I Labyrinth You: the Limitations of Forgiveness

I Labyrinth You: the Limitations of Forgiveness

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” –Alexander Pope

Me and the Silence by Stefano 83That’s what we’ve been led to believe. That there is something noble and transcendent in the ability to forgive. That’s probably true in many circumstances, but I think there’s also a dark side to forgiveness. An oppressive side. A side that can lead people to feel ashamed and diminished.

We’ve all experienced unkind acts of others towards us: someone steals away our significant other; someone we consider our friend isn’t there for us in a time of great need; someone connives to keep us from advancing in our career. These aren’t insignificant. These are painful, but in such cases I think forgiveness is healthy. It frees us from the negativity that the other person bestowed upon us while recognizing their fallibility as a human. We’ve all done things of such a nature that we regret and hope for forgiveness from those we’ve transgressed against.

But there is another level of transgressions that are not so easily forgivable. That are beyond mean-spirited acts of callousness; that are acts of viciousness committed against our very humanity. The murder of a loved one, acts of abuse, extreme violence, war crimes. Are we to believe that in order to be truly free of the negativity this person has burdened us with we must forgive them? Is forgiveness really the only way to free ourselves from anger and hatred?

SilenceI began to call into question my reflexively held notions of forgiveness and its place in the healing process after a brief but profound dialogue with Huma Munshi in the comments section following her article Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Forgiveness and Survival. Huma Munshi is a regular contributor to Media Diversified as well as a writer, poet, blogger, and trade unionist. Her articles are always thought provoking and insightful. As we discussed the role of forgiveness I started challenging myself about why the concept was making me so angry.

The word forgive stems from the Old English word forgiefan which meant “give, grant, allow; forgive,” also “to give up”. It’s that very idea that troubles me. We are led to believe that in order to be free from the burden of anger or a desire to punish we must “give” something to the very person that hurt us. The thought of a person having to give even an atom more to someone who may have seriously harmed them, physically and/or emotionally, perhaps over and over, is beyond offensive to me. This is something I have struggled with, in some ways, without even realizing it.

There is a specific person from my past that I gave up trying to forgive a long time ago. I knew it wasn’t possible for me. It didn’t feel right or fair. The idea that I must forgive this person, who for many years left a scar on my consciousness, who suffered no consequences for his actions, no harm to his reputation, and continues to live life penalty-free is not just distasteful, it feels aggressive. Violating. But if forgiveness is impossible, does that mean truly healing from our painful experiences is impossible as well?

By coupling forgiveness to healing we have set up many victims to feel helpless in a whole new way. We tell them they must find the “strength” to forgive the person who hurt them, but what if they just can’t do it? Where does that leave them? In a limbo where they are denied full healing and feel responsible because they are unable to forgive; because they’re not “strong” enough. This is forgiveness’ dark side: the one that places the burden of forgiveness on a victim and implicitly tells them that they are weak for not wanting to give any more of themselves to their abuser. It is another form of victim blaming, this idea that if you are truly strong you will be able to forgive. That you should be the better person.

Stupid Quote Redone

Well, I say to that: I am the better person already. Why should I have to be even more so to heal? I don’t think that I do. In fact, I’m calling “bullocks” on the whole thing and tossing it out the window. I do think there’s another way to get to the very same place of healing without having to go through forgiveness first.

I’m basing this new path on a modern day fairy tale: the film, Labyrinth. Ok, hold on, before you roll your eyes and click away, hear me out. I think I’ll have you convinced by the end of my explanation.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Labyrinth it is the tale of a teenage girl who feels put upon by having to take care of her half-brother. Unbeknownst to her, the goblin king has fallen in love with her and without her knowledge manages to trick her into wishing him to take away her baby brother. He confronts her and essentially blames her for the situation (very reminiscent of abusive relationships). When she persists in asking for her brother back he leads her to his world, the world of the Labyrinth, which she must solve if she wants to rescue her brother before the goblin king turns him into a goblin.

Labyrinth Escher

Once she enters the Labyrinth she is trapped within it and is subject to the goblin king’s rules, which change without warning or reason (again, sounds a lot like an abusive relationship). When she finally faces the goblin king he tries to convince her that all of his bad behavior is her fault and she should be grateful for it:

Sarah: Generous? What have you done that’s generous?

Jareth: Everything! Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?

Again, do I need to point out how manipulative and abusive his behavior is? And how does the heroine react? Does she try to understand that the goblin king is ‘acting from his own pain’? Does she try to forgive him for tricking her, kidnapping her brother, and forcing her into danger just to appease his sense of entitlement? No, she doesn’t. She looks him right in the eyes and says:

You have no power over me.

