Nephew: My friend Aaron tells me I should forgive the gnome who bashed me up last year, that I should ‘find it in my heart to forgive the creep’. I guess that makes sense. What do you think?
Uncle:. No. Don’t try to forgive the gnome.
Nephew: You do surprise me sometimes.
Uncle: By the sound of it, your friend Aaron thinks you’re the problem, for not moving on.
Nephew: He’s right, isn’t he? I should be over it by now.
Uncle: There is no ‘should’ about it. If you still have feelings about the incident, accept them. Tell Aaron to pull his head in.
Nephew: He’ll be pleased to hear that.
Uncle: Aaron seems to think your mind is a whiteboard, and all you have to do is wipe the pain away. Even if we could wipe such memories away, we might not want to. The thing is: we can’t discard unwanted resentment simply by choosing to do so.
Nephew: I bet some people can.
Uncle: They would be either ready to let go of the pain anyway, or be in some form of denial.
Nephew: Aaron reckons I should look for the positives I can take from the experience.
Uncle: That’s for you to decide. When we talk about our suffering we want our feelings validated, not undermined. Perhaps one day, when the pain is a shadow, you might begin to look for the positives, but do that only when you’re ready.
Nephew: Aaron meant well.
Uncle: And, sometimes an incident is too toxic for any positive to be taken from the experience. Even just expecting us to search for the positive can be a cruel ask.
Nephew: He was trying to help.
Uncle: Yes, he felt uncomfortable seeing you in pain. However, when we are asked to not hold a grudge, that can feel like being asked to accept and condone the bully’s behaviour. That’s not how it is, but that’s how it feels.
Nephew: You’re taking this harder than I am. Has someone done something to you? Did someone eat crackers in your bed? And now wants to be forgiven?
Uncle: I’m just saying that when someone advises us to forgive, they are asking us to ignore our pain, our indignation and our sense of justice . . . and replace it with a manufactured zen-like serenity. But if we try to comply with those expectations we might end up feeling a sense of self-betrayal. How fair is that?
Nephew: Gosh, you have suffered, haven’t you? What brand of crackers were they?
Uncle: Crackers? What are you talking about? I’m asking if it’s fair to ask someone to forgive the person who raped them? Or to expect a parent to forgive the drunk driver who ran over their child? No, it’s not fair to ask. We need to feel the anger and grief, and the last thing we want is to have some peanut in the peanut gallery advising us to chill out and take a positive view.
Nephew: Whoa! I’m staying out of this one! I was only bashed up.
Uncle: If you’re still feeling bad about it, it’s relevant.
Nephew: I’m concerned about you. You’re taking this way too hard. Why not just change the sheets?
Uncle: The sheets? What sheets? Where do you get ‘sheets’ from?
Nephew: From the sheet shop.
Uncle: Are we having the same conversation? I haven’t said a word about sheets. I’m simply saying we should not feel obliged to forgive. If someone tells you to forgive, respond with something like, ’I’ll decide that, thank you very much.’
Nephew: I’ll decide that, thank you very much.
Nephew: No, I mean . . .
Uncle: I can’t think of any situation when it is okay for one person to tell another person that it’s time to forgive. Nor can I envisage any situation in which we should try to forgive.
Nephew: Hey! Whoa! I can understand why we should not tell someone to forgive, but surely we should try to forgive?
Uncle: Not at all. Yes, I know that the happiness gurus talk about resentment being a ‘cancer, eating away at the soul’ . . .
Nephew: That’s right. Aaron quoted me a Chinese proverb: ‘The fire you burn for your enemy often burns yourself more than him.’
Uncle: Hopefully it sounds better in Chinese.
Uncle: Shut up. Yes, those axioms sound good, but they are not necessarily true. I know someone called Sandra. When she was in her teens she was tormented daily by her older brother. He would say things to her like “You are so ugly, you should die,” and “I hate you, I want to kill you.” Then he would punch her, spin her around, and throw her against the wall until she screamed. Her mother would cry, but neither parent could stop it. Eventually her brother left home and the abuse ended. It was like a new life for both her and her parents. She said it was like getting out of jail.
Nephew: And now?
Uncle: Thirty years later she has not forgiven her brother, and does not want to forgive him. However, she doesn’t think about him either.
Nephew: The point being?
Uncle: She isn’t being ‘eaten away by a cancer’. She’s not burning herself with fire.
Nephew: So, we don’t need to forgive someone to move on, or to heal?
