To Hell With Forgiveness Culture
Forgiveness is not justice. Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my adult years, this is the most poignant.
In that vein, the flaw in our cultural understanding of what forgiveness is and isn’t is that someone can wrong you and act egregiously towards you for reasons best known to themselves — they can malign you, they can abuse you, they can defame you. But when calling someone out for being abusive, it can lead to the perception of the victim merely being argumentative or controversial.
You’re being contentious. You’re instigating.
What does this truly mean? The fine print here is people don’t believe in being held accountable for their actions. Maybe if the offender is being made to face the gravity of their deeds, perhaps someday everyone will be held accountable? Western culture has a deeply ingrained religious hangover from Christianity. This mindset often manifests itself in edicts like forgive and forget, turn the other cheek. This perspective influences judgement over whether a victim’s reactions are proportional to the original sin.
“Peace, love, light.” they mutter, champing at the bit, eyeing your every move.
“Good vibes only,” they hiss, preparing the court of public opinion for action.
Yet, both the platitude of “peace, love, and light” and “good vibes only” are as shallow as they lack meaning. They possess the ability to fill up an empty space without offering anything of substance, except to the instigator who benefits from using it as a shield against the fallout of their intentions.
Further, I have long held the belief that forgiveness is for the victim, not the perpetrator. Yet, we continue to believe forgiveness makes a person superior and if they can’t manage something so simple, the fault lies with them.
It occurs to me now that condemning a person because they can’t or won’t forgive their antagonist with these tired tropes of “they’re poisoning themselves,” or “they’re carrying it with them” is tantamount to another Abrahamic culturally-ingrained guilt trip.
In short, it is victim blaming.
It’s a tool to maintain the status quo, to remind us that we’ll be tolerated so long as we behave acceptably.
Yet, forgiveness, for me, requires remorse in your actions and the desire to change.
It must be earned.
Additionally, “forgive others, not because they deserve it, but because you deserve peace” instills the idea in abusers that they can act with impunity. No matter the grave depths of their actions, they can rest in smug assurance that they will be forgiven.
If not, it reflects a fatal flaw in the victim. Their hamartia. You’re required to bear the emotional labor of acts perpetrated against you.
However, the refusal to forgive someone, especially repeat offenders, is a justifiable response to their continued actions and the effect they have on others.
I’m aware of how I must seem: brazen. Cruel. You’re allowed that position, just as I’m allowed my own.
As a personal example, mere hours after my discharge following my most recent hospitalization, I received a text message. But this wasn’t just any text message.
No, this was a message from someone I’d had a dreadful falling out from years prior.
My health has been under fire from my own immune system for the better part of a year and I have come into contact with death’s door more times than I care to count. While I understood that news over my health crisis would reach throughout my network of friends and community, I couldn’t foresee that opportunistic figures from my past would emerge and attempt to capitalize on my condition in hopes to earn a notch in their bullshit belt of spirituality and self-aggrandizement.
“I found out about what you are going through two days ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about you since. I know you have strong feelings about me and decided to no longer pursue our friendship some time ago […] I am feeling a tremendous amount of empathy for what is happening to you and I am very worried and scared for your well-being and any kind of past quarrel suddenly becomes irrelevant […]”
This starts out kindly enough. For as much ridicule as "thoughts and prayers" get online, having someone hold space for you in your time of need is somewhat meaningful. Yet, the number of times they referenced themselves in this message did not escape my notice.
But we can dig deeper; strong feelings? Hurt feelings. Painful feelings. Grief of the loss of a friendship feelings. They are more than feelings, they are scars. And they are not yours alone in their making. These feelings were based on actions, not just imagined slights. Friendship is a two-way street, and so is hurt.
Poor health does not make abusive behaviors irrelevant. It does not give the holder a golden ticket to move up on the ladder of good vs. evil. Feeling empathy for someone who has been stricken down by illness is not something of merit. It’s what normal, emotionally stable humans do.
It’s akin thanking a parent for raising you. It’s the lowest amount of effort one can put forth. You aren’t owed a trophy for it.
The present’s undertakings do not erase the marks dug in by the past. No matter how difficult the present is, it does not erase the hardships and turmoil of the past and what we did to get where we are today.
