Forgiveness is the topic of today’s entry. I wrote an earlier entry on the topic, but I want to expand on it because of something that happened at Kiki’s birthday bash last Saturday.
Three women and I were standing outside smoking (standard disclaimer, I smoke when I’m with Kiki, which is maybe once a month, blah blah blah). Anyway, Kiki was not with us at that time. We were having a nice chat about families and whatnot (two of the three women were mothers. I’m not sure about the other woman). We were talking about how friendships didn’t have to be lifetime things in order to be of value. Then, one of the women, let’s call her R, made a connection to family. She said while she loved her mother, she didn’t necessarily like her. One of the other women, we’ll call her T, talked about how she told her father why he was a shithead, and ironically, they had a better relationship after that.
From there, the other women started riffing on forgiveness. R recounted a tale from her teen years in which her father made her cry. It took her years to forgive him, but she added, “I did because I have things that I need to be forgiven for!” The other women nodded in agreement as if to say, “Who doesn’t?”
At this point, I wasn’t saying anything, but something inside me rebelled. This is one of the reasons I got out of Christianity (to the extent that I was ever in it)–false equivalence. Lusting in one’s heart was the same as committing adultery. Thinking about killing someone was the same as actually doing it. If that was the case, I wondered, then why not actually do whatever it was in your heart? I mean, if I was going to get condemned to hell for lusting, I might as well have the pleasure of copulation, amirite?
So, while I have many things for which I need to be forgiven, anything I’ve done to my father pales in comparison to what he did to me. I refuse to have any false equivalence about it.
To be fair to the mothers, they were viewing the situation from their perspective as parents. T said how she’s learned that something she’s said to her son was held and nursed for years. Something silly and stupid or flippant, but certainly not something meant to hurt. R agreed (the other mother).
Here’s the thing, though. They are assuming that the intent on the part of the parent is good. That’s fine and dandy, until we come to the issue of molestation. There is no good intent in that–especially not from someone like my father. And, it’s not something trivial or flippant or off-the-cuff. If what I remember is correct (still not a hundred percent sure about this), then it happened for many years.
R talked about learning to accept her mother as she (the mother) is. R realized that her mother had a hard life which contributed to how she was now. I can agree with this to a certain extent because we are all shaped to some extent by our pasts.
That’s off the track, though, as I am focusing on forgiveness.
Here’s the thing. I was raised Christian and went to a Taiwanese church every Sunday. Forgiveness was the name of the game. Forgiveness from God, which cannot be earned, though one must earnestly supplicate for it. Forgiveness came from the grace of God, if He deemed you were truly repentant and not just giving lip service so you wouldn’t go to hell (why yes, I was a peculiar child. Why do you ask?). Forgiveness was unattainable by good works, but a simple sincere wish to be forgiven, and poof! You were forgiven. If you didn’t repent, then God unleashes the floods and kills all the animals (except for Noah’s menagerie). In other words, the God of the Old Testament was a vicious bastard who killed anyone who didn’t kowtow down to him enough. Ask for forgiveness or go to hell. Yeah, nice choices there.
So you see, my antipathy for the word forgiveness goes back a long time, and it runs deep.
I think the focus on forgiveness also is a way to avoid the hard work of facing what happened, dealing with the anger, and then, maybe, at your own pace, letting it go. See, part of my rebellion against forgiveness is that it smacks too much of being a good girl or of being nice. Anger is not a pretty thing, and it’s especially frowned upon for women. I have heard women (not just women, but more women than men) say they forgive so-and-so when it’s clear from the tone of their voices that they have not. They know it’s expected of them, and they expect it of themselves, so they say it. I think they believe it, too.
Back to Christianity for a second. One of the tenets I was taught was that someone had to ask for forgiveness before it was granted. Today’s version of forgiveness seems to be, “Say you forgive someone and it’s done.”
I don’t know why this particular word rankles me so much, but it does. It’s the same as the word closure or empowerment, both of which I’ll get to later.
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book entitled Bright-Sided. Here’s a New York Times interview with her about the book. I haven’t read it yet, but the interviews with her I’ve read really struck a nerve with me. My grossly simplified version of her theory is that all the positive reinforcement/thinking crap we’ve been served up in our society for the last ten to twenty years (my figure, not hers) has hurt us more than it’s helped. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and as she recovered, she got tired of all the people telling her she wouldn’t get better until she got the poison out of her system (when she posted rants about the pink ribbon and other such things on breast cancer sites). As she said, it’s a really subtle blame-the-victim mentality. If you don’t get better, it’s your own fault for not believing it hard enough. This has roots in Christianity, of course, as you’re told that if your prayer is not answered to your satisfaction, it’s your own fault. You didn’t pray hard enough or long enough or earnestly enough or whatever.
This actually ties in with empowerment and closure in a way. Here’s a hard truth: We have very little control over our lives. Shit will happen for no reason. That’s life. For some reason, Americans can’t accept this. No. We have to have the illusion that we are in control. I think it’s in part because we have so little control over so many things, and now we have the internets so we can know exactly how much is out of our control, so any effort to be in charge makes us feel better. I heard an MPR program on empowerment, and I had to shut it off because it was pissing me off. It was the Midmorning show with Kerri Miller. The guest had written a memoir about her husband wanting to divorce, how she gave him space, and how they worked it out.