Nephew: Alright, but that’s just one anecdote.
Uncle: The ‘cancer eating away at the soul’ is more likely to appear when we try to forgive someone and fail. Worse, we might conclude that we have let ourselves down by not being the noble, forgiving person we would like ourselves to be.
Nephew: Yes, that’s how I feel. I feel ashamed that I still can’t forgive that gnome.
Uncle: There you go. At least you’re honest. Some people nobly declare their forgiveness when in truth they are just being self-righteous and self-deluding.
Nephew: Self deluding?
Uncle: Yes. We might fool ourselves into believing we have successfully forgiven someone, and then live our lives with underlying resentment. Wallpapering over resentment with a manufactured ‘forgiveness’ can turn resentment into suppressed bitterness, or worse, into a sense of defeat and powerlessness.
Nephew: You have given this a lot of thought, haven’t you? I bet you never bought that brand of crackers again.
Uncle: What brand of crackers? What is this about crackers? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Look, my point is: the last thing we need is to be told to forgive. It’s just cruel. We can’t simply flick a switch and forgive someone. We don’t discard emotions at will. If we could, we would be living in a different world.
Nephew: I notice how the gurus suggest we forgive but don’t tell us how to actually do it.
Uncle: Good point. In the movies it’s easy: someone makes a tearful declaration of their forgiveness and leaves the astonished recipient moved beyond measure.
Nephew: It would bring a tear to statue.
Uncle: In real life it’s not that simple. Yes, sometimes forgiveness can be a choice, but it’s rare, and it indicates that the person was ready to forgive. Or more accurately, ready to let go of the pain.
Nephew: What’s your policy on taking revenge?
‘While seeking revenge dig two graves – one for yourself.’
Uncle: I’m not for it. Revenge can end in tears for both parties, and there is no guarantee you will feel better anyway. In 1996 in Sydney, a serial killer was sent to jail for the term of his natural life. After ten years in his cell he was granted a television set and a jaffle iron.
Nephew: A jaffle iron? Why would he want a jaffle iron?
Uncle: Presumably to make jaffles. What else? Anyway, people protested, arguing that he should not be given such treats, and the authorities rescinded the benefits. Fortunately, the television set and jaffle iron were returned to him a month later when commonsense and compassion prevailed.
Nephew: What happened then? Did he dig his way out of prison with his jaffle iron?
Uncle: For some stupid reason it seems you can’t have a conversation without talking about crackers, sheets and jaffle irons.
Nephew: You’re the one who keeps introducing these things into the conversation.
Uncle: I’m just saying, the incident indicates that even though the prisoner would never again be free, that was not enough for some people: their need for revenge had not been sated.
Nephew: So, revenge doesn’t work?
Uncle: But it’s not true revenge, is it? Our complex justice system cannot satisfy a personal need for revenge. We evolved to retaliate. Bullied hominids that did not retaliate continued to be bullied, and would struggle to find a mate and pass on their genes. Those who stood up for themselves, adopting a vengeful ‘eye for an eye’ attitude, would deter the bullies and fare better. It’s in our blood to lash out, to seek revenge, and our justice system thwarts that.
Nephew: Holy moly. You came up with all this over a few crumbs in bed?
Uncle: Crumbs in bed? There you go again! Look, having a justice system is a good thing. Who wants anarchy? But when a court administers punishment the victim’s personal need for vengeance is still not satisfied. That’s why some criminals continue to be hated.
Nephew: Yet revenge can be sweet. Cousin Lois was dumped cruelly by her boyfriend. She went to his love shack and left a bucket of prawns in there to rot, so that the next time he took a lover there . . .
Uncle: Oh dear.
Nephew: She told me her act of revenge still gives her enormous satisfaction.
‘One time a new boyfriend conned me out of $250, which was a lot of money in 1990. He didn’t intend to repay me; he played me for a sucker. After I intentionally spilled a chocolate milkshake over the exterior of his car I felt so much better and quickly forgot about it. Justice was served. Had I done nothing, and thought I needed to forgive him, I would have been irritated for years.’
Uncle: I take your point, but generally, revenge is not a good long-term solution. Yes, it can lead to closure, but it can also lead to further problems. I’m talking about how we shouldn’t try to forgive someone when we aren’t yet ready to do so.
Nephew: If we shouldn’t try to forgive, and if you don’t recommend revenge, what can we do?
Uncle: We can let the pain dissipate.
Nephew: What does that mean?
