I have often thought about forgiveness.
It’s something we teach children from a young age – how to say sorry, and how to accept an apology. But we also teach children, or I do anyway, that saying sorry doesn’t fix things. The analogy of the broken pot is a good one. You can glue it together after you’ve smashed it, and apologise to it, but it’s still damaged and scarred. Accepting apologies is hard sometimes. Have you watched children being made to accept the apology of someone who hurt them? And they hang on to that hurt, bring it up again. My mother used to call it flogging dead horses. When you’re young it is hard to learn to let the dead horses lie, to truly forgive someone and accept their apology, I’d argue that as adults it’s important that we do this. Even to learn to forgive someone who never apologises.
I think there are a couple of things shaping my thoughts on forgiveness – firstly, holding grudges. I don’t like to hold grudges – I feel it is a toxin inside. It makes you bitter and resentful, and that can spread into your reactions with others who have played no part in creating that grudge. I don’t like to feel bitter. That doesn’t mean that I can forgive. But I wondered if forgiveness is simply, sometimes, moving on and not allowing the other person emotional space in your head. Acceptance.
Secondly – understanding why someone did something. Understanding that either they meant no real harm (despite harm being caused), or were careless. Or, understanding that they may have meant to hurt you but there are reasons behind that. Not excuses, but reasons that explain it enough for me to be able to forgive.
There was an incident with a student last term. This student had written something hurtful about me. He hadn’t intended me to see it and was horrified when I did. I was extremely upset and felt a little betrayed; it’s not the first time a student has said things about my weight, my appearance, my teaching practice, but this was from a student I trusted, a student I thought I had a good working relationship with. It was unexpected and therefore more upsetting. Words do hurt, despite what the old nursery rhyme says. And words can stick with us, poison in our heads. This particular student did not know how to move forward from this moment. He knew he had hurt me, had not meant for me to be hurt, and believed that he had ruined the relationship between student and teacher. We had a restorative meeting with the school guidance counsellor. The student wanted to be punished, believed I should condemn him for his words. I explained that punishment is not my style. I have never been a big believer in punishment. Besides, he was punishing himself enough already. We spoke for a long time and I managed to convince him that we could move on from this moment. I told him that everyone makes dumb mistakes that hurt people they care about, even people they don’t. What matters is what you do from that moment forward, the decisions that you make from then. Your mistakes should not define you forever. Our relationship has returned to a positive teacher-student one. I wonder what would have happened to him if I had not been able to understand and, I guess, forgive.
That said, there are things that I do find harder to forgive. I find it harder to forgive people who are nasty to my children – even when my children themselves forgive and move on. I encourage them to do so, but I confess that dislike for their bully sits in my soul just a little. And not just my children, but others I care about. It’s much easier for me to forgive the hurts done to myself rather than to my loved ones.
And then there are the really heinous things. I’ve always marvelled at the people who can forgive people who have killed or taken their loved ones. Not through accidents, but through intention. I think that takes real determination and inner steel to not let hate determine your life. I don’t know if I could do that. There are a lot of quotes about forgiveness. Many of them articulate the idea of how it takes strength to forgive others.
“Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”
Recent events have me thinking – how do you forgive people who do things or support things that disgust you to your very core? Can I forgive a racist? A white supremacist? Someone who mistreats the poor to benefit themselves? What if they did these things with (to their own lights) the best intentions? I tried to explore this in my first ever novel, Redemption. If you fought in an army that did the wrong thing, how could you forgive yourself? How could you seek forgiveness from others?
These issues were also raised when I showed my history students the ‘Four hours in My Lai’ documentary, where, 20 years later, soldiers were struggling with the shame and horror of what they had done during the war in Vietnam. My students found the documentary extremely harrowing. To help them process it, I asked them to write reflections. The overwhelming message was horror, sadness, anger, but also a level of sympathy for the soldiers who clearly had never been able to forgive themselves for their actions.
And how do you forgive yourself? Is that easier or harder than forgiving someone else? I think, sometimes, it is harder. We can make excuses for other people but unless we live in complete denial about our own actions we know why we do the things we do. We can be harsher critics of ourselves than of others. I would reach back to what I said to this student – we all do things we are not proud of. Some, even, that shame us when we think of them. Our mistakes, our misdeeds, do not need to define us. If we carry out restitution, apologise, change our behaviour, then surely we too deserve forgiveness from ourselves?
Ultimately for me, personally, I would hope to choose forgiveness when I can. There are lines I can’t allow to be crossed, and I wonder what punishment I would be comfortable with dealing and if, in fact, I would find forgiveness within me in the end. But for the minor transgressions, the major emotional heartbreaks, the unintentional hurts, I would rather seek understanding and practice compassion, not really because I think they deserve it, but because that’s who I would like to be.
“Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace”.
Jonathan Lockwood Huie