From an abusive childhood to a dysfunctional first marriage, I’ve had a lot to heal from. Don’t we all. And in the many books I’ve read about healing, experts vary in their emphasis on forgiveness as part of the healing process. Some insist it’s necessary, others that it’s helpful, and a few that you can heal just fine without it.
In my twenties, I preferred the latter answer. I was angry with my parents, angry with religion, and I didn’t want to hear that I might one day stop feeling that rage–much less that I might need to.
But then something unexpected happened. When I was 32 years old, I started to write down my parents’ stories and my own. And I began to understand them. I developed empathy for them. I realized that the day I had feared for my life, as a 12-year-old, my father had never intended to kill me. He simply lost control.
Attacking a child is unequivocally wrong. But just a few years earlier, he was an unemployed computer programmer. The bank foreclosed on our house, and he moved his family across the state. Jobless for six months, he found himself alone with a wife on the spectrum who offered no emotional support and two young children–one of whom was now telling him to be nicer to that wife. He snapped.
Times I’ve snapped, too. I’ve done things I regret, too. Things that hurt people. Unlike my father, I’ve owned up to those wrongs and tried to make it right. But as I’ve written before, the space between my father and me isn’t as wide as I once needed to pretend it was.
And in that moment of insight–of common humanity–I forgave him.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean absolving someone of their wrongdoing. It doesn’t approve of their actions, and it doesn’t mean we have to return to a toxic relationship or pretend a connection we no longer feel.
And it took me a long time to learn that, too.
My ex-husband and I lived out a complicated, messy, and deeply unhappy life together for ten years. We took turns being emotionally abusive. When I found him with another woman, it shouldn’t have surprised me. But it did. The visible collapse of a marriage that had been motivated by a green card and 21-year-old self-sacrifice swept away my identity along with the relationship.
I stayed for two more years because I thought I should be able to believe his promises and forgive him. I also believed forgiveness would fix everything. Like the broken trust and the absence of love between us.
But forgiveness doesn’t restore relationships. Facing the fact that his continual denials about what I had seen left me unable to trust him ever again, I finally filed for divorce. It took a year, and we met for tea every three or four months to fill out the paperwork together and negotiate each step of the process. But I still hadn’t forgiven him.
It has only been over the last year, as I’ve been in a new relationship with my new, hard-earned identity after years on my own, that I have finally come to see my own abusiveness in that abusive marriage. And in seeing that, I have finally forgiven my ex-husband–and myself.
And this, I’ve learned, is the secret of forgiveness. We cannot forgive others without first forgiving ourselves. We all play a role in our own hurts. I have shared responsibility in nearly every toxic friendship or dysfunctional family dynamic. Even when I was the clear victim, I didn’t set healthy boundaries or walk away when I knew I should. And I have to own that.
Forgiveness has a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god quality to it. It requires humility, and humility can be scary because it leaves us feeling vulnerable. But vulnerability is the honest human condition. There are no guarantees, and righteous indignation only masks our fears at facing the deeper truth: None of us deserves forgiveness.
I don’t deserve it any more than my ex. But people who love us forgive us daily. We must remember to never take that miracle for granted. And we must remember, too, that if we want to fully heal, it is necessary to acknowledge our common humanity. Seeing ourselves in those who have wronged us is truly the only way to learn from the darkness and let go of it enough to move forward.