  • apology: obviously. esp. the commitment not to commit a similar harm.
  • rebuilding trust: the person must be willing to take proactive and significant steps towards rebuilding any lost trust up to and including actually being trustworthy.
  • redemption of some kind: i don”t think that punishment in the form of penance or other such thing is very constructive (but this is just a personal view, so YMMV). But I do think that the person does need to work towards some kind of redemptive act or whatever. I think this is sort of a combination of the other points, taken as a whole. You redeem yourself by performing the necessary emotional labour, rebuilding trust, apologizing, and making some kind of ammends.

Another sort of thing which is nice but not… idk, essential in the way the above points are is that the person gives you adequate time and space to work through and heal the harm at your own pace.

I do think that if you”re genuinely working towards forgiveness, you can”t use the harm as a weapon against the other person. However, note the point about validation. There is a distinction between not weaponizing your hurt and actively validating that the event happened.

Here”s an example: weaponizing your hurt in the form on guilt tripping is actually manipulative (and if you have a pattern of doing so, abusive). Redemption doesn”t look like you guilt tripping the other person into doing whatever you want. Nor is this an actual path towards forgiveness.

But you should be able to bring it up without the person trying to deny, deflect, or otherwise dodge responsibility. The person (see the emotional labour) should be willing to listen and support you in your processing. I don”t think that forgiveness includes any kind of forgetting, so the actual harm must be acknowledge and dealt with.

Forgiving abuse

This… is a lot trickier, imo. While I”ve never actually forgiven any of my abusers, I do have some idea of what forgiveness for me might look like.

It isn”t too different from the above, but a lot of the elements are more strict, because they have to be since the potential for damage from allowing an abuser to stay in your life is much, much greater than a singular harm. This is more risky and, thus, I think should have more stringent rules and requirements.

1) All abusive behaviour must stop and never, ever be repeated.

I think this is the point wherein a lot of attempts to forgive abuse and allow abusers to redeem themselves and stay in your life will fail. For me, if I”ve gotten to the place where I”m going to forgive a person who has an established pattern of hurting me, then I need a serious and abiding commitment that they will not do so again (in whatever fashion they were abusing me… non-abusive harm is pretty much impossible to avoid whereas I think it is quite easy to avoid being abusive).

Yes. And I do mean all and any abusive behaviour must stop entirely. There is no wiggle room. The person has had many, many chances to not hurt you that they decided not to take. This? I think should be their very last chance.

Getting to the point where you can recognize and come to grips with your abuse is incredibly difficult. Moving beyond this through a healing process and reaching a place of forgiveness is also really difficult. I think, at the very least, that if you manage to get to this point, it isn”t too much to ask that your abuser, um you know, stops abusing you and never does it again.

Seen in this light, I don”t think this is an unfair or overly strict condition for forgiveness. The amount of work it takes to make it through all of these stages is (in some cases) potentially endless. I don”t think actual forgiveness is possible if the person just keeps doing what they”ve always done. They”ve already irrevocably changed your life and if they are unwilling to put as much effort into changing themselves and their life? Yeah. Not going to happen.

2) Basically everything in the previous section.

I think combining the stuff in the previous section with the above condition is what forgiveness looks like for me.

Afterword

I realize that the previous point might seem a little truncated, but I honestly don”t have anything more to say. In my experience, very few people have been willing to actually fulfill these conditions. Most simply act entitled to your forgiveness, relying on peer pressure and social convention to attain it. Or at least a brand of it.

I also have no experience with an person who has abused me who has actually stopped doing so, much less tried to do all the other thinks like provide me emotional labour and support, validating my feelings, or rebuilding trust.

I guess, for me, forgiveness looks like a fantasy where all the healing has taken place and everything that defined your previous relationship with a person has changed. Which is why I guess I forgive so few people.


  1. I"m using negative in the sense that I"m describing what forgiveness isn"t rather than what it is. I"m not talking about negativity in the popular, disparing sense.