Recovering from your near demise at the hand of your own body means that for you, everything else is secondary. You have no room on your schedule for attending to those with spiritual paper cuts, or assisting them in managing their own self-image.
I ended up phoning this individual and called out their behavior that lead to this fallout directly. This same person who waxed poetic about their love and compassion for my condition took less than a minute to switch gears entirely when they realized I wasn’t going to immediately accept the pittance that was their olive branch. Immediately, they began to berate me. The woman who had been discharged from the hospital for mere hours, the woman this individual claimed such worry and heartache for mere moments before via text.
But I realized something in that moment. This individual still believed all the things they said about me during our fall-out to be gospel truth. I was still a terrible wretch. But I was an ill terrible wretch, and thus, now wholly deserving of their godly pity and love… until I dared to step a toe out of the neat and narrow lines they had drawn for me.
“You know, I’m sorry I texted you at all. I didn’t have to send that text. What do I have to gain from texting you at all? But I did. And I’m sorry I did — “
The message here is clear; godly kindness and empathy are only available to me if I play by their rules.
It occurred to me then that this message, this small act of smug superiority, had everything to do with them and nothing to do with me. I was being used as a tool, a ploy, in their spiritual theater. I was just another notch in their spiritual belt. I was to be a part of their Mission. The venomous derision in their voice was proof enough that time had done nothing to change them. Instead, it had matured their position.
I hung up.
You cannot send someone a message claiming compassion and heartache for them and then flip the switch into an abusive tangent against them mere moments later. This behavior reveals the true design of their intentions.
Because for them it’s not about the greater good, it’s about protecting their self-image. Quick to criticize others for their perceived failings, they frequently cause mischief by inflaming arguments peppered with half-truths and outright lies to mask their own deeds leading to any fallout they are a part of.
Humility is a precious and hard-earned gift. It allows us to learn from our mistakes, recognize our faults, and grow into better people after examining ourselves. It has taken me years to get to the point where I can apologize for my misdeeds against others, even if I don’t always believe I am at fault. Because fault isn’t always the most significant factor in the breakdown in communication or a friendship. It’s not about assigning blame.
It’s about mending the gap and repairing the bridge.
Because if they had been genuine in their outreach during my time of need, they would have been willing to listen to my hurts before addressing the present. I was willing to listen to theirs, too.
But they weren’t.
Unfortunately, “the past is the past” and “wishing the best for you” cannot both exist in the same world. The pride found in conceited social interactions will forever stand in the way of meaningful discourse, leading to bruised egos and hurting hearts.
It boils down to the fact that people love a good redemption story. This narrative is nothing but a mere plot device spun to give character depth in the arc of the perpetrator at the expense of their victims.
To this end, I prefer not to throw meaningless platitudes at people in order to convince myself that I’m a better person than I actually am. Because I believe in the inherent human right to live without abuse.
I believe you must earn forgiveness in a world where it’s expected without putting in the work.
Stop idealizing the pseudo-spiritual fairy-tale of redemption and forgiveness over the inherent right for people to not be abused. Stop making anyone other than the perpetrator responsible for their actions.
Ultimately, responsibility is a concept often rejected by the selfish. It is readily shrugged onto others with cleverly coded social justice language and co-opted Eastern mysticism stripped of its original meaning and rebranded with Western dogma, designed to make the abused think they are at fault when they resist.
Once we as a culture truly understand that, we can begin to rewrite the outdated narratives of forgiveness and the liminal space victims inhabit. We might begin to understand the honest power of true forgiveness — the kind we owe ourselves for decades if not lifetimes of being a puppet tangled in the web of others’ expectations — and the kind that paves the way towards new beginnings.
We would see that forgiveness is not a platitude masked as sophistication, but a tacit agreement involving the acknowledgement and cessation of the behavior that brought the parties involved to this state — and ultimately, resolution.
We often think of self-care as the act of indulging ourselves when we don’t have the means to do so. But sometimes self-care is standing up, even if your legs quake, and saying enough is enough.
It’s saying “I won’t let you do this anymore” even if you have to whisper it.
Because at the end of the day, the only forgiveness we ever owe is to ourselves.