On Forgiveness

One aspect of my illness that I’ve struggled with for many years is forgiveness – forgiving the people, events, and even the institutions where I have felt anger, humiliation and pain.

Why do I struggle and feel so strongly about this? A level playing field must be found among friends, family and providers to nurture communication, comfort and a new beginning. Imagine setting aside blame while acknowledging responsibility. Think of deeds being forgiven and the tangled web of the past losing its ability to shape our future.

Just what deeds am I thinking of forgiving? Sadly, they are all real, and the ability to forgive them will not come easily. People with mental illness many have experienced being abandoned when ill, or we may remember restraints and seclusion. We may have experienced involuntary commitment, deep humiliation, or poor care resulting in severe symptoms that led to years of mistrust toward caregivers. For many family members, deeds that need forgiving may include their relative’s antagonistic behavior, violent acts or threats of violence, sexual infidelities and indiscretions, verbal abuse, or unreasonable demands or careless spending sprees which left the family in debt.

I have a thoughtful book of essays that is helping me sort through many questions about forgiveness. What is forgiveness between us? Why forgive? And where to begin? Exploring Forgiveness, edited by Robert Enright and Joanna North, contains a forward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa that states:

“Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly. It is opening the door for the other person to begin again. Without forgiveness, resentment builds in us, a resentment which turns into hostility and anger. Hatred eats away at our well being.”

What I am learning is that forgiveness is not pretending that things are other than they are. It is not cheap. Robert Enright and others write that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. And yet it is more than tolerating. I was startled to read that forgiveness is beyond letting go of negatives, such as anger; it is also the inclusion of positive gift-like qualities such as compassion, generosity, and even love. Joanna North insists that forgiveness is hard work, and that:

“Forgiveness is not something that we do for ourselves alone, but something that we give or offer to another. The forgiving response is outward-looking and other-directed; it is supposed to make a difference to the wrongdoer as well as to ourselves, and it makes a difference in how we interact with the wrongdoer and with others.”

Learning how to forgive includes understanding both the perspective of the injured party and that of the wrongdoer. When we begin to separate the wrongdoer from the wrong which has been committed; we also begin to see the person who has committed a particular wrong. Healing can then occur to the person injured and to the relations between the two parties.

It is my hope that in the year to come we can learn, as people with mental illnesses and as family members, to speak not only of understanding and empathizing with the other, but also to explore issues of forgiveness. “Without forgiveness there is no future,” Bishop Tutu declared.

Let us create a good future.