FORGIVENESS                  Sally Campbell

It’s not helpful to have an automatic expectation of forgiveness just because we’ve apologized. As I’ve written earlier, apology is just the beginning of a process of restoring/repairing relationship, it’s not the end point. In restorative processes, we’re working with the energy that the conflict generates. That energy is unique to each conflict, has its own rhythms. Some people stay engaged in low (or high) level conflict with another for years, despite the toll this takes on our psyches, on our peace of mind.  Some stay in ongoing conflict because at least it’s a relationship, negative or not. They fear that closure might mean the end of the relationship. In fact, often the very opposite is true. When we address our conflicts in a humble and honest way, the relationship has chance to blossom and grow. It doesn’t mean there won’t be more conflict, but rather that there is enough safety in the relationship for it to continue. There is trust that difficult matters can be addressed, even when it takes time and may involve the assistance of others.   

My grandmother gave me wise counsel when she said: “Darling, we each have to learn our own lessons in our own way”. Those words have echoed in me for over ½ a century now and are a continual reminder of acceptance. Conflicts within family seem the hardest places to apply that lesson, because we want so badly for that other person to be different, to treat us differently, to be more like we wish them to be. Alas, life’s not like that. We can’t really change anyone else, only ourselves and our own perspective. Sometimes a person simply does not want to be in a relationship with us any longer, period, and the hurt is deep. We may try to appease, accommodate, bargain – a whole panoply of approaches – and still end up feeling rejected, angry, resentful at the other’s intractability. I learned through hard experience that sometimes we need to just let go. But what to do about all those negative feelings? Here’s where forgiveness comes in. I learned that we can do the work of forgiveness on/within ourselves; it doesn’t have to be a mutual thing. 

Unlike apology which needs to be communicated, we can forgive unilaterally through an internal process, and release ourselves from the burdens of a relationship defined by tension, competition and conflict. We can release ourselves from the guilt of being unable to “fix” a broken relationship. We can let go of the need to have the appearance of a healthy relationship, and simply forgive the other and ourselves, and get on with the process of living. Sometimes this means no contact. We form an intent to forgive and to be in a forgiving space vis-à-vis that other person.  We then begin the work of doing just that.

Forgiving doesn’t mean we go back to the earlier status quo. In fact, sometimes changing the troubled, turbulent status quo is so disturbing to the other – interrupting the dance of conflict – that it signals the end of the relationship as we know it. This doesn’t mean that it’s all done with for good, especially when the troubled relationship is with a relative. To me, it just means we are letting it rest rather than letting it rule us. It may restore itself or it may not. It is important to keep our hearts open in situations like this and that’s where forgiveness comes in. We need to come to terms with the fact that no one is without frailties and flaws, including ourselves. Most of us do the very best we can with the resources we have – emotional, mental, spiritual. Sometimes, by reason of unhealed trauma, various kinds of abuse, neglect, lack of unconditional love, cultural conditioning, you name it, those resources are more limited. Why do we think life will be fair? It isn’t. Still we don’t need to perceive the world as victims. We have power and choice, in even the most difficult situations. Victor Frankl, surely one who endured enormous pain and loss, speaks to this idea in his fine book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken…but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”. 

(next week: Part 2)