Uncle: First, let me congratulate you for complaining to your friend Aaron about the bullying you experienced years ago. You did the right thing. To complain to friends about how we were wronged is a normal, healthy thing to do, and it’s a good way to release some of the pain.
Nephew: I humbly accept your congratulations. Not that I give a hoot.
Uncle: Though talking to a friend can be a problem when it’s overdone. Unfortunately, some people think it’s the only way to release the pain, so they complain long and often.
Nephew: Like Aunt Merle. That’s all she does.
Uncle: To complain long and hard to a trusted friend is alright if it’s part a plan to heal. But when some people complain, they aim to maintain the rage and the hate, for fear of having their problem ignored or forgotten. That’s when it becomes a cancer.
Nephew: Not a real cancer?
Uncle: A metaphorical cancer.
Nephew: Fair enough. But my complaint to Aaron was just a reminisce. I wasn’t trying to get it off my chest, and nor was I trying to maintain the rage.
Uncle: That’s fine. It’s good to get something of your chest, but an emotion will not dissipate if we intend to keep fuelling it. If Charlotte in her paddock had kept Anger, Jealousy, and the other unwanted emotions in the paddock with her, and tied them down and flogged them, and didn’t let them leave her, then after a while she would have become bitter and twisted.
Nephew: Like yourself.
Uncle: But she didn’t do that. When it came time for . . . what did you say?
Nephew: Keep going.
Uncle: . . . When it came time for each emotion to leave Charlotte, she let it leave. She didn’t discard it or ignore it, but when it was ready to leave she let it leave. In the same way, we can become bitter and twisted if we aim to maintain the rage and the pain. We need to let the pain arrive when it wants to arrive, and just as importantly, we need to let the pain leave when it’s ready to leave.
Nephew: Wise words, Oh Great One.
Uncle: Ah! You have come to your senses. It’s about time you saw me as I truly am.
Nephew: Yes, Oh Great One.
Uncle: That’s what true forgiveness is: allowing the pain we feel to dissipate. It has nothing to do with trying to manufacture a warmth towards the perpetrator; it has nothing to do with excusing or condoning their behaviour; and it has nothing to do with letting them get away with their crime.
Nephew: But we need their remorse, don’t we?
Uncle: To see remorse in a person’s eyes does make letting go of the pain easier, but we can’t rely on the person to feel remorse. We can’t allow our state of mind to be dependent on how another person feels. The important thing to remember is: we’re not trying to forgive the perpetrator for their sake, we’re letting go of the pain for our sake. The other person doesn’t have to be present. Or remorseful. Or even alive. The other person is irrelevant.
Nephew: Except for what they did.
Uncle: Some happiness gurus tell us to forgive because that’s the warm and fuzzy bit we love to see happening. They don’t seem to realise that forgiveness is not about our relationship with the other person, it’s about us. It’s about letting the pain we feel dissipate.
Nephew: Are you saying it’s possible to let go of the pain we feel, while continuing to think badly of the perpetrator?
Uncle: That’s right. That can happen.
Nephew: Alright then, how do we let the pain dissipate?
Uncle: Three things. First, we can aim to not maintain the rage.
Uncle: We can feel the fury and the pain, and complain to people we trust, but we can also make the conscious choice to not maintain the pain and resentment forever.
Nephew: Will that work?
Uncle: The pain will not magically vanish, but because we have given permission to let the pain to one day leave us, there is a good chance that one day it will. There might still be sadness and bad memories, but the sting will have gone.
Nephew: You seem to be suggesting that some people vow to maintain the rage.
Uncle: Some do. They are concerned that if they let their guard down and let go of their anger, they will be betraying themselves or their loved one, and be letting the perpetrator off the hook.
Nephew: But that’s not how it is?
Uncle: No. When we manage to let go of the pain we realise there is no self-betrayal, and we are not letting anyone off the hook. That’s why letting the pain dissipate brings with it enormous relief.
Uncle: Two: we can let time take its course. Remember Sandra? Tormented daily by her older brother? Time was her healer. Yes, Sandra still feels rippling effects from her brother’s cruelty, and won’t forgive him, but because she doesn’t think about him, the sting has gone.
Nephew: Telling someone who has been wronged to wait until the pain goes away is not the most helpful advice. That tip sucks.
Uncle: So does your vocabulary.
Uncle: Three: when we are ready to let go of the pain we can seek permission from a friend.
Nephew: Permission? To do what?
