Exploring Forgiveness, Part 1

tom(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a four-part series concerning exploring forgiveness.)

Q: I can’t stop hating my father. He was a violent man who beat, bullied and terrorized the whole family. He figured out I was gay years before I did, and thought it was funny to call me “the faggot,” even in front of strangers in public. I left home twelve years ago and have never been back. My spiritual values have kept me going all this time, and they teach me that it’s my duty to forgive. I believe that, but I can’t do it. I just can’t let go of the anger and bitterness. How do I get to forgiveness?

A: Can forgiveness ever be an obligation? Many survivors of childhood abuse seem to believe that their suffering confers on them a duty to forgive their perpetrators, but I don’t see how victims can have any obligations toward their perpetrators, except to avoid succumbing to the temptations of destructive vengefulness. There’s something psychologically unrealistic about the concept of forgiveness as a duty, because you can’t make yourself feel forgiving just because you think that you should. When forgiveness comes, it seems to arrive on its own when the heart is ready.

I do sympathize with your desire not to nurse an ongoing grudge, because that’s a very painful way to live. The fact that you want to be free of this suffering is a sign of the love you hold for yourself, which brings me to this suggestion: If you want to forgive, begin with yourself. Stop making yourself wrong for being in pain. If you’re telling yourself that you should be over it by now, you’re treating yourself with a version of the same contempt that your father showed you. You, like everyone else, are a sensitive and vulnerable human being who can be deeply hurt by others. Accept and forgive yourself for that. If you find forgiving yourself a tall order at this point, don’t make yourself wrong for that either.

Part of what makes me ultimately optimistic about human nature is that when abuse survivors do their inner work — when they befriend themselves and come to deep loyalty to their own well-being — then a warm compassion and genuine forgiveness for the perpetrators often flowers all by itself. But this opening of the heart can’t be forced. When we try to force ourselves to forgive as a moral imperative we just wind up making ourselves feel guilty, and the “forgiveness” we offer reeks of the hypocritical sanctimoniousness of those who “love the sinner and hate the sin.” If, as a by-product of taking good care of yourself, you come to forgiveness, that’ll be great, because your load will be lighter. But don’t try to force yourself to do something that, today, you can’t sincerely do.

Next Time: Misconceptions About Forgiveness

Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is www.tommoon.net.