With those six small words she not only releases herself from his control physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. She doesn’t bother to try to see things from his perspective or afford him any considerations. He doesn’t deserve it.

You Have No Power Over Me

The film closes with her, not languishing in her memories of being terrified, but having a party with her newfound friends while the goblin king, in the form of an owl, watches outside her window, unable to enter. He then flies off into the night, probably to search for a new victim. Sarah’s triumph over him is complete and achieved with no allowances or forgiveness. It may be a child’s movie but that scene is powerful and when put in the context of letting go of anger, empowering.

I realize now my ideas that healing could only be achieved through forgiveness allowed the person who harmed me to continue lurking in my head long after he had disappeared from my life. That this idea was actually hurting me and shaming me. But no more. My inability to forgive him doesn’t stem from any intrinsic weakness on my part, but a strong sense of moral justice, which he has failed to live up to in every possible way. No, I’m not going to forgive him; I’m going to labyrinth him.

What do I mean by that? I mean that I am acknowledging to myself and to the world that he has no power over me anymore. I no longer care if people we know in common hear about what he did and don’t believe it. I no longer care if those same people believe me but continue to be his friend. If they find out what he did and still want to associate with someone like that then they are making themselves complicit in his crimes and that doesn’t diminish me or my worth. It diminishes theirs.

He knows that this is about him, too. I know he reads my blog. So I’m addressing this next part to him:

Today, I’m releasing myself from you and all that you did to me. You will never be able to hurt me again, because you no longer have any power over me. You don’t have my forgiveness. You will never have my forgiveness. You haven’t asked for it. You haven’t done the hard work to earn it, in fact, I don’t even think you’re capable of it. And you’re not entitled to it. But I do labyrinth you. From the bottom of my heart, I labyrinth you. Trust me. You deserve it.

Thank you to Huma Munshi for inspiring this revelation. Without our exchange I don’t think I would have come to this place where I now feel relieved of the anger I was carrying. If anyone is interested in reading her articulate and penetrating articles click here.

Rainbows Hawaii

9 thoughts on “I Labyrinth You: the Limitations of Forgiveness

  1. Woah. Wonderful, astounding work, Jessica. I am right there with you as regards “forgiveness” as you define it. That is, let go of the attachment. Disengage. Take back the power, or remove the hold the other has over you. I have come to believe that, “forgiveness” has more to do with forgiving yourself than the other. It is about realizing that you were not able to protect yourself and through no fault or act of yours you were harmed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Maggie, for taking the time to read and comment. I know you really do get it. In this particular instance, I had actually forgiven myself a number of years ago (which was quite a big deal!) and initially the person who hurt me as well because I believed he hadn’t done it intentionally. As I became older and wiser and looked back at the sum total of the behavior it then became painfully clear that he had been very intentional and aware of what he was doing. I think the anger and resentment I was feeling after that point had to do with a sense of helplessness because there was no way I could forgive him. I realized I needed to let the negativity go, but because I couldn’t forgive him, the situation felt hopeless. Which of course only made me angrier. Now, I don’t feel burdened by either the anger or the idea that I needed to forgive him to let it go. I really do feel like I lost a good 20 pounds!

