One of my most popular posts here is on the difference between real remorse and genuine imitation Naugahyde remorse. I thought we should have a post on the difference between true forgiveness and fairy dust forgiveness.
I like a good forgiveness story as much as the next person. I’m a preacher’s kid. I grew up believing it was really possible for people to just hand it over to Jesus and turn their lives around. I get misty during that scene in The Apostle (has everyone seen this Robert Duvall film? If you haven’t, check it out) where Billy Bob Thorton is this harassing thug who wants to bulldoze Robert Duvall’s scrappy, little chapel. But Robert Duvall stands up to him and embraces him. He doesn’t back down, but he holds a crying Billy Bob Thorton and says “I know you’re a good man.” And you come away from that scene thinking, because Robert Duvall believes it, it’s going to be so.
When I used to watch Frosty the Snowman as a kid I was so happy that the Magician saw the error of his ways for stealing Frosty’s hat and everybody ends up friends.
I like a powerful reconciliation story. I want to believe in that kind of forgiveness — that my goodness and fair-mindedness will win the bad guy over. If I just lead with humility and strength, they will recognize how powerful that is, and they will crumple like a repentant Kleenex.
But the way the world usually works is — the bad guy bulldozes the church. He builds some luxury condominiums with granite countertops and douchbags move in. The Magician keeps the hat and tells Frosty he doesn’t deserve to be a real, live snowman. He’s frozen vapor and that’s all he’ll ever be.
And now what? Now you’re supposed to forgive these bad guys who just stay bad?
Here is what Real Forgiveness looks like to me — you may have a different definition, but here’s my take — I accept it. I see it for what it is. And I stop giving it the power to hurt me. I give up vengeance. I don’t wish you dead. I disengage. I trust the Universe, or God, or whatever will sort it out through the natural laws of consequences. I don’t take your continued existence as a personal affront to my happiness.
That’s my forgiveness. And if you think I’m a bitter bunny, consider that I have set the bar lower for forgiveness than the grandmaster of forgiveness himself — South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He says about forgiveness:
To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.
However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.
But the process of forgiveness also requires acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator that they have committed an offence.
My emphasis there. Forgiveness REQUIRES an acknowledgement of the offense.
How many of us even get that?
And yet how much crap do we read and hear of every day in RIC and in our lives that demands we “forgive” our cheaters? It is essential to our moving on. Moreover, there is something wrong with us if we cannot muster up forgiveness. We, the chumps, have small, petty characters.
I take exception to this. I think feeling indifferent on the forgiveness issue in no way impedes your moving past infidelity. “I don’t forgive you!” does not necessarily make you a person who wants to hold on to your victimhood and not move forward. You may simply be saying: “I have nothing to work with here.”
I like how Archbishop Tutu says you can both be angry AND you can say “I accept this.” I unchain myself from this crap.
Fairy dust forgiveness is that kind of cheap forgiveness the Reconciliation Industrial Complex traffics in. Just forgive. Let it go. Be the bigger person. You can’t do that? You’re BITTER.
Fairy dust forgiveness is about magical thinking (of course, because fairies make it). That if I fairy dust forgive you, I can TRANSFORM you into a BETTER PERSON. FDF believes in causation. My nice behavior compels you to be nice. And my un-nice behavior makes you keep doing un-nice things. Why of course you had to keep cheating! I couldn’t forgive you. Yep, this one is on me.
Look, chumps. I could sprinkle fairy dust forgiveness all over the 240 pounds of serial cheater that is my ex. Wouldn’t do a damn thing. I could say “I forgive you! Let’s let bygones be bygones. Hope you’re well!” and he would still be a serial cheater. Because he likes it like that. My forgiveness could no more transform that man into a magic toadstool than a good person.
Oh right, but forgiveness is supposed to be for me. To that I say bullshit, RIC. Fairy dust forgiveness does not make the shit sandwich go down easier. You want me to forgive for YOU and your agenda. To keep this marriage together, regardless of how toxic it is.
Let’s talk REAL forgiveness. Acceptance is for me. So I stop living with false hope. So I stop being angry about people and things I do not control. Meh is for me. Because I have better things to do with my life than throw centrality at this person who hurt me. I own my choices and my values. I will not share my life with a cheater because we’re incompatible. I cannot hope and pray for a compatibility that demonstrably doesn’t exist. This person has shown me through their actions what their values are. I accept the reality of that.
I don’t wish them dead. I wish to disengage. I want peace in my life.
That is forgiveness to me and by my definition I have forgiven. And I remain unreconciled.
I think the RIC assumes that if you reconcile, you have forgiven. And that’s an erroneous assumption, because if you ask me, there are more bitter people staying married to cheaters than there are people divorced from them. The bitterness comes from not living out their values, from being disappointed that all their efforts at being magnanimous were not sufficiently appreciated. There is resentment. Why isn’t my magic fairy dust forgiveness WORKING?
Talk to the magical thinkers over at the RIC, maybe they can explain it to you.
This column ran previously.