Uncle: To let go. To let the pain dissipate. Sometimes we would like to let go of the pain and suffering – we would like to forgive – but we are not sure we should. In those instances we can say to a supportive friend, ‘I would like to forgive. Can I?’
Uncle: Aaron, for example. When you are ready to let go of your ill feeling towards the gnome . . . kid who bashed you, that will be the time to hear those supportive words from Aaron.
Nephew: But not until I’m ready?
Uncle: That’s right. Until you’re ready to let go of the anger or the bitterness, don’t forgive your bully. Never feel obliged to forgive anyone. Don’t try to manufacture forgiveness. Instead, focus on what you yourself are feeling. Listen to the fury and the pain, and complain like a banshee, but if a time does come when you do want to let go of your anger and pain and resentment, then give yourself permission to let go of it. Don’t aim to maintain the rage.
Nephew: Let time do its job?
Nephew: If I were to forgive the bully and then see him in the street, should I tell him I’ve forgiven him?
Uncle: Only if you are sure he wants your forgiveness. Otherwise, you might be seen to be playing a game, and that might create problems.
Nephew: Fair enough.
Uncle: Also, there is a good chance he might not respond in the way you’d like.
Uncle: If you do tell him you forgive him, mean it. Don’t say it to be self righteous, or to show him you haven’t been permanently hurt. If you’re just trying to score a point, forget it.
‘False forgiveness – forgiving because it is the decent thing to do, or is in some way advantageous – does not bring healing. It adds to the original injury and cannot resolve it. Resolution begins and ends with truthfulness, with a genuine expression of feeling, and the change this allows.’
Nephew: From what I gather, you do recommend forgiveness, but you call it ‘letting the pain dissipate’.
Uncle: The word ‘forgiveness’ suggests one person forgiving another, whereas ‘to let the pain dissipate’ means the other person is irrelevant. The end result might be the same, but letting go of an unwanted emotion is an easier and kinder process than trying to actively forgive someone.
Nephew: Let’s say a woman gets bashed by her husband and she keeps forgiving him. That means she’ll stay in that relationship while he keeps bashing her. Forgiveness can be dangerous.
Uncle: You seem to think that forgiving someone could make you a doormat. No. Respond appropriately. Express your anger. Change the circumstances. If the abused wife can succeed in changing her circumstances neither she nor her aggressor will benefit if she then chooses to maintain the rage.
Nephew: That’s what the gurus mean when they suggest we forgive.
Uncle: And I say that it’s better to allow our pain to dissipate, but only when we’re ready. Then forgiveness will follow. Forgiveness will come naturally.
Nephew: How could a beaten woman let go of her resentment without feeling self-betrayal?
Uncle: If she succeeds in letting go of her resentment she won’t feel self-betrayal; she will feel peace. But if she tries to let go of those feelings when she is not ready, she will feel it.
Uncle: To forgive someone does not mean ignoring what they did, or allowing it to continue. We can still make the necessary changes and not hold onto our suffering.
Archie Bunker: ‘Are you going to hold it against me for the rest of my life?!’
Edith Bunker: ‘No, because if I did, it would be the rest of my life, too.’
Characters on the television program, ‘All in the Family’
Nephew: Can I ask to be forgiven?
Uncle: For all your stupid comments?
Nephew: No, I mean in general. If I wrong someone and regret it, can I ask them for their forgiveness?
Uncle: In my opinion, no. You would be trying to manipulate the person into making you feel better. That’s not fair on the other person and it puts them in an awkward position. They are not obliged to forgive you, and whether or not they do is none of your business.
Nephew: You said that when we talked about apologies.
Uncle: But yes, I do forgive you.
Nephew: For what?
Uncle: For all your stupid comments.
Write a letter about a bad experience that still haunts you. (You don’t have to show or send it to anyone.) In it, clarify your thoughts and feelings. Such a letter might provide the release you need.
In your letter don’t write anything you don’t fully believe.
Explain in detail:
– what happened,
– how you feel about what happened,
– what you would prefer to have happened,
– what you think the other person might have been thinking and feeling at the time,
– what the person didn’t understand at the time.
Conclude by explaining that although you have not yet chosen to let go of the pain and the accompanying resentment, you would nevertheless like to one day let go of it, if and when you are ready to do so.
I am grateful to writers Robert Enright and Stephanie Dowrick, and to my friend Sandra, because I plundered much of their wisdom to write this chapter.
Mind you, they might not agree with what I have written.