      Thanks again for your kind words! 🙂


      • But forgiveness is never really for the other – it’s for yourself. Most times, the other person really doesn’t care about your forgiveness. I guess I distinguish between forgiveness (unilateral) and reconciliation (bi-lateral). You forgive for yourself, but you reconcile with the other person if you want to continue to have a relationship.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. It all depends, as almost everything does, on one’s definition of forgiveness. And, also, to whom and for whom one forgives. In my linguistics, forgiving isn’t giving up anything – except the bonds that grow between us and the hurt, pain, fear, horror, and its source. Forgiveness is a gift, but it’s mostly a gift we give to ourselves; it is a declaration that we will no longer be bound by the hate, fear, hurt, sorrow that was inflicted on us by another. As long as we hold onto it, it stays real and a little part of us (or maybe a lot of us) is held captive to it. A part of us dies in that captivity. Forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves when we decide not to hold onto that hurt anymore, not to (in Stephen King’s words) “hoard our hurts like pirates’ treasure.” I am not directing this at you Jessica, or at any specific person. It is a universal human thing. It is true of each of us. And all of us.
    Pain, hurt, horror has a place; it serves a function. Until we have been hurt unjustly we cannot understand life. As long as we can coast along believing that bad things happen only to bad people and good things to the likes of us, we will remain children living in a fantasy land. But when the sledgehammer of unmerited suffering slams down on us (by human hand or circumstances) we have the opportunity to grow beyond our happy illusions. Then we have a choice to make – we can take that experience into us and ruminate on it and relive it and so let it grow and prosper, taking more and more space in us. Or we can take it into us, ruminate on it, grieve over it and then let it go, sweeping it into our past, where it belongs. Anything that lingers, any emotions, feelings, physicality that remains, is really up to us. Should we avoid the perpetrator in the future? Of course we should! Should we be awake and aware so that we can avoid similar situations in the future? Of course we should. But should we relive it and let it remain in our hearts/souls/lives as a present reality? Not if we want to grow beyond it, not unless we want to allow that person/circumstance to have an eternal hold on our reality.
    Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. As long as the past is still the present, we allow others to control us; we live from an external locus of control where conjuring the memories of the experience zap us right back to that time and place. When we say, “Enough,” when we decide to live in the only time we have – the present – we will be able to exorcise those demons of the past and pay them not one more second of our precious life. Holding onto them gives them a hold on us. When we choose to forgive, we drop that rope, unbind ourselves. Now we can live free.
    As to the other person, well, yes there are many reasons to forgive on their behalf as well. But that is a discussion for another day. This day the focus is on why forgiveness is a blessing to us. But one more thing – when we cannot forgive others, we cannot forgive ourselves either. The two types of forgiveness are bound together (as Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer – believe in him or not, but he was a pretty smart guy nonetheless). We all do wrong; each of us and all of us. Can we forgive our wrongs to others? To ourselves? If we are holding on and refusing forgiveness to others it is difficult to forgive ourselves. If we decide they are forever guilty of their sins, transgressions, crimes then part of us must realize we inflict that sentence on ourselves as well. To escape the sentence we pronounce on the guilt others we have to do some cerebral/spiritual tap dance. So we either: 1)refuse to admit we ever do wrong (which defies credulity); 2)minimize the wrong we do (which distorts reality); 3)agonize about our own past wrong in the silence of our souls (which destroys peace). None of these paths lead to healing, which can come only from awareness and acceptance of reality. But when we can forgive the worst thing that someone else did to us, we will be able to forgive our own sins and ask others for forgiveness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will definitely respond to this but I want to give your wonderful comment the time and focus it deserves. Saturdays are always so cray-cray for us (cray-cray = crazy and was THE word around here until a few days ago when Shalon attempted, yet again, to roll her eyes and informed me that is was SO 3 weeks ago).

      I really do appreciate that you not only took the time to read my essay but put so much time and effort into your response. And I look forward to giving it the energy and time it deserves!



  3. Oh I couldn’t agree more – there is a time and place for forgiveness but there are some things that will never earn or deserve it. You are quite right in saying that we place another burden on those already scared when we link the idea that they will never be free or recovered with forgiving. It is a notion I reject in its entirety and it is unfair to hurt those already damaged.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jenni,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. And for understanding. I think forgiveness can be quite liberating if you can do it, but if you can’t you shouldn’t feel like there’s anything wrong with you.

      “It is a notion I reject in its entirety and it is unfair to hurt those already damaged.” Yes!

      I felt so freed when I decided to reject that notion as the only path to healing. I’m sure there are many paths to that place; people don’t come in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ package and it makes sense to me that the way they heal doesn’t either.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments!



  4. I’m glad to hear this strong step forwards for you. And finding that answer through an iconic 80’s movie is just superb. I do like you take on forgiveness. I am unhappy about the pushing of such traditional “answers” without acknowledgement that what works for some does not work for all. I think that it takes time for any of us to reach that (comfortable?) place where we can make our own decision on resolving a past hurt. Time may help to heal wounds, but we must find our own resolution for each situation. So glad that you have!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this. Things are still super crazy for me and sort of only getting crazier, but it’s fine. Chaos is character building, right?

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on my answer to being unable to forgive someone who hurt me deeply. And thanks for appreciating the 80’s awesomeness involved! I think there are so many ways to get to a place of healing and a ‘one size fits all’ approach can leave many of us blaming ourselves unnecessarily and prevent us from moving on. Since I’ve had this revelation I truly feel like a great burden has been lifted from me. I hope there are others who can also use the concept to find peace for themselves.

      Thanks again for being awesome and commenting. It is so deeply appreciated!



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