There’s a lot of talk about forgiveness these days. The health benefits alone, they say, are astounding. I don’t disagree. Hanging on to resentment and blame for years can do a number on our lives and our bodies. Hatred long held can be like a cancer literal or figurative in our lives.
But there’s another side to forgiveness, a dark side. It’s often used in response to people who are angry. I have recently experienced a large betrayal and have been expressing a healthy amount of anger in response to something very painful. Within 72 hours, people were already telling me to forgive.
This got me thinking, “What’s the rush?”
The Rush to Forgive
I started to realize that my anger was making people feel uncomfortable. They wanted me to forgive so they could quickly move back into peace. That’s fair, they don’t have to hear it, but that doesn’t mean the rage must dissolve so quickly.
Sometimes, the call to forgive — or calm down — was a way for the church to keep control over people. Don’t be angry, forgive. Don’t stand up for your rights and be angry, find peace and move on. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is all about this. He talks about the white man’s request that African Americans slow down, calm down, and wait for segregation and racism to end “peacefully” was really a means of pacifying a justified rage. He didn’t buy it. He knew they were afraid of giving up power.
Forgiveness is not dissimilar. Telling someone to forgive someone who betrayed them can stifle the healthy processing and expression of rage. As MLK said, no one gives up power willingly. Rage has power in it and if responded to in a healthy way it motivates action. If we skip to forgiveness, we may miss the changes we need to make. Especially women, who are often seen as hysterical when they are angry. And especially spiritually-minded people who want to be perceived as evolved. Sorry, if you’re alive you will feel these uncomfortable emotions. That’s just part of the deal.
Forgiveness is like the make-up sex of emotions.
So tempting to jump right to it, but there’s work that needs to be done before.
The Good Apology
There is wonderful scholarship on “apologies.” Some of the best work talks about how, when making an apology, do not ask the person to forgive you. They have been harmed. The good apology does three things.
1. Identifies the problematic act
2. Acknowledges the harm it caused the other
3. Says what will be done to avoid it happening again.
Asking the other person to “forgive you” asks them to do work to make you feel better while they are working on healing from the harm inflicted. Don’t ask them to forgive you, aim to fix it and make it right. If you do that, forgiveness may come on its own time.
In my own situation, being told to forgive so soon after the offense is like being given another task while I am still trying to make sense of the first problem — what just happened.
The notion of forgiveness can be healing or a tool of oppression. Only you know by listening to your body and your soul which one it is.
Letting Go of Rage
If we can really feel the rage with the intention of moving beyond it, then we will more likely get to a healthy and authentic forgiveness. Though, I am not even sure we ever really forgive. My experience is more of letting go and moving on, limping along with whatever scar may be left. I don’t hold on to hate, but the act itself remains a hurtful act. I just tire of thinking about it and prefer being happy to holding on to it.
One of the gifts of my own recent personal experience is that I will now be better at helping people process their losses, whether they be due to genocide, terrorism, war, or other life losses. Before urging someone towards forgiveness, I will ask myself whether I’m perhaps uncomfortable with their rage.