August 08, 2016

The Toxic Side of Forgiveness

Back in June, serial killer Michael Madison was sentenced to die. Madison killed three people, including the daughter of Van Terry. When the victim statements were read, Terry launched himself at Madison, creating a somewhat viral sensation. What really struck me was something that Terry said, emphasized here:

The father of victim Shirellda Terry, Van Terry, said, "I know I'm supposed to forgive you." In the middle of his victim's statement, Terry suddenly paused and appeared to belly flop onto the area where Michael Madison was sitting with his attorneys. 


We hear this a lot. You have to forgive to move on. Anger is only bad for you. Withholding forgiveness is a power move, it's about taking back your control or keeping the person who hurt you at arms' length, and none of it is good for you.

In Christianity, we had the idea of "turn the other cheek": no matter what someone did, you should forgive them. In doing so, you mirrored Christ's forgiveness of you. It's a key component of the faith, and indeed, if you google, "What is forgiveness?", many of the first page results link you to pages that focus on the Christian view of the idea.

The entire concept has always made me uncomfortable. It shifts the burden of guilt on to a victim. If you can't forgive someone, it's a heart problem with you. I was struck by this again while reading Mr. Terry's comment because I, personally, can't imagine forgiving someone who had murdered my child, and I can't think of one good reason that a victim's family should have to.

This idea that we have to forgive or we're only hurting ourselves is really fallacious. It confuses two basic concepts: forgiveness and acceptance. The two are very distinct, though, and understanding them gives us a deeper view of our own human nature.

Forgiveness is the idea that we let go of the offense and need for revenge. In and of itself, it's not a bad idea. Here's what Lynn Ponton, MD, said about taking steps towards forgiveness:


  • Acknowledge your own inner pain.
  • Express those emotions in non-hurtful ways without yelling or attacking.
  • Protect yourself from further victimization.
  • Try to understand the point of view and motivations of the person to be forgiven; replace anger with compassion.
  • Forgive yourself for your role in the relationship.
  • Decide whether to remain in the relationship.
  • Perform the overt act of forgiveness verbally or in writing. If the person is dead or unreachable, you can still write down your feelings in letter form.

But sometimes, we place an unhealthy emphasis on someone being able to forgive a wrong. Instead of healing, forgiveness becomes a club with which we can beat someone into social conformity. You should forgive the parent that wronged you, or the spouse that hurt you, or the person that attacked you, whether you are ready to or not, whether it is helpful to you or not. When that's the emphasis, when it's forgiveness at any cost, it's not helpful or healing. It's a form of revictimization.

There are circumstances where forgiveness isn't necessary and acceptance will provide the same effect. Acceptance is acknowledging that this happened to you and that you can't change it, but that you can determine how you move forward.

For instance, in the case of a murdered child, I don't think it's possible to take Dr. Lynn's advice above and try to understand the murderer's point of view or motivations. Their motivations are irrelevant. If you're a victim of molestation, you don't need to forgive yourself for your role in the relationship--it was something done to you, not something you chose to do.

The emphasis on forgiveness springs from the belief that it's the most useful, or even only, path to letting go, but in cases like these, acceptance can be just as efficient.

Not being able to forgive isn't a failing in you. The important part is that you reach a point where you can let go and live your life in the best possible way for you. Sometimes that path will be forgiveness; sometimes it won't. As we used to say back in the day when I was doing mission work in Costa Rica, "It's not wrong--just different."

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