Maybe it’s the holidays coming up that sunk my brain into the idea of forgiveness. I don’t mean that in a zen way or an inspiring Oprah interview. I mean the emotional release of vindictiveness or shame. Wikipedia says forgiveness is, “the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as resentment and vengeance, and with an increased ability to wish the offender well. ” I don’t know if forgiveness is a let go as much as it is a gradual fade. The pain and hunger for vindication softens to tremendous hurt and then that heals, and what’s left is a scar– a physical reference point of yet another thing we survived.
This essay is not just about forgiving people (including ourselves). It is also about how when I apologize, I’ve felt entitled to a forgiveness I did not have a right to. This is a essay about consequences and shame and the reactions raised when we are the wrongdoers. We are all villains in someone’s story. We don’t get to rewrite that.
I used to be really vindictive– hungering for justice or some come-uppance. It really doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it can be satisfying– don’t get me wrong. Payback is a delicious bitch. But a lot of times, when karma returns, it is hollow. You’ve moved on and the wound that ached for attention is healed. The emptiness echoes inside– a contrast between a desperate craving dissipated against the apathy toward those circumstances now.
I don’t want to be that broad grumbling over grudges made a decade ago. I don’t have that expendable energy. When I do the wrong thing, I take it on the chin, even if I know the person I am apologizing to will mark this as a time they were right. I seek accuracy. I stand up for myself, but I don’t care much about being right anymore. I care about being human and growing and surrounding myself with people who support that. I’ve also been on the other side. I’ve been the wronged and never got an apology. The only thing I could do was move on. I moved on understanding that life isn’t a tally. No one owes me anything. Good deeds are done because they’re good to do, not to get something out of. The latter is manipulation. It hurts. But the only way through is forward. And that forward isn’t vengeful, marching with the belief that my victimhood somehow absolves me of my poor behavior or sanctifies me. It doesn’t. People, for the most part, are doing their best out here. Sometimes, that’s not good enough, and we have all stood in the shoes where our best was still below the mark. When that happens, pride mires a lot of mouths silent. It feels weak to say, “I screwed up. I’m sorry”.
An apology doesn’t have to be grandiose. It doesn’t have to be groveling toward forgiveness, a desperate penance through many rituals. It can be the light of recognition that you wish you handled it differently. “I’m sorry” is enough. And if someone is seeking more than that– more than an apology and changed behavior– you probably can’t give it to them. Because screwing up as a person isn’t grounds for indentured servitude. You don’t want the forgiveness of a person who gets off on your suffering and sniveling to be in their good graces again. That person doesn’t need an apology. They need therapy (but we all need therapy).
I’ve been on both sides of this and an equally crappy thing to do is be the gloating asshole in an ivory tower who cannot admit their contributions to the mess. I’m not great at being humble, but I think I’m getting better. Sometimes, I ask myself, “is this really the hill you want to die on? are you so concerned with righteousness that you’re jeopardizing this relationship?” Sometimes, in a harrowing twist, it is. The argument becomes an exit to something I wanted to leave, and I couldn’t admit that to myself. Other times, I let it go because not everything is World War III. I’ve found that people cling to being right, being the one who is always wronged, when they have nothing else to hold onto. Great friendships and partnerships and families do not rely on perfection. They exist and grow because all parties involved allow space for flaws and forgiveness and growth. If a connection can’t do that, its not the real thing.
The gritty truth is this: no one owes us their forgiveness. And even if it is granted, that does not guarantee space in that person’s life. Our actions have consequences. We don’t get to determine other people’s boundaries after we violate them. Until that reality is digested, accountability will always feel like an attack. However, accountability is love. To witness a loved one participate in behavior that they are better than and remind them they are capable of more is an act of love. It’s an act of self love to soberly reflect on mistakes. It takes a tremendous amount of self-love to forgive ourselves even when our apology goes unaccepted because it means we believe we are capable of better. It means we are daring to do better, and might suck at it, but the era of seeking excuses and avoiding the aftermath of our errors has ended. We get to decide that. How humbling and empowering.
Like I said in the beginning. This isn’t me writing from a pious place. There are things I still struggle to unclench my fist over. The taste of crow is still bitter and unwanted. But I know we’re all lugging this big, fat hurt and pride around. We are all the victims of somebody’s worst hour. That makes us human but it doesn’t define the kind of human we are. We get to write that.