Can Forgiveness Be More Harmful Than Hatred?

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Lynn Beisner says letting go of forgiveness, not anger, made her a better person.

A couple weeks ago in the small hours of a winter morning, I drove my son, Matt, to meet the train that would take him away from me to begin his new life as a full-fledged adult. As we stood side by side on the platform, I struggled not to become a sobbing mess of tears and snot.

In an effort to keep myself from crying and to etch those treasured moments into my memory, I focused on small, sensory details. I noted the stinging hint of snow in the air, the way the street light played off the natural red highlights of his mussed hair, the easy grace with which Matt stood, the cracks in the concrete platform. And then my eyes fell on the bag at his feet, and my breath caught. 

Matt was leaving home using the same duffel bag that Todd, his bio-dad, had been issued in basic training when he was about the same age as Matt. Todd’s name and military identification number, stenciled in that distinctive military font, had faded, but were still made visible by the light of a nearby Christmas tree.

That bag contained so much history. I had stood with Todd, just as I was standing with Matt, waiting for some form of transportation to take him away from me on deployments. But it also held some of the happiest moments of my short marriage to Todd. Each time I had welcomed him home with open arms, they had come to rest on that bag he carried on his back. In fact, Todd had been wearing that bag the day he returned from a deployment and met our new baby, a beautiful boy named Matt.  

Somehow in the chaos of our divorce, I ended up with that bag. It was so practical that I kept it, and used it on a number of trips and moves. But each time I had seen it, I felt a twinge of sadness for what could have been. Eventually, I gave the bag to the kids. It was the only thing I still had that once belonged to their biological father, and I wanted it to be theirs along with the good memories I associated with it.  

But by the time I turned the bag over to them, they had so much anger and resentment toward Todd that it tainted any good memories or artifacts of our marriage that I could give them. So it stayed in a corner of the attic under the other luggage until that morning, when my son left home with the literal and metaphorical baggage that he had inherited from his biological father.

In one part of my mother-heart, I hoped that Matt’s use of Todd’s bag meant that he had set aside his anger and was going to try to have a relationship with the man who gave him life and who tried for a few years to be his dad. And yet, having known Todd for more than 25 years, my heart was wary for Matt.

“You are using his bag. Does this mean you have decided to forgive him?” I asked, trying to keep the hope and anxiety out of my voice.

Matt answered with genuine nonchalance: “Sort of, but not the way that you think. That bag holds a shit-ton of stuff, and it just works. His name on it doesn’t make it any less helpful.”

He hesitated for a second, taking deep breaths that came out as clouds of vapor. “I realized recently that I don’t hate him anymore. In fact, I am not even angry at him. I just stopped caring. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want him in my life. I just don’t have that much energy, and I don’t seem to need it anymore to keep myself safe from him. So, I suppose you could say I have forgiven him, but mostly I just stopped caring.”

Soon after that, Matt’s train came, and the young man that had once been my baby boy hugged me, assured me that he would be safe and flew out of my nest. For a long time after the train left the station, I sat in my parked car weeping aloud. When my sobs calmed to snivels, I drove home on deserted highways, tiptoed back into our silent, warm house and slid into bed. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep, but I wanted the comfort of my slobbery dog and my snuggly husband. I lay there, ensconced in their affection, and watched the growing light slip between our blinds and crawl across the ceiling, and I thought about Matt’s alternative definition of forgiveness.

*****

For a few years now, I have been of the firm opinion that victims have no obligation to forgive those who have harmed them. It is the right of every person who has been harmed to be angry for as long as she wants, and to hold her victimizer responsible for the impact of that abuse in her life.

But my opinion does not match common wisdom and advice given even within many feminist-friendly communities. Not a week goes by that I don’t have in my Facebook or Twittter stream a trite New-Age poem or card extolling the virtues of forgiveness and proclaiming it as a requirement for happiness and good mental health. I have found such pronouncements dangerous, if not morally offensive, because in recent years I have learned that forgiveness is far more hazardous than hatred.

My kids and I have the kind of dispositions that make it hard to hold onto anger and easy to forgive. We are almost constitutionally incapable of holding a grudge. We get angry, but within days, if not hours, the anger fades and we begin having compassion for the other person or seeing events from his or her point of view.

I have been especially quick to forgive my mother for beating me nearly to death as a child, and for emotionally abusing me throughout my life. My ability to forgive easily and readily is something that she and others have been grateful for, but it has often left me wide-open for continued abuse.

Just over three years ago, I did something radical: I stopped forgiving my mother. For the first time, I experienced the depths of my rage against her, and I was surprised to discover that it did not feel like falling apart or becoming a dark and bitter person. Instead it felt like my anger was a seedling that had taken root behind my breastbone, and as it grew, it spread strength to every part of my body. It bore surprising fruit such as authenticity, calmness, confidence in my ability to keep myself safe, and a blossoming career that would not have been possible with my mother in my life.

Letting go of forgiveness, not anger, made me a better person.

But over the past three years it has taken an enormous amount of energy to keep from sliding back into forgiveness and inviting her back into my life. For a while, I had to actively cultivate anger by doing things like making lists of the things that she has done to demonstrate that she is not safe. Eventually, the urge to forgive was tempered by my realization that inviting her back into my life would be an act of suicide, killing my most authentic and happiest self. 

In the weeks since Matt demonstrated forgiveness in an unexpected way, I have been thinking about it a lot. What if forgiveness is not a “get out of jail free” card? What if it does not require absolving our abusers of moral responsibility for the pain they caused us and for the life-long damage they created? What if we can forgive a person without inviting them back into our hearts and our lives? What if apathy is not just the opposite of hate, but also the essence of forgiveness? Maybe forgiveness is what happens when we no longer need our anger to stop blaming ourselves for what happened. Perhaps we let go of anger when we no longer need it to keep us safe.

Matt was able to carry the baggage left by his biological father without pain, anger, or inviting an abuser back into his life. It was a gift of indifference he gave not to his abuser, but to himself. And maybe that is what forgiveness looks like when it includes a healthy dose of self-love.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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