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It is definitely unhealthy for people to be so quick to forgive. It is often undeniably unhealthy for the individual and potentially dangerous or destructive for the family or community. And I’m tired of folks trying to split hairs with me about the “definition” of forgiveness.
From what I have gleaned over 56 years of life – and a little less than half of them on radio – it is one of the most overused concepts in dealing with so-called “wrongdoers” or folks who perpetrate outright evil. It depowers the innocent and empowers the not-so-innocent. The basic premise of “forgiveness” is always explained by a listener as a means of “letting go” of the pain and rage so that one can have a serene life. Well, my friends, I have a real problem playing with fire just because it makes one “feel better.”
Forgiveness is defined first as “absolving” or “granting pardon” for an offense. When one pardons another, he or she basically releases them from obligation or penalty. When one absolves another, he or she frees the other from guilt or blame or responsibility or consequences.
When someone commits an illegal act involving you – battery, theft – it is not an offense solely involving you, it is an offense against society and the civil and moral rules which govern it. Therefore, I always push folks to file reports with the police. Look at it this way, if the person has to deal with the righteous consequences of their actions, they have the opportunity to cleanse their soul, and psyche, and lives from self-centered, thoughtless or immoral tendencies.
Yet, the call I took just this past week on my radio program screamed for no forgiveness. The woman caller’s sister had had sex with the caller’s husband. The sister had never taken responsibility, never displayed remorse, never tried to repair the damage and never gave the impression that this kind of behavior wouldn’t be repeated. Nonetheless, their mutual father, wanting simple “peace” in the family, was nagging my caller to “forgive” her sister. I gave her more than permission, I actually urged her to not forgive her sister.
How trivializing of his wronged daughter’s hurt could a father be in the name of “peace.” People are often urged to forgive the unforgivable in the name of “peace” or “letting go of ugly emotions.” My caller, in my opinion, could only have both by not forgiving.
The enormity of the betrayal and the lack of true remorse beg for no forgiveness. Instead, I urged the caller to let her father know that his request was a further insult to her. I urged her to tell her sister to “kiss off.” I also told her that she was entitled to those responses and that the strength she gathered from standing up to a blase attitude about evil-doers would help her be stronger in her life in general.
Finally, I told her that her sister’s envious, competitive and destructive behavior was an event. Only she, my caller, could make this event a lifelong experience by perpetually ruminating and suffering. Decided “action” is always an antidote to depressive stagnation.
What too many people aren’t told by the “therapists” and “clergy,” who urge knee-jerk forgiveness, is that not holding people accountable, not telling and showing them that their actions have severe consequences, will likely make you feel less important and make your pain feel inconsequential.
Yes, there are things that are unforgivable. Don’t let folks bully you into forgiveness when, indeed, it is likely to be a further assault upon your well-being.
One other caller, after describing years of all sorts of abuse from her parents – especially her mother – was dealing with her mother dying of stomach cancer. I knew she was feeling intense guilt for not having love for her mother. Yet, she was trying to be a decent person and showing “that woman” compassion while she was dying.
“I love her, you know,” she said to me, “she’s my mother.”
“Actually, my dear,” I responded, “you don’t love her. How could you, considering all she did and didn’t do. One doesn’t love because the other has a ‘title’ of mother. It is still earned. Not by being perfect – no person or parent is – but at least by not being evil.”
She’d spent so many years trying to follow the mantra that you should forgive and will attain peace. To do that she had to deny the reality of the truth, of the damage to her, of the loss of her childhood, of the work she was still doing to recover and survive as a normal person with a life she could enjoy and make meaningful.
In her subsequent letter to me, she wrote: “I was able to speak with you today about my dilemma with my mother who is dying of stomach cancer. I wanted to let you know that I appreciate what you said to me about forgiveness and love. I have always had it in the back of my head that love is a two-way street, yet have felt guilty for not truly loving my mother … I feel relieved that I don’t have to excuse my mother’s actions and tell her that I forgive her or love her. I take life and love seriously because so much of it was spent being abused by others and myself. Dr. Laura, I agree with you – I am going to be OK. Thank you for being a part of that.”
This poor woman believed she had to forgive and love her mother or she was bad. In reality, she had to accept that there are some things you mustn’t forgive and that love is earned. Only when she accepted these ideas could she truly come to peace with her past. With no forgiveness, she demonstrated to herself her own value and the magnitude of the unholy assault on an innocent child.
Yes, friends, if a close neighbor borrows your lawnmower when you are not home to give permission, and says they are truly sorry for the trespass, and they do your lawn to compensate, and they go out and buy their own lawnmower to show good faith to their intention of never “borrowing” again, and they ask for forgiveness – give it.
When people tell you to forgive just so that you can move on or create peace for them – don’t give it.