You don’t have to forgive everyone or everything

You’ve been through something terrible. Truly horrible. Something so bad you can hardly believe it really happened – but it most certainly did happen, and you’re living with the ugly truth of that fact. “It” could be any of a lot of things. You may have been assaulted, abused, robbed, betrayed, cheated on, abandoned, violated.

A loved one may have been murdered.

Whatever mind-numbing tragedy has been that beset you  despite the overwhelming pain of the situation, you manage to get through one day after another. Coping may be so difficult it has to happen 5 or 10 minutes at a time, but you’re doing it.

Suddenly, someone will speak to you of forgiveness. Someone will ask if you can forgive the person or persons responsible for your suffering.  Do you forgive, your attacker, the rapist, the thief, the betrayer, the cheater, the killer. Society, religion and gossipmongers will typically press you to forgive the person who wronged you. I’ve had total strangers ask it of me. Well, feel free to not do so!

Until you’re put in this type of position, it might be hard to understand how frequently people will make excuses for a perpetrator and pressure a victim or victim’s family to give forgiveness to that perpetrator.   I’ve actually had people tell me that I’ll go to hell if I don’t forgive the man who killed my husband.

I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but I’ve developed a very clear understanding of the motives that seem to drive many people who push you to offer forgiveness, even when you don’t feel that way.  Not a lot of people know about the trusted person who stole a lot of money from me, but anybody who can do an Internet search on my name will quickly find out what happened to my husband. Since the very first newspaper report after the car crash, I’ve had to read and listen to people offer justifications for DUI. A few times I tried to correct peoples mistaken assumptions, but I quickly realized that they were actually rallying forgiveness and understanding for their own behavior was that of people in their own lives – it really had nothing to do with the death of my husband. People wanted to hear me say I forgave the drunk driver because they wanted to hear forgiveness for themselves. People who have at anytime even after drinking too much sometimes suddenly realized that they could’ve caused the same type of tragedy, and it seems like they get invested in hearing forgiveness expressed.

Socially, we admire those who can forgive. I think we’ve all seen that type of news story in the media. Generally speaking I’m frequently too forgiving a person. I have forgiven so many people for countless things and unfortunately, more than one of those people have actually hurt me again. It’s in my nature to be forgiving. Even I have limits though.

People who have repeatedly admonished me to forgive the other driver don’t know the details of the case. They also know nothing about the behavior exhibited subsequently. Real life is not about the human-interest story you might like to see on the evening news.

I don’t forgive the man who killed my husband. That shouldn’t bother anybody because he never sought my forgiveness anyway.  He’was an adult who made choices that directly led him to speed through red lights and crash headlong into the driver side door of the minivan my husband was driving. The grand jury indicted him for murder. He actually benefited from the fact that the shock of the event sent my multiple sclerosis into overdrive, because that was why I accepted a plea deal that allowed him to plead guilty to lesser charge; the daily stress of going to trial would have made the MS even worse.

Even though I don’t forgive him, I also don’t hate him. In fact, I rarely think about him at all. He doesn’t deserve space in my life. He has literally taken so much – my husband, my best friend, the father of my children, my health, the plans and dreams we had on that fateful morning – that I choose not to give him ongoing power.  I try to make good things grow out of the rubble. Darkness and despair nibbles at me sometimes but it doesn’t control my life.

I have read exhaustively the subjects of grief and coping, sadness and survival. Some people need to openly, overtly express forgiveness for the person or persons who did them wrong, so that they can live on. As I mentioned, I have forgiven many people in my life for different things. I understand the power that granting forgiveness can bring. Everybody makes mistakes, and I am a firm believer in the importance of second chances (and more sometimes.)  But not every instance is the same.

You don’t owe anybody automatic forgiveness.

I remember talking to an official in the very late hours in my living room on the night Chris died. They knew that the other driver was under the influence. I vividly remember expressing hopeful scenarios about how the other driver had come to be driving under the influence. An unforeseen medication interaction, perhaps. Something that would make the act less evil.

Nope.  The truth that unfolded showed nothing that could in any way ease the agony even the tiniest bit.

Not everybody deserves your forgiveness – with one exception, which I’ll explain in a minute.  The only one who can determine who gets your forgiveness is you. Don’t let anybody pressure you into expressing forgiveness that you don’t feel, because they somehow guilt or shame you into it.

I must say, though, that I’m making that statement from my own experience and am presuming that you’re able to function reasonably well in the aftermath of whatever you’ve suffered. There is truth in the assertion that some people need to be able to forgive in order to let go of trauma and move forward. If that’s a description of your personal situation, then you very well may need to come up with some way to do that so that you can arrive at the greater good of your own survival.

Whatever you need to do to get to a point where you can cope in a healthy way, go ahead and do what you must and forgive yourself if necessary. People pressure us to forgive others, but much more rarely encourage us to forgive ourselves when needed.

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