In most places in the world it’s illegal to forge a person’s signature. Forgery is punishable by law. When we put our stamp on things, it means we have read the entirety of the document and agree with it’s contents. These days we tend to breeze through terms and conditions on iTunes, online movie theatre purchase agreements, software updates, all in the name of, “Thanks, but I’m not that interested in the details, I’m assuming I’m not signing my life away when I download my favourite band’s new album—I agree—click.” What if there was a document, that if signed prematurely, or forged by someone else, could enter you into an agreement that did effectively sell your life away?
And what if its effect on you was so insidious, so covert, that you hardly noticed the steady erosion of your life’s joy, not to mention, integrity? I’m talking about forged forgiveness, a forgiveness that you haven’t authentically arrived at, but have agreed to because of fear.
Imagine a scenario in which an individual has been physically and/or emotionally abused earlier in their life. This person has spent vast amounts of energy downplaying and compensating for this abuse throughout life in order to stay connected to the abuser and the family. On the rare occasion s/he brought the subject of the maltreatment up, the abusive parent became enraged, rallied the other family members, who promptly let the victim of the abuse know how hurtful s/he had been toward their parent—a very effective means of ensuring that s/he would cease and desist. The alternative was to face ostracization from the nuclear and extended family, not to mention family friends.
In effect what has happened is that the conditions surrounding the original trauma have been re-enacted. In the process, the victim has been turned into the abuser. The impulse to cease and desist is strong. But it goes beyond this. If this person has been raised in a religious community, a new age community, or in any community at all, there is considerable pressure to forgive. After all, we should be able, shouldn’t we, to take into consideration the abusive parent’s own history, (perhaps s/he was abused), and life circumstances at the time?
But I can’t help but notice how often this represents more of a “flight to transcendence” in spiritual and social circles than genuine forgiveness. This impulse to forgive doesn’t necessarily translate into the victim feeling better about himself and the situation either. The pressure to make peace in the family, to remain connected and not go through the terrible pain of being isolated from family, and the rationalizing, are in fact, more often than not repeats of the early accommodations that the victim had to make in order to survive. Premature forgiveness in such cases perpetuates the trauma and does not liberate. This accommodationist stance is precisely what caused the person to not live their own life in the first place.
Forgiveness can be employed as a substitute for working through the early trauma sufficiently. And when it remains unconscious and unintegrated, the individual can remain stuck in depression, anxiety, hopelessness, resentment of others, and an inability to express and manifest her/his own needs and wants. When we stop forging forgiveness, we’re up against a very difficult proposition: We have to admit that those we looked to as babies and children weren’t who we made them up to be; the ideal of them falls. We get that we, at young age saved our selves, and agreed to make up for whatever discrepancies existed between what was offered and what we actually needed in order to be children. With that comes the searing fire of grief that we were, in fact, alone, orphaned, or abandoned—all life-threatening for a child or baby.
As children our unconscious thought process is: “If my parents aren’t really good at this, I might not make it. Or if I take in just how much they scare me, I might not make it.” As an adult, we’re not aware of these thoughts and beliefs unless we’ve learned the unique way our inner child communicates. So maybe it’s better to just maintain the ideal? If it’s going to reveal, that yes, in fact, it was all shit, then isn’t it better to keep the fantasy alive? That with just a little internal maneuvering we can say we’re over it and it’s okay now? When forgiveness is little more than a strategy to help us cope, it becomes just one more move in our arsenal that we learn to avoid punishment, rejection, and the painful reality of being alone and unloved as a child.
Many people want to stay connected to people that hurt them because the alternatives are so chilling– aloneness, ostracization, not belonging, but if they really accepted that people they trusted hurt them, I mean really took it in, they would get that they never had what they thought they had. That they conjured what they needed. And that these feelings or fears are old, they’re memories. Really taking in that people who say they love you could do these things to you might leave you with a different response than forgiveness. It might sound more like, “Well, why would I want to stay in relationship with somebody who shows no curiosity about my experience, re-enacts rage when its mentioned, or with a family for that matter who instinctively defends the perpetrator?
In the absence of an abusive person sincerely asking forgiveness (which involves a willingness to deeply listen, empathize, and make amends), why would one actually be so quick to forgive them? I’ve seen the alternative work very well, in fact. After undergoing a deep process of healing, one frees themselves even without acknowledgement from others, emancipation signed, nothing forged.
You may be in a different boat. Your parents might have been awesome, or even imperfect, but you can love them all the same. I celebrate that. I’ve often thought it is noble work to stay connected to families, and to grow through gaining a larger vessel of understanding that the being in the relationship brings. For many I know who have suffered abuse or neglect though, there is a problem afoot. People are feeling “less than”, crazy, depressed, untrusting of themselves, and non-committal about many of their relationships and life projects because they haven’t given credit where credit is due. They haven’t allowed the truth of how they feel about abusive situations and abusive people to really sink in. It takes time and at least one good relationship to right the ship, and the journey includes multiple grief-soaked moments until a person gets that s/he can be loved, is good, that the shame belongs, not with them, but with the one who should not have done what they did, and that the depression, anxiety, and doubts about oneself and life are memories.
Forgiveness might come, but only as a miracle, uncoerced. The path is not about pursuing forgiveness, I doubt it should even be a destination on the map. The path instead is about slowly letting the facts sink in. Chances are they line up with and clear up the feelings an individual’s been having, so that only one loving voice is left inside. An adult can be forgiving, but should not forge forgiveness on behalf of his or her inner child unless the child is genuinely ready. It can actually cost an individual a slow, depressing, doubt-filled life.