What is forgiveness? What is not forgiveness?

A friend said that she’d been having nightmares.  She knew why.  It was the birthday of a man who had been important to her.  He treated her brutally, viciously.  Years after their last encounter, years after his death, she is still finding more ways that his abuse has hurt her.  Each discovery of another complication hits her like a fresh injury.  It’s as if he is still attacking her.  She asked what forgiveness would look like in a situation like hers.  What would it mean, exactly, for her to forgive him?

I didn’t get to know her until after this man was dead.  I don’t know the first thing about their relationship.  So the only answer I could possibly offer to her question would be a purely abstract one.  Since I have no background in psychology, that abstract answer would not be grounded in science.  I don’t want to babble, but maybe I can come up with something helpful to say.   

Often when we think of forgiveness, we think of a single event, a single act that resolves a conflict once and for all.  That clearly isn’t possible for someone in the situation  my friend finds herself in.  She never knows when she will find another wound.  So whatever forgiveness is for her, it can’t be a single act.  It has to be an ongoing process.    

In the course of the conversation, a famous line from Hannah More came up: “Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… Forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.”  If an abstract discussion of the nature of forgiveness would be helpful, perhaps we could use that line as a test.  In the first place, More (or the character in her play) seems to be saying that forgiveness benefits the forgiver.  That makes sense of my friend’s interest in the idea of forgiving the man who hurt her.  He’s dead, after all; what she does won’t affect him one way or the other. 

Second, to qualify as forgiveness my friend would have to save herself  “the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.”   The story of a once-for-all act of forgiveness can end with this savings.  An ongoing process in which a person copes with one loss after another sounds like it would be a very demanding thing to keep going.  Could it also be “the economy of the heart” in More’s sense?            

I wondered what else one could say, again at the abstract level available to those of us who weren’t there and don’t know what happened between my friend and the man who wronged her.  My near-total ignorance of psychological science keeps me from forming an intelligent opinion about the theories of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, but it doesn’t keep me from thinking of her terminology, no more than my ignorance of what happened to my friend keeps me from trying to come up with something helpful to say to her about it. 

You may or may not remember Kübler-Ross’ name, but I suspect you’ve heard of one of her ideas.  In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross analyzed the process of grieving into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.   

“Acceptance” was Kübler-Ross’ term for the period when a person facing an irreversible loss has dissolved all the aggressions and fantasies that have driven his or her first reactions to the loss.  This is a quiet period in which the person comes to terms with the new reality and prepares to make the most of it.  This would seem to fit Hannah More’s description of forgiveness. 

It strikes me that three of the other stages might be mistaken for forgiveness.  Denial, bargaining, and depression might all leave a person calm while someone who has done him or her wrong goes unpunished.  But they do not meet Hannah More’s test.  While they may not involve anger or hatred, they do restrict the person’s emotional and cognitive life.  If a person tries to stay in one of those stages longer than necessary, it will not represent the economy of the heart, but a vast and ever-growing expense. 

Kübler-Ross did not regard the first four stages as disposable; one cannot go directly to acceptance of a major loss.  There are inner battles everyone who suffers an irreversible loss must fight.  Those battles may not always come according to the plan of campaign the five stages of grief model lays out, but to believe that one can simply come to peace with an irreversible loss without going through such battles is to engage in magical thinking.  

If we identify forgiveness as a function of acceptance, then we can see that injunctions to forgive can get in the way of growth towards forgiveness.  A person who believes that s/he must grant forgiveness immediately might try to stay in denial rather than deal with anger, or might turn his or her aggression inward and plunge ever deeper into depression. 

So, if my friend has to go through the whole grieving process every time she finds another wound, her “ongoing process” of forgiveness is going to be a way of life.

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