Other women called in gushing about how important it was to hear about female empowerment. I was cringing the whole time. Kerri Miller asked what you would do in the situation, and I thought, “I’d say, ‘OK. Good-bye.'” You see, one thing I’ve learned in this life is that I don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with me. I’ve tried that far too many times. In the end, it just wore me out and made me feel worse about myself. This woman (the guest) was talking about how precious relationships were and how she’s learned not to let them go. That’s her definition of empowerment. Mine is walking away from situations that ultimately are not in my best interest.
Now, I just read a site about forgiveness in which most people were Christians and talked about forgiveness being so necessary to a good life. One person even said there was nothing to forgive–only perspective. Really? Someone kills your child, there’s nothing to forgive? Since most people are instinctively protective of their children, it’s the best example I can proffer.
I said it before, and I’ll say it again. Forgiveness for my father is not on my list of things to accomplish. I have a very long list, believe you me, and that is not on it. Plus, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that these people bleating about God’s love and forgiveness were simply mouthing platitudes. Again, burying the pain rather than dealing with it. In addition, there was the judgmental thing going on. Anyone who didn’t forgive was only hurting him/herself. God forgave (except, as I pointed out, when He felt dissed, which was as often as a teenage boy). One person asked (and got no response, might I add), “Why is there so much focus on forgiving the tormentor/abuser, making the victim feel like the bad one for not forgiving?”
OK. I’m going to be ugly for a minute. I’m going to talk about something that nice girls don’t feel: Revenge. When my ex, M, made me break up with him and then posted online that my love was tiring, I wanted him to hurt. I wanted him to be crushed like I was. When I found out he got dumped by his next girlfriend, the one he was willing to be monogamous with (after declaring himself polyamorous with me), the one he wanted to marry, ironically, she dumped him for another guy, I had a flash of pure malicious joyful spite. Ha!, thought I. May he feel all the pain he put me through! I felt guilty about it at the time, but I don’t in retrospect. I have no feelings for M now, but I would not say I’ve forgiven him. Actually, I would not say I’ve forgiven anyone. It’s just not a word I like in the least.
On the same site I just visited, the author said to visualize the person who abused/tormented/hurt you as an innocent baby. No one was born with the intention to hurt others (which kinda contradicts Original Sin), so think of that innocent baby. Many people on the site said that helped them forgive their tormentors. But, bitch that I am, I thought, “Well, that’s fine and dandy, but my father was not a child when he molested me. He wasn’t an innocent then.” I have a saying that I can empathize with a victim–up until the point when that victim inflicts the abuse on another person (or persons). What about accountability for the person who did the abusing? Why is there no mention of that in all this psychobabble about forgiveness?
It’s about control again. A victim/survivor cannot control what her abuser did to her. If she can forgive him, then that gives her some sense of control. That is something she can do to the abuser (deliberate use of the word to instead of for), which allows her to think she has some say in the matter.
Plus, it’s about cheap grace. On aforementioned website, the author quoted Tyler Perry on how he was bitter about his father beating him and how he (Perry) couldn’t get an audience for his first play. Once he yelled at his father for all the things his father had done to him and his father told him (Perry) that he loved him, suddenly, Perry’s play sold out and his life took off from there. In other words, forgiveness is so powerful, it can make you a star! He had mention that he’d been working on forgiveness, but couldn’t quite do it until that point. He made the connection that he couldn’t be successful until he forgave his father.
Back to my own father for a minute. When I was a teenager, I begged my mother to leave my father. It seemed like I did it fairly often, though I cannot say for sure. I hated him with every fiber of my being. It’s not something I would ever had said out loud, but it was something I felt. If he had died at that point, I would have screamed for joy (somewhere my mother couldn’t hear me, of course, but still). I would have danced a jig on his grave and spit on the gravestone at the same time. In my mid-twenties, I felt much the same. If he had died then (and yes, I thought about my father dying), I would have refused to give a eulogy at his funeral, if I went at all. Now, I would go to his funeral, and I would deliver a eulogy, but it would solely be focused on the good he’s done in his professional/political lives. I have nothing good to say about him personally, and I try not to lie if I can help it.
I have stated before that if it weren’t for the fact that he was still married to my mother, I would probably never talk to him again–and I’m fine with that. I don’t hate him. I am mostly not angry with him. I am not allowing his molestation of me to solely define me (finally), though I still struggle with feeling that my worth lies solely with what’s between my legs (and the number on the scale, that legacy in thanks to my mother). I am, at long last, finally starting to emerge from the shadows he cast in my childhood, squinting at the shining sun. The idea that I have to ‘forgive’ my father in order to be whole offends me, yes, offends me. I can’t help but agree with Barbara Ehrenreich on this: Positive thinking is toxic in this case. At least it is for me. Because as long as the gold standard for living a better, more joyous life is whether or not I’m able to forgive my father, I will fail. What’s more, if I truly believed that was the one thing that would make my life magically better, I would have one more thing with which to bludgeon myself over the head. I don’t need any more weapons I can use against myself, thank you very much, so I reject the notion that I have to forgive in order to heal. (The notion of healing is a whole ‘nother entry in and of itself).
Finally, most of the focus on forgiving is with the implication that you need to mend the relationship because–well, just because. Sometimes, it’s better to let go than to try to hang on. That’s my new mantra in life (as an OCD person, not an easy mantra to chant, let me tell you). We’ll see how successful I am with it.
*I like Cheap Trick better than Cheap Grace, so I included one of their vids, even though it has nothing to do with the topic at hand.