“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” –Alexander Pope
That’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?
I 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.
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.
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.
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.