Sometimes when I don’t know what to do, I succumb to weakness and I type my problem into the magical box on the internet otherwise known as Google.
I have found some of the worst possible advice in this way. Because as it turns out, most of the results that turn up are written by people who also don’t know what to do, or alternately by people for whom life is quite simple, black and white and absolute. And because I don’t believe life is simple (I mean, yes, I can spout out aphorisms like “really all anyone wants is to be loved” and even mean them, but that doesn’t automatically cancel out all nuance), this advice is really really terrible for me. Which makes it quite mysterious that I still type my questions into the Google box, but apparently not only am I not simple, I’m also not always rational.
One of the topics I can reliably find bad advice about is forgiveness. I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time, actually, but it seemed like such a can of worms that I procrastinated instead. Until now.
To get this out of the way, yes, forgiveness is freaking fantastic. Letting go of old grudges, old hurts, etc. is healthy and good and takes a huge weight from the shoulders. I am less a fan of the moral weight that forgiveness has acquired in our culture (ie you have to forgive people to be a good person, more on this later), but from a purely practical perspective, forgiveness can be quite empowering and allow us to move forward and free ourselves from old, harmful stories.
Where I disagree with a lot of conventional wisdom is when we begin to talk about the process of forgiveness. Because there seems to be this idea out there that forgiveness is simple and quick, that we can decide just like that to forgive a person and then it’s done and everything is rainbows and ice cream cones. This belief reinforces the idea of forgiveness as virtue and putting pressure on the person who for whatever reason is in a position to forgive, because why can’t they just get over it already?
But emotional and psychological processes aren’t cookie cutters. We have such a desire to believe that everyone works the way we work, but in fact, we all have our own ways of dealing with things and processing things and thinking about things. And different situations call for different responses that might need to go along with the forgiveness and therefore need to be worked out at the same time. And sometimes forgiveness isn’t instant, isn’t fast and easy. Sometimes difficulty with forgiveness is not a sign of a resentful personality or a desire to make things unpleasant for everyone else. Sometimes forgiveness is messy and complicated, because human relationships are sometimes messy and complicated.
Forgiveness doesn’t look the same every time either. Sometimes we verbalize forgiveness and sometimes we don’t (or can’t). Sometimes forgiveness causes a renewed closeness in a friendship, and sometimes forgiveness happens after a friendship has already ended. Sometimes forgiveness teaches us that a friendship can’t keep going on the way it has; it teaches us the need for change. Sometimes we can’t forgive until we find a way to be safe and respected with a person, and sometimes we forgive at the same time that we say goodbye. Sometimes forgiveness is surprisingly easy and sometimes it takes years. There’s no one blueprint and no one timeline.
Forgiveness is not owed; it is given. And it is something that happens in our own hearts, not because we’re supposed to and not because someone else pressures us into it. Forgiveness is born not from judgment but from compassion, and not only compassion towards the person being forgiven but also towards the one doing the forgiving.
Forgiveness isn’t always simple. When it isn’t, it’s hard but it’s also okay. It’s part of life, this process of feeling and grieving and holding on too tight and learning how to let go and figuring out what you want your next steps to look like. It doesn’t have to hold a value judgment; it is just the work you are doing at the moment.